“I am possessed by love and have no options,” Elizabeth Smart proclaims in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the brilliant, rhapsodic novella she published in 1945 about her tempestuous affair with the British poet, George Barker. Now Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (WCD) have taken her story and transformed it into a hybrid performance of dance, theatre, music and poetry. Called 97 Positions of the Heart, it began as a collaboration between Brent Lott, WCD’s artistic director, Naomi Cooke, the associate director of England’s Foursight Theatre and Winnipeg poet, Jaik Josephson. They were looking for a project that would resonate in both Canada and Britain, and Smart’s story of rebellion, courage and amorous folly seemed perfect.
Elizabeth Smart was the daughter of a well-to-do and connected Ottawa lawyer and his formidable wife, a woman who played a huge role in the life of her unconventional daughter. Elizabeth was bright, beautiful and independent. In a bookstore she came across a collection of Barker’s poems, decided she wanted him, and set in motion a love affair as passionate as it was bewildering that would last 20 years and produce four children.
From the beginning of the collaboration, poetry played a major role. Josephson was present during the first two weeks of working with the dancers, and the poems became the material from which Lott developed his initial movements. The dancers were then given his fragments from which they strung together kinetic “phrases.” In one of his poems, Josephson says that Smart “learned to make love with the long fingers of my own poetry.” Smart writes in the novella that “we wrote our ciphers with anatomy” and the dancers use their bodies as equivalent emblems of a moveable language. There are five Elizabeths on stage, embodiments of different aspects of Smart’s character at different times of her life.
Lott was determined that 97 Positions not be a straight-up dance or theatre piece, and that it not be a poetry reading. “It had to be a mixture of all those things. Dance and poetry are both very powerful forms and they can fight with one another, so the challenge was deciding where to focus the audience.”
The poster for the dance looks like the cover of a ’50s pulp novel, with the line “A bohemian unwed mother of four devours life without apology.” But Smart was less a victim than the director of her own life. Lott says that all his dancers read the novella and the biography of Smart by Rosemary Sullivan, and every one of them expressed their frustration with Elizabeth at one point or another. Fascinated with the person, they were distressed by the life. Still, out of the emotional debris, the company has salvaged a narrative of strength and purpose. “What we came up with is that once Elizabeth decided to go down a road, she went down it with complete abandon. In one of her journals she said that if she was going to write about love, then she had to experience love in all its forms. So she had to go down that road that far with George.”
WCD performed 97 Positions of the Heart from May 9-13 in Winnipeg. A collection of poetry by Jaik Josephson with the same title was published by The Muses Company (J. Gordon Shillingford).