A Fortnightly Review.
The Step Is the Foot: Dance and its relationship to poetry.
by Anthony Howell (Grey Suit Editions) 2019
By ALAN PRICE.
THIS IS A fascinating book. This is a frustrating book. An absorbing read. A maddening read. Perceptive and insightful. But opaque and meandering. In short, it’s a book I ended up loving and yet despairing of. Yet what is irrefutable about The Step is the Foot is the authority of Anthony Howell’s vision of dance and poetry. A lifetime of experience as a poet, teacher and innovative dancer has been documented. This is not a work of academic scrutiny (Although it’s scholarly in a wayward manner) but a project of physical practice and theoretical speculation: what works and what fails in any collaboration of dance and poetry. And more than that, The Step Is the Foot bravely attempts to decipher the body and mind as it tries to keep in step with one another, in time to words and actions.
In the opening chapter, titled “The Gait of the Lizard”, Howell explores what we mean by walking and talking:
Everything about the acquisition of these two skills suggests an affinity between them. Perhaps there is more than an affinity, perhaps there is a primordial connection. It’s this notion of a connection, even a fusion, of step and expression that intrigues me. And in order to explore the relationship between them it will be necessary to overlay two specialised fields – that of poetry and dance. Perhaps this will generate a new arena, but as we shall see, it is also a very old one of the aloni – the threshing floor – where the chorus first stepped in time to the words they recited – or vice versa.”
“The threshing floor” is a potent image signifying the separating of the grain from the chaff discovering what’s edible (workable) and worth storing (remembering.) Now threshing (or editing) is what most good artists, poets and dancers do. Poetry, initially an oral tradition followed by dance, in Ancient Greek theatre, makes possible so much of our art today (I recently watched again Wim Wenders’s film Pina, about Pina Bausch’s dance company, to appreciate what emerged from “threshing” and the fact that Werner Herzog once said that all filmmakers should first of all be poets.) Howell has only a brief reference to film in the 1960s/’70’s – an unexplored area in his book, for what about the balletic style of Chaplin or angular choreography of Bob Fosse?
But let’s stick with the book we have and not what it might have been included. And here Howell is most resonant on Greek and Roman Classical culture, the concept of mimesis and how the arts once aspired (still do?) to be “knitted together.” Of course twenty-first-century culture is eclectic but that eclecticism (for me and maybe for Howell) somehow lost its power of ritual and therefore daring synthesis. In dance you can be free to let things go and experiment. However tradition has had a deadening effect on poetry. Here I agree with Howell that a great deal of British poetry (post-WW2) hasn’t experimented with form, layout and typography enough. It may be free verse now – ‘liberated’ from cloying Victorian rhyming but it hardly ever frees itself to move on and across the white page. It sits or stands there when you want it to clap its hands, sing and dance.
Howell’s rich experience of working with the Royal Ballet, his involvement with performance art and teaching comes vividly through The Step Is the Foot. He directed a group called “The Theatre of Mistakes” and was very influenced by Bruce Chatwin’s Song Lines – a description of the ancient tracks in Australia:
(It) strongly reinforced an interest in walking as fundamental both to the human condition and to the generation of poetry.”
It was the autobiographical element of The Step Is the Foot that I found most persuasive. You read of earlier decades when cultural boundaries and political freedoms were not so rigidly set. As a contemporary of Howell I appreciated this Apollonian/Dynosian cusp of risk and adventure that we once took for granted.
The most popular manifestation of this was the dancing of Mick Jagger (a Howell favourite.) His gyrations proclaimed an anarchic individuality to which we gave our sensual consent. Yet what matters to Howell (and to me) is a sense of focus and discipline, being aware of a violent muddle of creative choices and decisions.
The difficulty facing any poet is how to steer a distinctive course. Poetry is not a genre in itself. Each poet must invent a genre within the wide “plurality” in the new century, with the synthesis of Apollo and Dionysus, to become tolerant of all movements. Still it is hardly wise to make oneself an all-inclusive omelette of all trends. A painter knows that to mix too many colours together results in dullness. Perhaps, though, it is courtesy to refrain from overt hostility to what one cannot see.”
Anthony Howell has chosen to write in a deliberately discursive style –he says so on the book’s back cover. Yet I did feel that his own “omelette” contained an excess of ingredients. The book begins to develop itchy feet. There are just too many references, quotes and inferences thrown up, all leading to a constant process of suggestion rather than a satisfying development and conclusion. I appreciate Howell has tackled an inexhaustible subject with potentially differing conclusions. But I would have liked some sense of summing up and attempt at ‘closure’.
I wanted a deeper reflection on a few core ideas not a free-wheeling multiplicity. Fewer examples of poetry and dance would have made this a stronger and more satisfying work. And what’s very noticeable in a book about dance (a great visual art) is a paucity of illustration. The book needs a lot more photographs and diagrams to make its case – especially in its technical dance instruction. It made me feel that there was a gripping TV documentary series, on dance and poetry, struggling inside The Step Is the Foot and wanting to get out.
So contrary reading impulses were fired up. Is this basically a book to occasionally dip into, skim, or attempt to read straight through in your own measured time? I’ll leave it up to you to decide. Yet The Step Is a Foot remains a perceptive and important book worth investigating by anyone who struggles to write or dance in a challenging manner, or just actively sit back to watch, listen and read the outcome.
Alan Price lives in London. He’s a poet, scriptwriter, short story writer, book reviewer, film critic for the online Filmuforia and a blogger at alanprice69.wordpress.com. His short story collection The Other Side of the Mirror, an alternative take on vampirism, was published by Citron Press in 1999. A TV film, A Box of Swan, was broadcast on BBC 2 in 1990. Alan has scripted five short films. The last one, Pack of Pain (2010), won four international film festival awards. His debut collection of poetry, Outfoxing Hyenas, was published by Indigo Dreams in 2012. A pamphlet of prose poems, Angels at the Edge (Tuba Press), appeared in 2016. The poetry chapbook, Mahler’s Hut was published in 2017 by Original Plus Books. His latest poetry book is Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady (The High Window Press, 2018). And in 2019, a collection of flash fiction and short stories called The Illiterate Ghost was published by Eibonvale Press. In early 2020 a short collection of more experimental poetry called Restless Voices will be published by Caparison Books. Alan is currently writing a novel and also working on a series of prose poems based on films, with the working title The Cinephile Poems.