I said to my soul, be still, and wait...
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought…
What else would you do over a Bank Holiday weekend but go to see a contemporary ballet of The Four Quartets? I mean, if you were me, a person who loves The Four Quartets so much they have a fragment of it tattooed on their wrist.
It was a strange and enlightening experience.
I often find contemporary, abstract dance, difficult: it’s not a language I am comfortably fluent in. I find that narrative ballets are relatively easy, because I’ve learned how to watch the movements tell me the story and the feelings. The more abstract classical dance is harder, but I usally find the music, the aesthetic, and a short introduction to the piece (thank you programmes!), between them, help me ‘read’ them. The Four Quartets, I have to say, I found harder work.
In particular, I found it hard not to over-focus. I love The Four Quartets so much and I wanted to engage with this piece of dance so much, that my brain began to over-process immediately and then to complain when it wasn’t finding meaning or insight easily. But it was asking the wrong question. It was starting with the so-familiar words and asking, ’how are the steps illustrating the poem?’ rather than relaxing into the feeling of the poem, in the way that it does when it only has to process listening to the words.
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
And yet, so much of dealing with The Four Quartets is about getting yourself from the individual words to the overall feel and mood of the poem. For me, it works best when you can float between the two, almost suspended in it. It’s the same headspace I find best for listening to classical music too (espeically Bach), where you can hear the patterns and the notes — or the themes and the tunes — and hold them together in some inarticulable way. It is a space where what you’ve heard or read merges with what you are hearing or reading and what will come next and allows you to make sense of the piece as a whole while still attending to the line that is now.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Adding dance to the words suddenly made it harder for me to enter that headspace for the audio without losing the thread of the visual at all. Strangely — or perhaps not that strangely — it became much easier when music entered the equation as well. For much of the piece, the poem was the score, but in between the movements, and at moments within them from East Coker on, music by Kaija Saariaho was a part of the work. For me, it made all the difference, creating a kind of suspension (like, the chemistry kind) in my brain that helped me to absorb the words and the movements at the same time and let them mingle around, without being processed and analysed for meaning.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait…
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought
In the end, I’m not sure that for me, adding dance added anything to my understanding of or relationship with The Four Quartets — although hearing the poem read in a female American voice was revelatory after years of listening to it read by British men (I still love my Jeremy Irons and Paul Schofield versions, but Kathryn Chalfant’s reading opened it up in a very different way) — and I think I got more out of working out why my brain was having the reactions it was having, in many ways.
It reminded me, kindly, both of the value of mental exercise in the culture and media I consume and of not immediately reaching to solve a piece of art. I find it can be so easy to just focus on immediate hits of emotion and catharsis in saying, ‘Yep, really enjoyed that,’ that I forget how to deal with works that don’t necessarily focus primarily on giving me that or where I have to go a little deeper to get the kind of satisfaction that a wonderful creative piece can bring even when you don’t. quite. get it.