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Deborah Dunn's "Trial & Eros" to feature T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets at Vancouver International Dance Festival

Dancer/choreographer Deborah Dunn 

That a contemporary dancer wants to do anything at all with the poetry of T. S. Eliot is enough to make me sit up and take notice. And that it is Alec Guiness’ voice reading the Four Quartets is, in itself, worth the price of admission, even if dancer/choreographer Deborah Dunn does nothing more than sit in a chair all evening (which I'm sure she will not).

Ms. Dunn’s description of “Trial & Eros,” which plays at the Roundhouse on March 8 and 9, isn’t much help. But let’s think of it as the art of building suspense—nearly as obscure and provocative as the poetry itself.

One imagines a dialogue:

Ms. Dunn: “The choreography embraces Eliot's play of imagery and abstractions, its lyric and architectural style weaving through the musicality of the language to meet the grace and power of the words.”

Mr. Eliot:             “But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

                        Other echoes

Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?”

Ms. Dunn: “The piece gives Eliot's meditations on time and being a new substance, and a humanity that is both modernist and contemporary.”

Mr. Eliot: “Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, …

both a new world

And the old made explicit, understood”

 * * * *

Growing up in St. Louis, there was no getting away from T. S. Eliot. He was everywhere in stories about the lineage of Unitarian ministers, which my father told with a reverence usually reserved for the succession of English monarchs. I had to read Eliot all through high school, in Introduction to Literature at college, then again in Major British Writers II, Twentieth Century Poetry, American Literature Survey, Modern British Poets, American Poetry from the Civil War to World War II, ….

Downright ubiquitous, he was.

By the time I entered graduate school, I was pretty much fed up with Mr. Eliot and had begun to agree with those who criticized Eliot’s oppressive influence on American poets, who were seen to have spurned their more genuine heritage (Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, for starters) in favor of Europe. That Eliot had become not only a British citizen, but also an Anglo-Catholic and an unapologetic monarchist seemed a betrayal, somehow. But then I had recently returned from living in Europe intent upon discovering what made American literature, American.

I had decided that T. S. Eliot was not part of the picture.

Until a snowy night years later in Maine, I came upon my old worn copy of "The Waste Land" and reread it. I was humbled, astonished by the complexity and richness of the poem, and understood, at last, its prophetic nature. Eliot had managed to describe, in perfect detail, not only the feeling and tone of the 20th Century (on both sides of the Atlantic), but also this time we’re in now, whatever it may come to be called.

Even so, it wasn’t until I discovered his correspondence with Groucho Marx that T. S. Eliot was fully redeemed in my mind.

In a memorial to Eliot, Marx said, "I had read up on T.S.Eliot. 'Murder In The Cathedral' and a few things like that, and I thought I'd impress him. And all he wanted to talk about was the Marx Brothers. That's what happens when you come from St.Louis."

So “Let us go then, you and I” to the Roundhouse on March 8 and 9 to see what Ms Dunn, Alec Guiness, and Mr. Eliot have in store for us.


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