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A blank page. A dark stage

Festival author and dancer Tishani Doshi on the fearlessness required in both writing and dancing.

I am an accidental dancer. I started late, at 26, but immediately understood that dance was going to exert an influence over every area of my life, particularly literature.

For many years, it seemed that the movement would only be in one direction, from dance to language. Dance exerts discipline. You must bring your body to the theatre every morning regardless of mood. Legs and arms must move. Breath must be manipulated. There is no room for cheating. A dancer, unlike a writer, cannot stare into a screen and convince themselves they are composing epic poems in their heads. A dancer must do. There is also the whole area of time and rhythm that is held in the body. It forces a kind of tautness, a ruthlessness. As the muscles in your legs and back strengthen, you begin to expect a similar flexibility and conciseness in language. Killing your darlings becomes easier.

But over many years of dancing, I’ve begun to see the direction of influence isn’t just one way. My work as a poet, the many layers and distillations that language must go through before it becomes a poem —that was crucial in allowing me to understand embodiment in dance. Poetry facilitates transformations because it is about essence.

And then there’s loneliness. No one knows loneliness as a writer does. Having spent so many hours by myself, I know it to be a strength. On stage I may be joined by musicians, my dance partner, lights, but ultimately, I know that I have to hold my centre. Perhaps the most surprising thing that poetry allowed me was to transcend any sense of gender on stage. Dance is all about the body. It’s impossible to escape anatomy. All my dance work was laid on the foundations of male and female energies. But literature is a magical arena where you experience the greatest freedom in the imagination. All binaries fall away. After a time, I began to lose sense of male and female. I felt like an amoeba, one of those creatures coming out of the sea to land for the very first time, and it was the most empowered I have ever felt.

Eventually, there is a shared vulnerability between dance and poetry. It requires a kind of fearlessness. The beginnings are always the same. A blank page. A dark stage. From this, something must come. A word. A gesture.

This essay was first published in the LitFestBergen 2020 programme catalogue.

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