by Molly Rogers
“There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue…but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.” – Earl Shorris, “The last word”
In Yaghan, an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego now spoken by only one person, mamihlapinatapei is roughly transcribed as “a meaningful look exchanged between two people, both of whom desire something that neither is willing to initiate.” Poetry in itself, the word is a microcosm of human experience, a faint shadow of a culture and people severed from the land of their mother tongue.
It’s one of poet Bob Holman’s favorite untranslatable expressions. A leading advocate for linguistic preservation in indigenous communities around the world, Holman consulted on the score for Figures of Speech, a new ballet by choreographer Alonzo King that explores the power of lost languages. Yaghan is what Holman calls a “treasure language,” and it’s one of over 3,000 across the globe in danger of vanishing before the end of the century. “Languages are in the same situation as endangered species of plants and animals,” Holman warns, “except no one knows about it and there are no laws to protect language.”
Holman’s language activism was a natural extension of his work as a poet. A major force in the performance, publication, and promotion of slam poetry and spoken word, Holman also studies the oral traditions of civilizations around the world. His opus Khonsay: Poem of Many Tongues took nine years to complete; structured as a cento or collage poem, each of its 50 lines is written in a different treasure language spoken by a tiny fraction of the earth’s population. (In the Boro tongue of North India, khonsay is “to pick something up with great care, as it is rare or sacred.”)
Holman first crossed paths with the LINES creative team after a reading of Khonsay in San Francisco. While the text of the poem itself doesn’t serve as source material for Figures of Speech, the message behind it speaks to the creative ideology shared by Holman and Artistic Director Alonzo King. In their own way, both artists have challenged the narrow definition of literacy propagated by Western culture, upholding orality and somatic/emotional intelligence as equally valuable systems of consciousness. As an observer in the rehearsal studio, Holman noticed right away that ideas rather than mechanics were on display; he saw the company members not as dance technicians, but as human beings keenly attuned to the gravity of their task. “I don’t know that there are many choreographers who could make sense of this—using a landscape of all the world’s languages as a soundtrack. But, sure!” Holman says, laughing. “That’s a manageable input for Alonzo.”
It’s King’s unique creative practice honed over thirty years that makes it possible. As a choreographer he sees dance as more than just a visual art. King cultivates the craft of listening as intently as any poet, continually prompting his dancers to clarify their movement statements, searching for ideas distilled to their essence. “When watching someone dance,” he says, “listen to what they’re saying instead of looking at what they’re doing.” On stage, the dancers tune in to each other and the language soundscape with their whole bodies. If at times we as an audience are lost in Figures of Speech—foreigners in strange sonic lands—the dancers guide us home again, as if they understand it all.
King and Holman share a kind of panoramic artistic gaze, coupled with a deep knowledge of the ancient roots of their craft. Holman has collaborated frequently with his mentor and friend Alhaji Papa Susso, a griot who carries on the inherited tradition of West Africa’s troubadour-historian-poets. King has worked with the Shaolin Monks of China, the music and dance group Nzamba Lela of the Central African Republic, and virtuoso musicians across the globe, making dances that uphold his belief in the interconnectivity of humankind. Though he has dedicated his life to the study and choreography of ballet, King bristles at the idea that Western high culture holds exclusive claim to its ideals. He knows ballet to be only one of many techniques through which—after devoted study—humans may touch the divine.
Holman found immediate resonance in King’s methodology, and he is clear-eyed about the political implications of a work like Figures of Speech. After contributing some of his personal archival recordings to the score, when he arrived at the studio he was gratified to see that superficial traces of world dance traditions were not grafted on top of a ballet vocabulary. “I was very concerned that due respect be given. These languages shouldn’t be a layer of sound [in the ballet]. The bigger story of what language is—how important it is for humanity to tend to the ecology of consciousness as well as the physical ecology of the planet—that’s what’s coming through, and that’s a little miracle that can only be done by art.”
A history of the world’s lost languages is one of racism, genocide, and forced assimilation. Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Selk’nam nomads of Tierra del Fuego—whose language can be heard in the ballet score—were exterminated. Most were killed in a government-complicit campaign to remove them from their land; some were interred or shipped to human zoos, where they eventually died of disease. If the physical brutality of colonization is a silencing of the voice and body, King and Holman contend by filling that silence, asking us to listen not just to the words that were lost, but to bodies speaking freely, generously, with love.
King says that in working on Figures of Speech, he was frequently reminded of “the indomitable will of human beings to rise, regardless of circumstance or consequence.” The idea of a treasure language itself emphasizes this resilience, reminding us that though atrocity can force a language underground, some buried words are waiting to be brought back to life. In Hawaii, due to the efforts of a visionary group of parents and teachers who translated their own classroom materials from English to their native tongue, “language nest” preschools have brought the Hawaiian language back from the brink of extinction after it was banned in educational institutions for ninety years. On the other side of the world, Welsh has reemerged as a thriving minority language after being stigmatized for centuries. Both Alaska and Hawaii have enacted legislation to recognize indigenous languages as official state languages—a largely symbolic gesture, but nonetheless one that marks an increased understanding of linguistic human rights and indigenous peoples’ self-determination.
Holman sees Figures of Speech as one more chapter in his advocacy work for treasure languages. “This [creative process] in its painstaking detail and attention to individual bodies is, in its own way, a protest against globalization and uniformity and a celebration of how life is when we live it to the fullest with each other.” For Holman, art-making is the response to crisis, the call to arms, and the first step toward restitution. Undeterred by the enormity of the task ahead, he vows to continue finding ways to keep these languages alive. “This is the opposite of giving up,” Holman says of working with King. “This is exploring in ecstasy.”