Artists have sometimes found ways to express the grief and surreal discord of dementia in various media. “The Poet” by the Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre takes a bold approach by using modern dance to tell the story of a father suffering from dementia.
Created by Terminus’ resident choreographer Tara Lee, and her partner, visual artist Joseph Guay, the film also incorporates poetry and ambitious filmmaking techniques to support the intimate dance performances by lead actors John Welker, playing the father, and Rachel Van Buskirk, playing his daughter and caretaker.
Filmmakers Lee and Guay joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to share their experiences bringing this daring project to life.
On choreographing dementia:
“The topic is close,” Lee said. “It’s close to my family … To approach it through dance was a big question for me. I have to admit, I hesitated to do that at first. And it was actually through conversations with Joseph that I felt a little more confident, and a little bit more reassured that that was the right direction, and probably the most elevated thing I could do to approach something that meant that much.”
“The question was, how do you express the condition in a way that is authentic, without using words?” Lee said. “Of course, with John and Rachel, who are … such artists, that are so perceptive and sensitive, and they can really project all those different shades with a hand gesture, or a look, or contact with hand on a shoulder, things like that; we could really show a lot, and of course exploit the genre of film to show all those little things that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do in a theater.”
“I just wanted to show that [main character Charlie’s] reality is just as real as any other reality, and it’s through his art and his work that we go through these adventures with him.”
On poetry in “The Poet,” from works by Kahlil Gibran:
“I remember, probably somewhere in my early 20’s, I maybe came across a passage … I came back to it again recently, kind of considering how to incorporate excerpts from ‘The Prophet’ into a dance piece,” recounted Lee. “The language he uses is so unapologetically romantic and spiritual and big—he talks about big things, and it’s big language. It’s so spiritual, and yet it’s not specific. I think it’s still very universal, and I feel like it was the perfect type of language to connect, to be our Poet’s language.”
“What do we remember at the end of all of this? What’s important, what comes to the surface of what we should remember?” mused Lee. “I feel like [Gibran’s] language really tapped into that.”
On pushing classical dance into brave new realms:
“I love the long, lean lines, and the clarity, and the specificity and athleticism of classical ballet, but I’m only fascinated by it nowadays in terms of how I can morph it, and distort it, and change it, and stretch it,” Lee said.
Guay added, “We’re in a surreal world, we can take [the audience] anywhere. It doesn’t have to be shot the way that, traditionally, we see ballet pieces made.”
“Every time I watch something that Tara creates, there’s an entire storyline of her personal journey at that exact moment in the piece, whether people know that or not,” Guay said. “It completely reflects what she’s going through at the time she’s creating it. I don’t see that a lot in art, I think maybe people are trying to put out there what they think is timely, or what they want other people to experience … That’s the beauty of Tara’s work that I love.”
You can stream “The Poet” here.