Case study - Labyrinth of Love, Rambert Dance

Labyrinth of Love was a production by Rambert Dance in 2012/13 and the starting point for a pilot creative collaboration with Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. 

I was asked by Performing Arts Officer Daisy Fancourt to run poetry workshops on the theme of love for mainly older patients to produce texts that younger patients could use for choreography in dance workshops. 

Patients were used to musicians playing on the wards, but the logistics of running writing workshops was another thing entirely. We compromised and our compromise worked well. I visited patients individually, talking to them about love, reading them poems and asking them to write. 

It was a challenge - asking a complete stranger such intimate and probing questions. And we were often interrupted by medical staff. Sometimes there were visitors and some preferred to chat and listen to me read because they were in pain, confused or drowsy.

I had a series of questions to ask which form the structure of the poem I put together from their responses. This fitted with the score for the production, written by composer Michael Daugherty and inspired by the work of women writers spanning over 2000 years: Lady Mary Wroth, Sappo, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Juana Ines de la Cruz, Elizabeth Taylor and Anne Carson. 

Poem written from conversations with patients at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, April 2013

I ask

What is your heart and what is it carrying?

            It's not about the heart,
            it's the whole body, you answered -

            a tree - almond or apple -
            and inside, the background music.

Are some people harder to love?

            My sister laughed behind my back.
            There was someone I trusted with a secret.
            In six months we tiptoed from fun
            to arguing. I told her I'd been on a date.
What journeys did you make and what did you find?

            I walked the backbone of Ireland -
            from Dublin to Cork - dogs barked from kennels,
            joggers overtook, pigs stood in my way.

                        And I crossed the Sahara for two days,
                        took a train to Nguru,
                        heard a general as he beat a young boy.

            I met her in London, 1954,
            a  year after the earthquake on Kefalonia
            killed her father and sister.

How do you carry the memory of love?

One sent her vegetables, all kinds of vegetables
others said in my daughter, my partner, my god

            one held the light on the water in Venice
            another Barbados, her grandmother's voice

one heard a mobile ringing
another, the roll call of all 14 siblings

            one felt rough tweed against her tired face
            another feared she got back less than she gave

one smiled - my mother, 92 and still dancing -
another hummed his dad's favourite song

            and the last said when he was young
            love was spelled lust.

Describe your mother's face, your father's

            First comes the shape of the mouth,
            curve of a jaw, then laughter lines,
            ears, smooth ovals of skin

            and only then, the eyes' colours -
            blue, brown, grey - until,
            as if under that gaze again

            they are led to the exact day
            of a soldier's haircut, his stutter
            and in the hallway, the draught

            of parents' softly spoken
            shorthand, her Norwegian,
            and for another, the affair, divorce

            until he has a photo of his father,
            a child, in his hands and she can admit:
            "In her dementia, my mother loves me at last."

And what are the tokens of love?

It happened so fast, the results, diagnosis
how much we needed to send him to Boston.

He's only seven. Hand to mouth, we went,
site to site, Facebook and Twitter

one told another, at work and at school,
in football crowds, post-office queues,

we grew like a flock of red-billed quelea

folding around him a soft cloak of feathers.