One year into our deadly Civil War, the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson published an article exhorting writers to "charge your style with life."
He soon received an oddly poetic letter from a reader. Enclosing copies of four of her poems, she asked him whether they met his standard for vitality.
"Mr Higginson," the letter began, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?"
The writer enclosed her card, bearing a name Higginson had never before heard: Emily Dickinson.
That now-famous letter from the poet led to an epistolary friendship that lasted the rest of Dickinson's life. When she wrote it in 1862, the writer, then 31 years old, was in an intense period of creation, but she had published only a few poems, in a local newspaper in Massachusetts. She later told Wentworth that his interest in her writing helped save her life. And four years after Dickinson died, in 1886 at the age of 55, Higginson was instrumental in getting the first book of her poems published.
Now NEW ARTiculations Dance Theatre has borrowed the letter's glorious first line—equal parts tentative and exuberant—as the title for an evening of dance and music inspired by Dickinson. If my Verse is alive is part of The Big Read, a months-long, citywide, multi-genre celebration of one of America's greatest poets. (See Books, Page 37.)
The concert is a collaboration among NEW ART, choreographer-dancer Katherine Ferrier of The Architects, composer-instrumentalist Vicki Brown and costumer Barbara Seyda. Presented by Kore Press, the program is "an opportunity to see how words inform dance as an aesthetic project," says Lisa Bowden, the Kore Press director who won the $12,000 Big Read project grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, "but also as a different way to access Dickinson's work."
Lines of Dickinson's poetry will be projected on the scrim, printed in the program and recited in the interstices between the dances, says NEW ART co-artistic director Kimi Eisele. Onstage, though, the dancers' job is to make Dickinson's verse come alive.
Dancer Tammy Rosen appears as the poet, beginning the evening with a reading of the 1862 letter to Wentworth.
But, Eisele notes, "We're kind of all Emily."
Each of the short dances takes a Dickinson poem or letter as a starting point, and all the dancers wear white, the color Dickinson wore during much of her adult life. (When Higginson finally met her in 1870, he took note of her "very plain and exquisitely clean white pique" dress.)
Costume designer Seyda did extensive historical research into the fashions of the day and produced an array of costumes in a "palette all in white," Eisele says, lyrically illuminated by lighting designed by Don Fox.
"We've done a sort of Emily Dickinson crash course," Eisele adds. "We started in late August, early September. We accessed books. Lisa plied us with her resources. Lisa would share what she was learning. We had 'Breakfasts With Emily' on Sunday mornings with tea and scones."
Once dismissed as an eccentric spinster lady-poet, Dickinson is now considered a literary pioneer whose radical structures and themes helped pave the way for modernism. Her reclusive habits are interpreted as the strategies of a serious artist who guarded her time to work. And her output was astonishing: She produced nearly 1,800 poems.
"She was a woman ahead of her time," Eisele says. "It's exciting to make her move and breathe as a living being."
Eisele's dance, "Reverie," is inspired by four different poems, including one just five lines long:
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
Dickinson was renowned as a gardener in her hometown of Amherst, Mass., and the poem "explains her love of nature," Eisele says. "Many of her poems do."
But the dance also looks at the private Emily, the one who proclaimed "The Brain—is wider than the Sky—" and sometimes talked to visitors from behind a closed door. A door appears onstage. Co-artistic director Katie Rutterer dances the part of the external Emily on one side, and Lisa-Marie McFarlane plays the part of the internal on the other. Violinist Brown contributes her original electronic music.
Brown also created sound for Rutterer's solo "Eruption," based on the poem "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—." (Dickinson rarely titled her works, so they're known by their first lines.)
The poem "moves from compressed lines to what feels like an explosion," Eisele says. "It addresses the explosiveness of Emily Dickinson's life, in the confines of her society."
A Brown collaboration with Ferrier, "To mend each tattered Faith," works with 10 first lines from 10 different poems. "All her first lines are amazing," Eisele notes. And a Brown musical solo takes its inspiration from the poem "Split the Lark—and you'll find the Music—."
Taped music by Black Ox Orkestar is the score for a Rosen quartet based on "I robbed the Woods—." A physical work hinting at violence, the piece has the four dancers—April Douet, Erika Farkvam, Corinne Hobson and Moriah Mason—enacting robbers and trees.
Beset by a series of losses in her life, Dickinson often turned to death in her writing. Her poem "I measure every Grief I meet" inspired McFarlane's dance "Some Are Like My Own." Danced by McFarlane, Rutterer and Farkvam, it's set to simple piano music that evokes Dickinson's own gift for playing piano.
Mason tackles the darker Dickinson themes, too, but she pairs them with work that conjures the poet's well-known love for baking—particularly chocolate cake and bread. Drawn from "Crumbling is not an instant's Act" and two other poems, Mason's duet explores the way life alternates between the tragic and the ordinary, between mourning death and baking bread. Farkvam dances, along with Hobson, to recorded cello music by Zoe Keating.
Dickinson's famous letters also get an airing. Eisele and Mason dance in Farkvam's "Things I Fancy I Have Loved," a title drawn from a line in a letter to the poet's dear friend Susan Gilbert, who married Dickinson's brother Austin. It also covers, once again, her letters to Higginson. Cellist Keating's music is the soundscape.
The grand finale, created by the NEW ART dancers and danced by the entire cast to music by Brown, summons up Dickinson's clarion call to posterity:
This is my letter to the World—
That never wrote to me
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!