Pollitt, Jo. The Dancer in Your Hands <>. Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2020. RRP $22.99, 128pp, ISBN: 9781760801472.
Her hands don’t press well together in prayer. Instead she relies on the friction of walls. Flesh in supported slide. Sideways, the horizontal line holding. It is the pressure that holds you in the distance. (56)
Jo Pollitt’s The dancer in your hands <> is a literary work that exceeds any singular definition of form, except perhaps the one offered by the author-poet: ‘This is a dancer writing as dancing.’ (30)
Pollitt is a contemporary dancer, writer, publisher and academic whose early research focused on improvisation, taking her deep into experimental practices. When I was training at WAAPA she was my improvisation lecturer (this is an unapologetically partisan review). I remember how she operated exclusively in the immediate creative moment. The ultimate, terrifying improvisational challenge offered to us was the score she called ‘Go.’ When she issued this command it meant manifesting yourself as dance: a solo with no preparation, no tangible theme or stimulus to latch onto. Just ‘Go.’
This was eighteen years back. Much has since happened for Pollitt and the artistic communities she is a part of. She draws on all the roles of her dancer’s life to power this book: maker, mother, partner, collaborator, agitator. Pollitt asks, ‘How long is the life of a movement? How long to end?’ (30), destabilising the lines we draw between life’s domains. Dancers are constantly questioning where parts of a whole begin and end. The artform does not adhere to firm boundaries or senses of time. Themes and concepts are fluid. The body and the practice of deep abstraction draws the whole of yourself into it. That absorption is what Pollitt’s literary debut entails.
The title of the book does not function as metaphor, more so an imaginative literal assertion: a dancer’s life and her art are bound within the object. The dancer in your hands <> is a work of poetry that is also a novella; a body rendered in paper; a performance in words and typography; a reflexive journal that is also temporally insistent—it retains Pollitt’s hallmark immediacy through unfolding poesis in the present tense. The dancer of this book steps, turns, falls, cries, compresses, extends; she dances and writes. She is always urgent, ‘The cardiologist pronounces five extra beats. I think that is lucky. Beats up my sleeve.’ (21)
A reader is not required to have prior knowledge of dance to appreciate this book. The symbolic systems and structural elements within Pollitt’s verse offer clear invitations to the reader. The narrative elements are powerfully direct. Scenes involving pivotal conversations, family histories, surgeries and crashes, break-ups and fuck-ups—turning points of the dancer’s life—carry incredible weight despite being captured in short passages.
It has been three years since I woke in my childhood bed after sleeping for twelve hours to the news that made driving calmly into a tree a logical response… There is a peculiar careering inside the mantra I don’t know / I don’t know / I don’t know. Up to the lights again. Through the red, sideswiped and under the frame of the driver’s window, glass in her hair. (85)
The experience of Pollitt’s spatial language—for the typographic elements are artworks in themselves—is unique and wonderful. There are compositions of letters in space: ‘t’ for turn and compass points plotting directions of a chaotic journey. There are pages filled by the repetition of short phrases that become blurred through detailed typographic play; others dominated by backslash divisions and angle brackets that sign elbows. In a chapter/poem called ‘Speed’ Pollitt uses the word ‘comma’ as long-form punctuation. It results in an interruption to grammar, rhythm, the length of ideas, until you are presented with a page filled with ‘comma’ in rows of eight—the dominant time signature dancers use to count along with movement in performance, ‘(count me in) five, six, seven, eight.’ (85)
You could perhaps link this visual language play back to the Dadaists, and Pollitt’s liquid feminist consciousness to Woolf. If the assertion that modernists still exist in the world is correct (Miéville 2010), Pollitt might be an exemplar. Her typographic compositions also made me think of contemporary digital projection artworks like those of Ryoji Ikeda. But where Dadaist word collage and Ikedaesque projections both involve the dismantling of image, language and data in ways that speak to estrangement and the breakdown of meaning, Pollitt’s abstraction is powerfully embodied. It is imbued with agency. The words and compositions convey the dancer furiously ploughing through space; they are an exploration of her interiority and experience. This wild abstraction is an assertion of identity and a physical presence in defiance of patriarchy; a constant occupying of place and position.
He: Y o u. w i l l. n e v e r. s a v e. u p. e n o u g h. t o. c o v e r. t h e. c o s t. o f. l e a v i n g. \ o n e t h o u s a n d o n e h u n d r e d a n d s i x t y e i g h t d a y s s h e i s s t i l l s a v i n g c o v e r i n g c o s t i n g w i l l i n g l e a v i n g /
In the life that is plotted across the scape of word and body a marriage ends, a duel follows, Winter and Summer are in conflict, the woman reorientates and reorientates, renegotiates her past as she builds her future.
A poet asks me about the erotics of dance and why we don’t talk about it.
I think we feel about it.
I am censored so I cannot tell you for myself.
Unless I am in love with you. Which I am.
This is a deeply absorbing book that advances dance as literature. It can be read in a manner of hours or digested over months (both are recommended). Pollitt makes powerful contributions to discourses of feminism, positionality, sexuality, aesthetics and lived artistic practices. The moving body is expressed with fabulous kinaesthetic sense. As a dancer, the poetry resonates in my body and with my experiences—both directly and indirectly; in the close secondary way of people who work physically with one another, performing intimate exchanges. You can read this work as a love story, as poems, as an attempt at ‘the whole truth’ (30). The dancer-as-book attests, ‘I would be happy to hit the wall should that be your finding. To be thrown.’ It is a fantastically total, potent and unrestrained invitation to the reader.
Venezia, Tony. “Weird Fiction: Dandelion Meets China Miéville”, Dandelion: Postgraduate Arts Journal and Research Network, vol. 1 no. 1, November 2009, https://doi.org/10.16995/ddl.221.
Sam Fox is a writer, director and choreographer based in Boorloo / Perth, Western Australia and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Australia.