“To write dance, to dance writing” or how one author was in for a huge surprise!

Cyprus, 1977, a Sunwing resort, lots of Swedish families vacationing, lots of partner swapping going on. My memories of the vacation are sketchy, but a few things are still clearly in my mind: all the empty bottles of booze and wine neatly (sic!) lined up outside hotel rooms and all the angry stares from women at each other at the breakfast buffet as they returned to their own partners after a night away in someone else’s room. As a Swiss, I had never experienced anything like it. The other memory is still etched into every fiber of my body and always will be “bada-bum-bada-ba, bada-bum-bada-bada-bada-bum, bada-bum-bada-bum, ba, ba, ba!” The opening beats of my all-time favorite song: Gimme, gimme, gimme by, yeah, you’re right, very Swedish ABBA. Every night at the hotel’s disco, I’d ask the DJ to play an ABBA song, and every night he’d look at me as if I’d just requested a song only known in the most obscure outskirts of another galaxy.

Until one night, I had already given up hope to ever hear Waterloo, Ring Ring or any other of their early hits, I suddenly hear these beats, for the very first time (the song had just been released) and my body involuntarily began to move itself to the dance floor. I couldn’t help it. I was dancing, ten-year-old Hansli was dancing and crying and felt happier than ever before in his life. Elated, in extasy. Today we’d say “on a trip”, but it was simply induced by the beats of my favorite band. I vowed that night, that no matter where, no matter when, if ever there was to an ABBA tune played on a dance floor, I’d get up and dance along. Forty-two years later, I’m happy to report that I’ve kept that solemn promise to myself. And yeah, no song will ever be able to replace this one as my number one.

You’ve seen nothing yet

Fast-forward to 2019 and a gray half-cold September day in Gothenburg, where now graying me walks into a workshop for a project that I had recently been accepted to participate in. Let me cut and paste the description to give you the same info that I had at the time:

“To write dance and to dance writing is a project that transcends genres through the exploration of the choreography of text, with dance and the written word as starting points. The project has an overall LGBTQI theme, focusing on relationships between people of all ages, gender identities, and functional capacities.”

I’m a prosaist, not a lyricist, not a choreographer. I’ve barely begun this post and I’m already some four-hundred-thirty words into it. Being wordy is a novelist’s blessing. I know from writing children’s books just how much more difficult it is to write concise, precise. I admire the great lyricists of the world, people whose poetry has been moving us ever since the dawn of time. Consider this example from around 1180 AD:

Dû bist mîn, ich bin dîn.
des solt dû gewis sîn.
dû bist beslozzen
in mînem herzen,
verlorn ist das sluzzelîn:
dû muost ouch immêr darinne sîn.

It’s one of the oldest love poems known in Germany, yet the imagery it evokes is so strong. To get an opportunity to actually write with real dancers performing those words, and to be inspired by the dance I behold to write more? What a rare opportunity. I had to try to be a part of it. Luckily, I managed to get accepted and today we embarked on a journey, unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of before.

I inspire you to be inspired to inspire me so that I may be inspired by you.

The organizing organization

The organizing organization

Makes total sense, right? For today’s workshop, the three Swedish participants were paired with an author offsite, one in Iceland, one in Norway and one in England. I was paired with English writer Claire Carter, who is a writer, dancer, and choreographer in her own right. We began to talk and I sent her a couple of items that I hoped might inspire her. In return, she sent me a poem and the amazing text she’d crafted based on my cue. It came very late yesterday, after a typical “parent of small child” day, but I had already begun to work on a text in case I’d not get anything from Claire in time. However, based on the two texts (I was unable to completely disregard hers) I rewrote mine almost completely, and by eight am this morning, I felt I had something good enough to send back and to forward to the project team.

Everyone local to Gothenburg met at ten this morning: three curious writers, three professional dancers and three more people from the project team. First, we participated in a workshop with Norwegian choreographer Marie Bergby Hegeland. She had done a project with Norwegian authors who volunteered to dance their books. After seeing some of that work and getting to understand the process involved, it was time for us to get dirty, aka get down on the floor and dance. Mind you, it’s intimidating enough to have four pros around you, plus a well-known choreographer, but to simply get up and start to move to Marie’s instructions was somehow beyond words. It all happened so fast, it came so unexpected that I simply didn’t have time to react, physically or emotionally. The entire workshop was filmed and will be made available as in excerpts to the other participants, along the lines of “what happens in the studio stays in the studio… and online!”

Go with the flow

I closed my eyes mostly and stayed away, in a corner, at first. We began shaking hands, then shaking arms, heads, shoulders, chests, hips, legs and knees. For a good fifteen minutes, we simply moved, shaking like leaves. Initially, I was feeling very self-conscious, stupid even (Marie asked us to internalize the first word that came to mind. The prosaist had to double the dosage…) But after a while, as we moved on to other movements, and even began to interact with others, the weirdest thing happened. While I had to consciously control with of my extremities to shake, after a while of moving about and going with the flow, even interacting with two of the others around me, I simply moved, to Marie’s voice and the music, and strangely enough, pictures began to pop up in my head, like a feedback loop of sorts. Quite extraordinary. The entire exercise of us dancing lasted a good hour and a half. I don’t think I’ve ever moved so much, so erratically, for such a long time. Extraordinary. Scary. Delightful.

After lunch, we began to read the texts that the authors had prepared. I was floored by the quality of the writing. Excellent pieces, each one (well, I can’t really say that about mine, but yeah, the others are really good.) We tested a bunch of different approaches, reading and moving straight away, having different people read each text, reading and then moving, etc. Some of the texts were very physical in nature, others were more emotional to their form. It was exhilarating.

Literal, performance, duet, what will it be?

After a short coffee break, we were paired with a dancer each and Izabell, my dance partner, and I sat down in the studio’s kitchen to chat about mine and Claire’s texts, and how we might morph them from text to dance. With Claire’s text, I could see (from my cues) where she’d taken inspiration from, and it is a very physical text, inviting to move to it. I tried to do the same, but I have to say that I am so “stuck” in the history of how the text came to be, its inspiration, that anything I do, will be quite literal. At first, I refused to tell Izabell where my text comes from and what it ‘means’. I wanted her to think and associate freely, Interestingly, she’d come up with quite an interesting take, death, which will provide my friends at my publisher’s a chuckle. I can see her point though, even though I might word it more as a metamorphosis than actual death (which it isn’t btw.)

We began to move around each other at the kitchen table and test out different things before we moved back into the studio where we tried out both texts in motion. Quite intriguing. We finished off our session by me reading both texts, very slowly, and Izabell improvising a dance. She’s very good at it, and quite non-literal. I did discover, however, that by splitting each row of our texts differently, in segments of two to four words, I was able to direct Izabell, to cue her. This would also involve my intonation, enunciation, etc. That experience inspired me, of course, to think ahead, and be mindful (or not) about how I assemble sentences, words, how I deconstruct meaning and put it back together, differently, to get the dance to go off elsewhere.

There is so much more

I could go on, and on, and on. I could talk about a discussion Claire and I had about the most difficult aspect of dance, how the dancer can get in the way of the dance, and how anything, from music to clothing and the stage can interfere, underline or contradict the message of the dance itself. But alas, you don’t have eight hours, you don’t need to either. I’m sure I’ll be able to report back as this project evolves. The culmination will be next spring with a series of concerts/performances across West Sweden and Oslo. And as scary as the thought might be right now, you might just end up seeing me dance on stage. I choose not to ponder on that aspect quite yet. Yet part of me wishes to be back tomorrow and dance. Instead, I will board a plane toward Liverpool to attend the launch of my latest book. It almost seems like a different life now. Almost.

Before I let you go, here’s the text I had written up for today. I can’t share the others for copyright purposes.

Cowering in the dark, alone
A chameleon, hiding in plain sight

At first, you can’t see it, the light
It cuts through cracks in the dark

Extending toward you, caressing you
Dare you reach out? Dare you touch it?

In time you step out from that dark
and as you spread your delicate wings
Your soul takes flight, at last.

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