A Life of Dancing Poetry...
Interview with Richard and Natica Angilly
Richard and Natica Angilly, the poet and the dancer, are the co-creators of the Dancing Poetry Festival, now in its 18th year, a unique collaboration of writers, dancers, and musicians that culminates in an annual series of poetry readings and performances set to music. Their unique transformative art form attracts international participation and has been performed and honored worldwide. All artists are invited to join in one of many Poetic Dance Workshops now being formed. For details about the upcoming festival and their many other offerings please refer to The Dancing Poetry listing in our Dance category.
Bart Brodsky: You call your work "Dancing Poetry," but it's actually poetry and dance set to music. Why no "music" in the title?
Natica Angilly: Actually for the first seven years, the poetry alone served as our music. In fact when I first met Richard, he handed me some poems as I left stage. After I read them, my first statement to him was: "I can dance to this poetry, it is the music I have been waiting for." When we were first performing, some audience members asked how they could get the beautiful music that went with the poetry so well. We assumed they created any accompaniments they thought they heard themselves. In performance, we continue to perform several pieces that are free of musical accompaniment. In fact, one of our favorites is called "Organic Music," and is about poetry and the "music" of life. Then we met some fabulous musicians and composers. Hazrat Inayat Khan, brought the Sufi movement to the states, and one of his sons, Hidayat Inayat Khan, was a composer and orchestra leader who wrote the Gandhi Symphony, Chanson Exotic, the Virginia Symphony, and others. Hidayat Inayat Khan liked what we were doing because it reminded him of his father's works and history. He gave us permission to use all his music. The letter he gave us is still prominently displayed on the wall in our livingroom.
Hazrat Inayat Khan, our composer's father, had been known as the greatest vina player in India. He and his band of Royal Indian Musicians were the musicians that traveled and made the music for Ruth St. Denis. She was the dancer who created Radha, her performance that brought prominence to her work as the spirit in search of the soul. She and her husband Ted Shawn and their Denishawn dancers are the historical dance figures who had great impact on dance in America. They are credited with many contributions to dance and to the "birth of modern dance." Ruth St. Denis is still celebrated at Sufi dance events as "the mother of the dances of universal peace," and their wonderful music is still inspiring dance.
Bart: How has the art of your production evolved?
Natica: The more people we met and places we were invited to practice our work, the more our work evolved. All this encouragement seemed to fuel our creativity. I had spent many years studying poetry, thought and meditation with some elder teachers. One of them, Hayat Stadlinger, was eager to share what she had learned as one of the first Dalcroze Dancers. She was only 12 years old when she discovered the Dalcroze method. She was thrilled by the "Big Skip," which was an extremely bold movement for the time. She held classes and performed the universal worship services, dedications, presentations, and read poetry aloud on all occasions. We met Leopold Sedar Senghor, who had been considered the greatest poet of Africa and had served as the president of Senegal, at a World Congress of Poetry in Morocco. We loved his commentary that poetry should be sung and danced as it had always been in many countries and always in Africa. We were awarded for our ability to teach compassion through our poetry and dance by the Dharma Raja of the World Zen Society. At that time many people were very interested in spiritual studies. We were crowned international ambassadors of dance and poetry by United Poets Laureate International and were even written into the Congressional Record of the United States as exemplary artists. We've drawn from Chinese poetry, Balinese, African, European, Asian, and have been invited to perform on Five Continents. All the world has influenced our work. We met Aboriginal dancers from Australia and some of the techniques we learned from them have helped define certain phrases of our poetic performance and have helped to broaden the appeal and outreach of our work. We agreed with Senghor that: "Everyone is a poet and everyone is a dancer."
Bart: How did you seem to make these international connections?
Richard Angilly: We met Althya Youngman and her Artists Embassy International, in San Francisco. Her influence was great because the "Embassy" brought together artists and dignitaries from all over the world. Her mission statement to: "Further understanding and good will through the universal language of the arts for peace," became our mission. She seemed to be a magnet and refuge for artists and international representatives from all over the world. Her experience as one of the first Red Cross participants in the Geneva Convention, and her amazing experience with Gandhi, set her on a path and belief that artists could have a large role in creating and sustaining peaceful exchange and interchange. She had discussed with Gandhi the role of creative and dedicated artists as a hope for seeing the beauty of all humanity. International friendship and encouraging better inter-cultural relationships were her mission. Making friends through the arts was her way to gain positive dialogues with those who would have been considered to be strangers. In sharing and extending unique beauty and diversity, the world could experience, appreciate, and communicate in a spirit of building toward lasting international relationships. At that time, this was a unique approach to understanding each other, outreach and peace. The name for the Artists Embassy came from when she was working with Juanita Miller, the poet Joaquin Miller's daughter at her then "tiny temple of the muses" in the Oakland hills. The place was alive and open to artists and served as a reception center for visitors. Then one of the visiting diplomats said: "There are so many artists here it must be the International Artists Embassy." Althya was granted a space at the Arts center on Oak St. in San Francisco, and made ground breaking events happen there and many other places. One year we made a list of some of the achievements accomplished through the open events at the Artists Embassy; it even amazed me!
Bart: Is the idea of mixing dance and poetry uniquely yours? Why poetry and dance?
Natica: Internationally there is much history and America has a big poetry and dance history. In fact, Isadora Duncan's brother, Raymond was one of the visitors to the Oakland Artists Embassy. Isadora Duncan first danced to her brother's poetry. She danced to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and other poetry, before becoming famous dancing to classical music. Ruth St. Denis danced to poetry and even wrote her own poetry for her dance. I have a book of her poetry and I read her work to inspire the dancers in my classes. Historically, which came first: thought or action? This is still in question. What relationships that word and motion create as a unity in concert together is a stimulating study. Most of the ballets, classical music, and other performances are motivated by a poem or some epic literature or story. For me, the simple mix of poetry and dance is moving and motivating. Sometimes it comes as a way to help fill the need for solace, solve insurmountable life events or personal issues. It serves very well for celebrating all manor of achievements. Solemn ceremonies and important events usually call on poetry, and poetic dance is a natural to lift the atmosphere. We ourselves have both coordinated and performed memorial services. We think poetry and dance together contributes heart and soul to any occasion. Last year some dance workshop students came who worked in the medical field. They used the vocabulary of our movement instruction to use in "transitional modes" in their own work with hospice activities.
Dramatic and historical dance forms are ever changing. We try to keep open to possibilities for new poetic meaning and movement. Seeing and sharing what people are doing is also fun. I am teaching a course called "hidden meaning in the movements." We try to consider fresh ideas in both poetry and dance. We think our striving for new approaches and new looks to the work has been helpful to our continuing international outreach.
Bart: But you're bringing new people to dance and poetry all the time.
Natica: Yes! Both dance and poetry are living art forms. They change and create and re-create themselves continuously. In one of our signature poems "Welcome to Wonderland," Richard's lines include: "We are here and there at once, We live within that wonder, flapping out our own sheets, creating ourselves constantly." We also outreach with our own dance exposure. Our Dancing Poetry Festival (now in its 18th year at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco) showcases many varieties of performance techniques from ballet to folkloric. Each year, performance companies submit proposals for poetry and dance. Each lends their dance form to poetry so that our audience is treated to the rich varieties of possibilities. Usually the festival introduces or encourages at least fourteen different dance companies who collaborate with poetry. We also have participated in the now 31 years of Rakkasah festivals. Those festivals present week long dance workshops. This amazing event provides popular, renowned and excellent dance teachers from all over the world to present the historical, international and modern techniques in Middle Eastern and other dance specialties. Theatrical excitement such as sword dancing and balancing, dancing with candle, veil, umbrella, fans, and musical instruments are offered along with folkloric, ethnic and cabaret dancing. The Rakkasah weekends with a three day festival that showcases over 500 dancers right here in the bay area. I teach poetic, intercultural tambourine dancing, and theatrical expression, at that event, and our Poetic Dance Theater company is featured. I also offer these workshops at the Alameda Museum every January. Events and classes are always open and ongoing. We offer these events as practical opportunities to help expand communication, enjoyment and friendship.
Richard: In all the horror that invades our world, there must still be a place for poetry. Representing poetry and dance as a unified art form throughout the world allows a chance to demonstrate depth of feeling and dedication to an artistic purpose. Something to share together in harmony and peaceful exchange seems needed and called for. Activating poetry with dance may present possibilities for sharing in exciting, active interchange and creativity.
Bart: How did you two first get together?
Natica: I had been teaching dance for industrial companies at lunch time in order to "relieve" some of the tensions during the era of "downsizing." After the class time, many of the teachers would compare notes and talk about our work. I was invited to create and choreograph a progressive dance about personal energy for the first world healing conference by one of the other teachers.
Richard: I was living at the Internal School in the mid 70s in Arcata, California. Natica was a dance teacher invited to go up to a spiritual and healing conference held at the School.
Natica: It was an immediate thing. I could dance to his poetry! He merely handed some of his poems to me as I left the stage. I was completely overwhelmed by the messages, meaning, form, and feeling! There is something to the phrase "It spoke to me!" I went to see him and told him how I felt; the rest is history!
Bart: So poetry and art came together all at once?
Natica: Yes, it was really dance and poetry as the music of romance!
Bart: So, when did you finally get married?
Natica: We got married right away, at that conference! I thought, "Whoa, [Richard's poetry] is my music! I think he is great, and a great poet! We can dance to that!" He then wrote a new poem: "In the ways that I am... Just That!" We knocked on the door of the head Zen master and said, "We want to get married!" The Zen master said, "Where are you coming from?" Richard threw him a zen koan: "With moon as hook and star as bait, she fishes in pure waters." It made the case for us. "Oh, that's different," the Zen master replied, "Come on in." Since then we've been remarried to each other three times in three different ceremonies.
Bart: And you've been together for 35 years, dancing and writing poetry! Great! Now, let's switch gears. You really know how to hang in there! How about sharing some insights on what an artist's relationship to money should be?
Richard: When we started we were down to $1000.
Natica: We only needed two gigs a month at $50 each to pay our rent which was $100 for a two-bedroom apartment. Performing at meetings and lecturing such as Rotary, Soroptimists, Educational events customarily gave an honorarium of at least $50 in those times. But then our car blew up, the rent went up, and everything changed.
Richard: The art comes first. We made a decision. I had more saleable skills so I took a retraining course and got a job at the phone company. This allowed Natica time to develop our art and performances regardless of whether we were paid or not.
Bart: So you started with vision and passion, and then came the business plan?
Richard. Yes. I wore two hats. The poet and the wage earner. We were discovering that many organizations and events could enjoy and appreciate our work. At that time there was great spiritual activity in the world and almost every religion or spiritual conference was happy to have our poetic performance. Most gave us some type of honorarium. We even got invited to perform at the Einstein Centenary. The poetry and dance were considered spiritual without being specifically religious. It gave us a kind of universal appeal for the time and especially when lots of our poetry was hopeful, colorful and creative, which contributed to promoting poetic, beautiful or thoughtful environments. Our audiences include people saying things like: "This is so intellectual, you should only do it for colleges," and others who would say: "This is simply beautiful, you should do it for children!" I worked a "real job" to help sustain our every day and creative works. I wanted Natica to be able to create full time. I put in a solid effort, but also made sure to be available for rehearsals, performances and art exchanges, and sometimes even meetings and parties. Now I have finally been able to retire and help Natica full time.
Bart: Do you still rent?
Richard: We bought an affordable house in a great neighborhood 28 years ago. Over the years we've invested in our house and through refinancing have been able to also invest money for ourselves, creating the equivalent of a reverse mortgage.
Bart: Bay Area homes have been nice piggy-banks over time. Do you believe that if you do what you love the money will follow?
Richard: Not necessarily. You have to be frugal, keep your expenses in check, and master the art of simple living. We try to make the choices to do as much as we can with our art but have found that sometimes we can't do everything or go everywhere we are asked. We keep positive that sometimes light comes through and we are able to costume our dancers and ourselves and get creative about use, recycling and refreshing our music, props, and costumes. Poetry books, hand painted tambourines, poetic masks and poetic visual arts have been created, and are offered for sale to try to help out. Great people volunteer to help sew, transport props, paint, ribbon, pass programs, co-teach, and help with many of the incredible details involved--and ever evolving.
Natica: People give us lots of things, too.
Bart: You mean, for your shows and dance projects?
Richard: Yes, one of our artist friends said that: "Entering your house feels like going backstage," since our house used to be filled to the brim with props, costumes, books, art and works in progress! So we have had to find extra storage space and this has helped us a lot.
Bart: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming artists and performers? How do you make it all work?
Natica: The practical stuff is the looming ever present continuum. But so is the inexplicable intensity of the creative spirit. I think it helps to be ready for opportunity and to really love the work. Excitement, enthusiasm, persistence, intent and the spirit of creativity--this is momentum that propels itself! I would say, find something to dance about (even in your heart), and Richard has a poem that says: "Get your act together!" Our great Hungarian painter friend Lorant Chovan loved to paint our poetic dances. He would say: "These works are not just love, this is the Big Love." Having Big Love is good advice, and a great mission statement for artists and the whole world. We think this means jumping right in, getting yourselves together, and being and becoming part of the Big Love for the Big Dance!
Richard (smiles): That's why I encourage her to be 100% Natica!
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