O, Miami is a month-long initiative with a simple but ambitious goal: for every single person in Miami-Dade to encounter a poem in the month of April. The diverse program, produced by the University of Wynwood and funded by the Knight Foundation, has already brought poetry into collision with multiple art forms and unexpected environments, and we’re only halfway through the month.
On one weekend, O, Miami hosted Nox and Stacks, two dance and poetry collaborations that went well beyond the traditional reading. Recently, award-winning writer and classics scholar Anne Carson has been presenting her poetry as performance and Nox and Stacks are two of her exploratory works. Nox, based on poetry by the same name, was created with choreographer Rashaun Mitchell and dancer Silas Riener. Stacks incorporates choreography by Merce Cunningham dancer Jonah Bokaer and sculpture by Peter Cole.
For Nox, Carson’s recorded voice was a metronomic monotone. While her voice played over the speakers, she silently moved through space along with, and often separate from, two dancers. Very briefly, she spoke live over her own recording. For Stacks she stood in a static pose at a microphone as four dancers moved through the space of the stage. Both pieces have been performed multiple times, but for O, Miami, they were set specifically for the Moore Building, a four-floor warehouse space with an open atrium at its center. Attached to ornate wrought-iron railings and organically rising up through the space was a white biomorphic sculpture designed by Zaha Hadid.
Both pieces established complex and shifting relationships between poetry, movement and, space. There was no sense of hierarchy between the various elements and, at times, one would completely subsume another. For Nox there were many moments when the dancers disappeared and the audience had to follow them up stairs or accept an obstructed view across a long narrow corridor.
There was something entirely appropriate about this chase, given the subject matter of the piece. Nox, the poem, was published as a beautiful accordion-fold collage book that Ms. Carson wrote, or rather constructed, as a eulogy for her brother who died an unexpected early death. Her words, excerpted for this performance, told the impossibility of knowing someone, or of piecing a life together into a simple story.
Each one of us in the audience was actively involved in our own attempt to create meaning within Nox. As movement fell out of view, poetry became more distinct. Sometimes the dance served to direct our eyes so that we could receive the words being spoken. There was an intricate play with attention and, surely, no two people saw the same performance nor heard quite the same set of words. While Nox certainly rode the line of technical failure, it played off of the desire to assemble parts into a whole.
In contrast, Stacks was a more conventional performance. Chairs were placed around the lowest floor of the Moore Building and the choreography was set within a fixed space at the center of the room. The stage area was filled with stacks of cardboard boxes, sculptural constructions by artist Peter Cole, and Carson read into a microphone from the second floor.
Bokaer’s choreography was largely based on interactions with Cole’s stacks. The dancers kicked the boxes, opened them, put things in them, and eventually cleared them out of the space. The dancers manipulated each others’ bodies too, pushing and slapping each other, falling in layers, or meeting in synched movement.
The relationship between words and movements in Stacks was as complex as in Nox – multiple fields of meaning overlapped but never corresponded exactly. Oddly, the dancers maintained an excessive level of seriousness that seemed built into their choreography, but otherwise Stacks was playful and Ms. Carson’s verbal structures were funny and intricately, beautifully composed. Layered within her fractured horizontal narratives were vertical movements through language. She drilled down into etymological structures to find another form of poetry built into the origin story of every word.
Both Nox and Stacks were imperfect, and alive. They shed light on the way we assemble words, or movements, or languages of any kind, especially when they didn’t quite align. And, in keeping with O, Miami’s intention, they brought Anne Carson’s magnificent poetry to life. Rare encounters with words, indeed.