In Practice: A Dancer Poet Creature Conversation with Denise Leto

By Sima Belmar and Denise Leto

December 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

On July 4 of this year, I launched The Villanelle Project. Well, launch is a strong word since all I did was announce in my tinyletter that I wanted to launch The Villanelle Project. A villanelle is a late 16th century French poetic form comprised of 19 lines, five stanzas of three lines each and a final stanza of four lines. What makes it feel like a choreographic score is the way repetition works in the form: line 1 repeats in lines 6, 12, and 18, and line 3 repeats in lines 9, 15, and 19. The form nudged me to come up with the plan to invite 19 artists, a mix of choreographers and poets, to create villanelles and solo dances that adhere to the villanelle structure.

The first person to respond to my call was Denise Leto. Denise is a poet who has worked with choreographers and dancers. We met in Iowa at the 2014 Society for Dance History Scholars conference where she was presenting with choreographer Cid Pearlman. They discussed the work Your Body is Not a Shark, which is both a dance theater performance (in collaboration with cellist Joan Jeanrenaud) and a book of poetry. They also handed out swag. (I scored a t-shirt.) Denise and I met again at Mary Armentrout’s 2018 summer Feldenkrais composition workshop where we made what I call The Shushing, a trio with interdisciplinary poet and teaching artist Amber DiPietra in which we sat like a group of hypersensitive bunnies and shushed every sound we heard in the room. (You probably had to be there, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say it was profound.) The workshop was not about disability poetics but it was bathed in it—Denise, Amber, and several other workshop participants identified as disabled artists, and I was there in the middle of radiation treatment. We spent as much time napping in community as we did making work and it was more fun than summer camp.

When Denise said she was interested in The Villanelle Project, I was ecstatic. I didn’t even worry too much about my paltry poetry knowledge and experience. I asked her to read my poetry. She was very kind with her feedback. (We agreed that it is good to have the word “meatball” in a poem but the jury is out on “sweet.”) She wrote a villanelle. And for the past few months, we have been meeting for semi-monthly lunches at Café Leila in Berkeley to talk about poetry and dance.

What follows is Denise’s poetic distillation of one of our conversations. The transcript of the conversation is over 7000 words long. I transcribed our words. Denise transformed them. This piece is truly a collaboration—we are its co-writers. Denise’s first draft villanelle follows the distillation.

D: Dancers brought the musicians physically—

S: Into the dance space—

D: What was the language—

S: Singing—

S: It was like a choir—

D: What made those two expressions work—

D: Well, three—

Accidents of juxtaposition.

Levels of it: there’s a stillness with the movement.

(This wordless reach to what is not beautiful.)

(Resorting to what is beautiful, what is known.)

Then if you start to add text. What do movement phrases mean? What you’re saying about the physicality of a poem. Because I haven’t connected any of this, watching you, this is embodied. The articulation of language and movement can get so. Like the dancers are props to the words and the words are props to the dancers. The dance class. The poet’s workshop. To whomever is participating or watching. Within the body of a dancer where is the poet’s body? What are the words doing? The dancer is the art in the words. Or. Let’s say from the start there is no language. None. No movement. No movement score. That being the starting point.

D: How do you take that—

S: In the room—

D: You see what I mean, no—

S: Making it together with no—

D: A different kind of collaboration—

S: And with the Villanelle—

D: It would be—

In the word/gesture pair: a rearrangement of error.

Sound is sometimes first then the meaning hues into it.

(It wasn’t stillness. It was curiosity.)

(Embodiment, deeply about the embodiment.)

This is what interests me. The emergence of touching layers. Not written “for” or “about” but with. Would I have felt so strongly about those moments had they not been offset by the moments that felt like so many others? An unconscious form first. Not separate or together. When the room, the negative space isn’t filled with words. When the quiet helps to empty choreography. Or to feel, for example, the villanelle structure in the dance. That third thing. I am a poet. You are a dancer. Let’s play.

D: It’s a question of verbs too—

S: And in that way again—

D: I don’t have any. Where are they—

S: Make—

D: Constellate—

S: If we’re coming together, if we’re experiencing a poem—

S: And a dance, it’s not about fidelity or legibility—

D: So how to dance the lines, “what lax star and loss of meaning”—

S: “Sweet fathom in a formless sea”—

D: Or write to the body moving with the line—

D: If we didn’t see it that way—

Somehow being able to recognize.

I’m inside something that I don’t understand.

(I’m happy to be there because it’s movement.)

(Fathom is a measurement too.)

What does it mean to have something follow something that doesn’t. So in the choreography that would be my question. How to make. What’s cliché about sweet for a dancer? To figure out if normatively we go like this and then this: sweet justice, sweet tea, sweetheart, but sweet fathom? I don’t know. I love that it’s sort of that mixture of things. In the villanelle the word “sweet” gets repeated many times but in another form maybe once. How many times in a row do we want. Or how could a dancer dance a star then fall. Not like that. That wouldn’t. More like what does “lax” in the mouth feel like and where could that be in the body. To get all involved and really wonder.

S: If you can see the repeated line—

D: A reaction against and an action toward—

D: To spend hours deciding between two words—

S: Attention to movement choices that—

D: I have no idea why this one moment—

S: To constantly question—

Enter the words as they are read.

She made me see the spaces in between.

(Less afraid to have everything make less sense.)

(The many aspects of a conversation unmade.)

But now, the dancers are walking around with the sheet music. Now they are singing and it was so amazing. I don’t know how to describe it. How am I expressing the sound of these words and what is my body doing? The problem of description. Translation. Because it’s a habitual pattern, doesn’t mean it can’t be there. It’s just: why? How can you get the movement to do something else? What else is going on in the question? How do you fill that space?  How do you arrive at ambiguity? As opposed to creating a word to the movement or a movement to the word? Not another forceful breath but attunement.

S: Toward the end I started to think maybe—

S: She’s saying something other than I thought she—

D: And what’s the more—

D: Dangerous thing to do with it—

(Denise’s Villanelle One, work in progress)

Sad in a balm of sea
Eros, angles, feral fate
Sweet fathom in a formless sea

Her sanctum lush and catastrophe
Then, after she’s not older, we wait
Sad in a balm of sea

It hurt, she said, it hurt simply
How light itself could striate
Sweet fathom in a formless sea

So many phantoms visibly
Make shoreless, fallow feet
Sad in a balm of sea

Dream me still and cast me
With her: skinless and constellate
Sweet fathom in a formless sea

What lax star and loss of meaning
Except how hourless days
Become sad in a balm of sea
And soon are almost seen

This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of In Dance.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Oakland Tribune, Dance Magazine, TDR, Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, Performance Matters, Contemporary Theatre Review, and The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to

Denise Leto is a transdisciplinary poet, writer, editor and experimental dance dramaturge. Recently she collaborated on the dance Bluets #1-40 at the University of Santa Cruz. She wrote the multi-genre collaborative dance performance, Your Body is Not a Shark, centering on feminist disability poetics. Her current project involves an ecopoetic exploration of the San Francisco Bay through site-writing and movement practice. Denise is a former member of Olimpias, an international disability performance and poetry collective. Poems are forthcoming in Rogue Agent and Quarterly West.