The first Vital Signs festival exploring the creative possibilities of poetry and movement in contemporary performance was an enriching and stimulating experience. I attended the festival at Salford University, Manchester, with the intention of learning more about pairing verbal and physical phrases as a foundation for improvised performance in my own work. I’d been feeling stuck in my performances: I knew that my poetry readings were too much tied to the page in ways that didn’t allow me to be as physically engaged with the performance as I wanted – needed – to be. But at the same time I was aware that the physicality of my poems on the page is an integral aspect of their performance as poems, so was reluctant to move too far away from the page. This left me in a sort of limbo between reading and performing, but feeling like I hadn’t really explored the full potential of performance in my readings. So I set the intention to focus on developing my practice in ways that would enable me to work with the printed page and also depart from its boundaries and limitations.
Camilla Nelson’s performance on Friday night – the first of the festival, in a double-bill with Mary Pearson’s exuberant FoMO, mofos! – set the tone for what was to come, and I was buzzing with fresh ideas immediately. Camilla’s Reading Movement explores the physicality of reading – both in terms of the reading human body and in terms of the physical pages of text. In this performance, which begins in silence and moves through a series of vocal soundings towards fully articulate speech, she pairs vocal and verbal phrasings with physical movements to provide a structure for repetition and development through the performance. Her workshop on Saturday afternoon introduced us to methods for developing these pairings ourselves. It was the furthest I’d ever pushed myself in performance and I found a connection that was deeper than I had ever previously experienced. Suddenly it mattered. It was physical, it was visceral, it was – vital.
Camilla’s was the third workshop of the day – and it helped that I was already well warmed up and keyed into new ways of working with my body from the two previous workshops: Elaine Thomas & Alison Gibb’s ‘Making S p a c e s for Poetic Performance’, and Diane Adams’ ‘Moving Words’. The opportunity to dedicate myself to spending a whole day immersed in an embodied poetic practice was one of the simplest and profoundest pleasures I experienced at the festival – it’s such a rare treat to be given that time and to spend it in the company of so many energising and engaging people. The group dynamic was inquisitive and supportive and we worked together in shifting combinations, always managing to get the best out of each other and ourselves. It really was something special. Perhaps I’ve only experienced something close to this on yoga retreats – particularly in terms of taking time out of daily routines to focus on developing an embodied practice, and also in terms of generating a closely bonded group dynamic. The analogy is interesting, because it’s the interrelationship between my practices as a writer and a yogi that stimulates my interest in an embodied performance practice.
The festival was organised by Sarie Mairs Slee and Scott Thurston, whose interdisciplinary collaborations of movement and writing were its foundation. Sarie and Scott performed their work A Poem in Four Movements: Wrestling Truth on the Saturday evening. The performance was striking in that both the movement and the poetry-writing were performed in process, meaning that a durational poem was continually being created both verbally and gesturally throughout the performance. Audience members were provided with a copy of the poem ‘Wrestling Truth’ prior to the performance, so it was possible to recognise parts of the poem shaping and being shaped by the physical gestures performed as movement. Writing was also performed as a physically embodied process of movements as words and lines were continually written and re-written, written over, written upon.
At moments, the physicality of the performance broke down / broke through to the trauma at the heart of the attempt to communicate something that could tentatively be called ‘truth’ – which can only ever be wrestled with, never mastered. In these moments, it felt like something vital really was at stake, both in the performance and, by extension, in the act of writing/creating/performing itself.
Their Sunday morning workshop enabled us to think through our own strategies for creating words and movement collaboratively, and I enjoyed the process of obsessively scrawling ‘too many words for a compulsive reader’ onto a mirror in dry-wipe markers and then neurotically rubbing them all off again, with my collaborative partner Owen.
The early-morning yoga session I’d shared just prior to the workshop was designed to get us into our breathing bodies, shake out the aching from the previous days’ workshops and prepare us to go again. It was a really rewarding way to start the day and I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring my skills and passions to the party. In particular, it gave me further opportunities to reflect on the intersections between my yoga, writing and performance practices.
Below, in Diane Adams’ ‘Moving Words’ workshop we were each given an opportunity to choose a prop for developing a sequence of words and movements. I chose the tiny bone-white shell I’m holding in my hands in the pic, its contours drawing my body inwards in spirals. Holding the shell – and the pose – I spoke (a version of) these words:
into tender intro.version
to be heard
to articulate to understand