‘the great thing is not having a mind’ by Oluwaseun S. Olayiwola – review

Words by Katie Hagan

With its title derived from the first line of a poem penned by the piercing Louise Gluck, the great thing is not having a mind by Trinity Laban Fulbright scholar Oluwaseun S. Olayiwola marries lyric poetry with movement to articulate the nuance and messy contradictions between ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’; creating what is, in effect a hard-hitting dance work about corporeal and meta-physical states of existence.

Choreographers have long used poetry, or literature more broadly as a stimulus for creative exploration. A couple of years ago Dance Magazine published an article in which dancers illustrated poems through movement, with the producer of the series, Max Rothman highlighting that it was ultimately about capturing an ‘in-the moment’ reaction to the words that were spoken, or in this case listened to via a recording. Whilst this approach has its value – poetry is the vehicle to a dancer’s expression – the linearity that makes this reaction what it is, is underwhelmingly transactional. The poem ends, there’s no time for foreplay and boom the dancing begins straight after to make the most of the fleeting moment. It leaps from a to b, and there is little time to explore the intersections or nuance between the two that, if explicated, could make for an intriguing odyssey into the bond between poetry and movement.

In the great thing is not having a mind Olayiwola, a choreographer and poet, has dug a little deeper to unearth the nature of poetic composition and its relationship with movement generation. 

Before the performance we are given a booklet containing a poem by the choreographer, which is perhaps a foreground to the movement:

‘tell me I’m living     easy goingly turn 

                        around but leave your leg behind     above the fields’

This is just one example of Olayiwola bringing movement and poetry into the same physical space on the page. For me, it’s making a point. One of the beautiful aspects of poetry and indeed movement is that so many irregularities and not so cogent thoughts — whether articulated through words or movement — can be in a single moment. Things are at a flux and there is no clear boundary between what’s started and ended.

This transience is something which Olayiwola has translated onto the stage for the performance of the great thing is not having a mind. I revelled in the fact it wasn’t clear how the poem sat with the actual dance work. As I’ve been writing this review, this ambiguity really accentuates my belief that the great thing is not having a mind asks questions about whether there is a difference between ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ when dancing, and how this vibrates with our physical (perhaps bodily) and meta-physical (maybe mind, but I don’t want to be peremptory) states.

Three bodies – Amit Palgi, Ivar Draaisma, Chiara Aldorisio – each dressed in turquoise, red and green, coagulate in the centre of a white cubic space, whilst Gluck’s ‘The Red Poppy’ (a poem about spiritual awakening and transcendence) is spoken overhead. The dancers curl about one another like cats, as singing glasses fill the sound void left by the words. Vacant-eyed, the three form a line standing on the diagonal stage right, raising their arms up to the side, their heads drooping. Although I sit on the fence when it comes to religion even this image of three bodies standing like crosses stirs me.

Still in this position, the dancers let their heads dangle so low the weight causes them to fall. This marks the beginning of a motif where each of them pulses and moves angularly for a while, reassuming the crucifix position when they need to pause. Heads fall once more to the ground as they continue the sequence until they reach downstage. Grappling with either resurrection or reawakening, unsure of what this fate is, the dancers are bent-doubled and vulnerable. Heads are pinned to the floor, a tenseness suggestive of a deeper defiance that will enable them to resist whichever force stands in their way. Is this willed action? What is rousing them? What is disturbing them? 

the great thing is not having a mind’s sound change signals the turn in phase. An accordion is playing now, it’s bereft rather than rhythmic, like pain retching onto the stage. Dancers discombobulate and shuffle restlessly, jagged arms and right-angled legs sprout. The dancer dressed in red sprints across the stage, whipping and waving her hair not too dissimilarly to the way Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers, Ditta Miranda Jasjfi and Silvia Farias Heredia do. Something is breaking down and eroding. The peformers depart from the frenzy to huddle together in their calm place stage right.

After the storm empties itself from the space the mood clears. Dancers walk aimlessly yet still with intent, their resources slowing before all is lost. They spend some time on the floor, burying themselves circularly like an animal that wants to fossilise itself. White noise lifts mistly from the speakers as the dancers crumble to the floor; half-shoulder stands and incomplete finishes emanate from absent minds.

the great thing is not having a mind jostles with the insanity of living and the equally destructive – yet hugely redemptive – meta-physical, omnipresent forces that affect our bodies and minds. The notion that poetry has played a part in creating this dance work is intriguing. The poem which its title is from, Gluck’s ‘The Red Poppy’ details a flower’s spiritual awakening. Instead of responding to this poem by a woman whose work Olayiwola clearly admires, he has taken the time to add layers of meaning to both dance and text. Olayiwola has turned the poem inside out, and in doing so has cleverly suggested that not having a mind can only be great if you’ve already felt the pain of what it is like to have one.

All images: Oluwaseun S. Olayiwola.

Oluwaseun S. Olayiwola is a choreographer and poet living in London, and is the present Fulbright Postgraduate at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. He has presented work and collaborated with artists across the US, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany, studying with or studying the repertory of various choreographers including Charles Anderson, Sidra Bell, Beth Gill, Jesse Zaritt, Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, Netta Yerushalmy, Tony Thatcher, and Stephanie Schoeber. His current choreographic research explores methods to fuse poetry and dance in an effort to discover novel ways of generating, expanding, and experiencing movement material.