3 Minute Solo: Poetry, Movement, Horror

John T Cartwright in Listen. Breathe.

Part of my current research interests is the concept of horror. What does horror look like in dance performance? How do we choreograph horror? Where is horror sensed in the body? What can dance learn from film when performing horror? What does it mean to perform horror? How is horror connected to the LGBTQIA+ experience? Why am I interested in horror?

One of our assignments in my Choreography Workshop course was to create a 3 minute solo. I immediately knew I wanted to explore horror as a performance genre for this task because the initial parameters (3 minute solo assignment) were set. This gave me a limited duration to work in and served as an anchor point for my movement research. But where to start? I decided to explore other modes of creation to begin the process and chose to write a poem which would serve as inspiration for the movement and ultimately become part of the performance as part of the soundscape for the piece. Below is the text from the poem, however, only select words and phrases were chosen for the sound recording:

Listen. Breathe.
Then struggle

Hear the outside
The deafening calm
The roaring, whirling stillness

Ears burn and throat swells
Silencing, thundering
Echoing in the emptiness in which
You do not belong, in which you are not safe.

Listen. Breathe.
Then worry

Get inside your head
The cramped dark
The tightening, constricting pressure

Lungs fill with air, old and stale
Heaving, unnoticed
Crushing you into you into you
Until you are not you, not whole.

Listen. Breathe.
Then panic

Feel the rush of blood, hot
The taste of metal, cold
The jabbing, rolling anger

Muscles tense, teeth clench
Twitching, grinding
Pulsating flesh that is not
Yours, not familiar, not wanted.

Listen. Breathe.
Then let go

Sink into the unknown
The world beyond you, this
The dark, cycling in and out

Bone and muscle drip from existence
Osculating, exchanging
Mixing who you once were and who you 
Have become, the gore and carnage lives and thrives. 

After having written out these thoughts and ideas I set to the task of making some movement, but that didn’t feel right. There was something inauthentic in choreographing steps to these words. In my first iteration of embodying these concepts, I treated the poem as a kind of roadmap or outline. It set landmarks for certain actions to happen and for when to move on to the next movement idea; this allowed me to keep track of timing to stay within the 3 minutes allotted. 

Following the presentation of the movement in class, it became apparent that this needed to be filmed in a location that would serve as a fitting setting – the openness and airiness of the dance studio just wasn’t right. Luckily I have a couple of cohorts, Mollie Wolf and Katie O’Loughlin, who live in a house with an unfinished basement. With a cheap work light and my camera, I headed down into the dank space. By setting the mode with the sound and lighting I began to play around more with the movement in the space. The walls have steel support beams which I incorporated into the piece, the floor was cold dusty (the effect of being an unfinished basement, not the lack of cleaning by my cohorts) which affected my emotional and physical connection, and the old, exposed brick and cement was crumbly which inspired more crumbling and collapsing movement in my performance. 

At the end of this process I think I have more new questions than I do answers. Is it horror that I’m really interested in, or is it something horror related? What is horror? I did discover that performing horror, for me at least, is kind of a form of escapism. To truly embody the ideas of the poem I had to go into an experiential state. I discovered that, again for me, the sensations I felt in my body began in my head and my chest and then seeped into my extremities. The result was something visceral and emotional for my audience. In the future I hope to be able to pin down if it is horror that I’m interested in, why it interests me, and how/if it’s connected to my research interest in LGBTQIA+ studies in dance. 

Listen. Breathe. from John Cartwright on Vimeo.

2 thoughts on “3 Minute Solo: Poetry, Movement, Horror

  1. Hi John,
    I’m enjoying your questions. While horror is a genre that rarely excites me I like the directions you are exploring. I am wondering if you can tap a little deeper into your own fear. These are some questions I had while reading/watching:
    What scares you that may not scare other people?
    How is your fear connected to your own past trauma and or identity?
    What do you get out of the one being scared?
    What happens to the body after the release of emotions?
    What happens when you are the one doing the scaring?
    What can horror teach you about yourself?


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