The Neustadt Festival of International Literature & Culture was this week at the University of Oklahoma. The event is held annually and sponsored by World Literature Today magazine, recognizing special achievements in the areas of both literature and children’s literature in alternating years. This year’s festival was created around the poet Marilyn Nelson, who was awarded the NSK Neustadt Prize last year. For this occasion, a world premiere dance performance was created. Titled, “The Power of Words,” it was performed by OU’s Contemporary Dance Oklahoma ensemble, consisting of adaptations of select poems from How I Discovered Poetry, Ms. Nelson’s Civil Rights–era poetic memoir. It featured original choreography by Austin Hartel and Roxanne Lyst.
Four poems were interpreted through movement, spoken word, and music. The first three movements, interpreting the poems “Blue Footsies,” “Queen of the Sixth Grade,” and “How I Discovered Poetry,” used no music at all, relying on the rhythm of the poetry and percussive sounds made by the dancers to drive the choreography. While most of the concert consisted of contemporary dance, a tap dancer made a cameo during the second movement, creating a unique moment of one dancer providing the underscore for other dancers. The effect was powerful, giving the words a laser-like focus and eliminating the risk of music bearing the burden of emotional storytelling. Alexis Ward, a student and actress at OU, occasionally appeared from and disappeared into the shadows, performing the poems live with potency and conviction.
The last movement, drawn from the poem “Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl,” incorporated an original arrangement of recorded music. Inspired presumably by the line, “You can’t see what the mirror doesn’t show,” the dancers appeared holding a varied collection of mirrors embedded with LED lights. As the stage went dark, the performers illuminated their faces one by one, calling attention to both similarities and differences among the all-female ensemble. I was struck that even though I’d never seen a spoken word dance concert before in my life, how jarring and foreign the music sounded at first. Ultimately, I settled into the gracefully jazzy melodies and appreciated the energy it helped build toward the end.
The dance concert was followed by a talkback session, which was annoyingly geared towards middle school children. Yes, there were hundreds of them present, but the adult members of the audience might have appreciated the opportunity to ask a question or two. The discussion was interesting nonetheless. When asked how she was able to turn words into movement, co-choreographer Roxanne Lyst discussed her translation process, being inspired by the time period of Ms. Nelson’s childhood and explaining to one curious seventh grader that “dance is a vocabulary of its own.” One audacious girl asked to hear from every single dancer what inspired them the most about the project, and every single dancer was allowed to give their own answer. The majority of the dancers were impacted most by the conversations they were able to have during rehearsals, commenting that typically dancers just do what they are told, but the dialogue they had along the development journey made them more connected to the themes.
Throughout “The Power of Words,” and the keynote speech that followed, a line from “Thirteen-Year-Old Negro Girl” came up again and again: Give me a message I can give to the world. It seems that the women who performed this dance poetry felt empowered to do just that.