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Last month I got to see the rock and cultural critic Greil Marcus, whose Lipstick Traces—recently described jokingly but aptly as "that book about how Johnny Rotten started the French Revolution"—was one of my undergraduate bibles. In honor of Marcus's latest, The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs, the Poetry Foundation and the Old Town School of Music teamed up to present him with real, live former punks Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons, who sang and played and bantered at his side. It was a reading/show that, like Lipstick Traces, illuminated points all over the map.
Tonight at 7 PM, the Poetry Foundation is presenting another genre-blurring program, "Geography Solos," by New York-based Ian Spencer Bell, a dancer-choreographer-poet whose recent work incorporates language so seamlessly that a New York Times critic has termed his movement at its best "not dance and not poetry but some third medium." The free performance comprises two works, Geography Solos, which Bell describes as short "talking dances" exploring dislocation, and the newly christened Holler, based on memories of his childhood in rural Virginia.
Bell is classically trained—he studied at dance academies including the School of American Ballet, and for many years worked in training and education for ABT—and is also versed in modern, which is what his own pieces tend to be cast in. But he's always written as well. In fact, he was working on a memoir with an agent in the mid-aughts when he decided at age 27 to go to college, something his dance career had prevented up until then. (He's now 36.) At Sarah Lawrence, he took a lot of lit courses, and in his senior year studied with the poet Marie Howe. Still, for a long time he shied from thinking of himself in that light. And he found that, despite his history of performing, he was terrified to read poems in public.
"I wanted to address that fear," he says. "And I was feeling very parceled. [As a choreographer,] I was making very abstract work, and then I was also writing poems that were autobiographical, and I thought that it was really important to bring them together, at the very least to create some kind of tension."
As a dancer, he says, "I've spent most of my life thinking about the body"—and in a sense thinking through the body, as we all do, experiencing emotions as things like a blow to the gut, a current of rage, an exhilarating lightening of being. New York was and is another inspiration: he's an inveterate walker in the city, and, he says, "I walk up and down these long avenues and streets, constantly engaged in how I'm feeling at this very moment" but also "considering something that might have happened many years ago, and it will be some physical trigger"—like Proust's madeleine, and the flood of memory and longing prompted in the writer by the cookie's smell.
His Geography Solos pair movement with stories of other walks—a trip to the Laundromat, a hike through LA, a tour of MOMA. Subverting audience expectations of a dance performance, Bell comes onto the stage unassumingly and simply begins speaking. "I'd like to be able to talk to an audience like I do to my best friend," he says. Apart from the spoken text, there's no accompaniment to these short dances; he stopped using music a few years ago because "it feels like a huge indulgence. It is an indulgence—most people don't have the time and space to move to beautiful music." To him it came to feel "more like a trap."
So more recently he's been exploring the sounds his own body makes, using his smartphone to record, for example, falling onto the floor, then playing such environmental sounds back "very loud" and dancing to them. But his latest solo—the newly named Holler—is, like Geography Solos, a "talking dance." In this case the poem is essentially a catalog of the contents of his first childhood house and its natural surroundings, assembled from a mental tracking shot. Says Bell, "I would start first in my bedroom, which I can remember very clearly, then down the hall and down the stairs and into the parlor," then into the village of Union, in the Virginia Piedmont outside Middleburg, then "a little farther, out to the Shenandoah."
He remains intrigued by the "tension" between this autobiographical content and his tendency toward abstraction. Balanchine, he says, is an influence on every work he's ever made, particularly a response the master choreographer once made when asked what a piece of his was about: "About 20 minutes" was Balanchine's reply. Bridging the two is a theme that's become central: "The body is like a house," Bell says, "with many rooms, some vast, some tiny, some cluttered, some empty, all with a map of self." He feels one of the reasons he even started dancing is that "I was presented with many empty rooms, and it was a way of filling that space." Now, "I want to explore the rooms where I came from."
"When I stopped performing classical dance, I felt like I kind of lost a club," he told me. "But I never felt like I was a part of the moderns, because they always saw me as a ballet person. And now that I'm working in poetry, I still feel like I'm, you know, on my own little boat."
Ian Spencer Bell: Geography Solos, Wed 3/11, 7 PM, Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior, 312-787-7070, poetryfoundation.org, free.