April 09, 2020

Space as Form: Sappho Now

On March 6, 2020 an international group of artists, writers, and art historians gathered in Baltimore, MD for a workshop at Johns Hopkins University, Form Beyond the Aesthetic, exploring the politics of form. After talks by Milette Gaifman, Benjamin Anderson, Jennifer Stager, Allison Caplan, Yael Rice, and Sonal Khullar, we walked over to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Hope Mohr Dance performed extreme lyric i. This performance engaged with the fragmentary poetry of Sappho, one of the few female poets from ancient Greece whose work survives.

Through movement, sound, and bodily expressions, extreme lyric i wove an immersive, temporary world in and through both performers and beholders. Incorporating Ancient Greek fragments and Anne Carson’s evocative English translation (2003), their performance built on the vibrant material pictures of Sappho’s lived experiences and her many afterlives, as well as the gaps in what survives of Sappho’s poetic fragments. Reformulated for a museum context, these fragments and blank spaces offer up a metaphor for the fitted together objects in a collection, as well as the utterances of a collection’s own omissions and blank spaces. The Baltimore Museum of Art’s Vision 2020 programming recognizes the nineteenth amendment and the women of color that it excluded. In that spirit, extreme lyric i invites us to think about female subjectivity and forms of knowing and being bodies in relation to other bodies in the ancient and modern worlds.

In many ways, this gathering represented a coda for its participants — we returned to our respective cities and homes and have stayed put, sheltering in place during the global COVID-19 pandemic while connecting digitally to each other and the worlds outside. If extreme lyric i had allowed us to experience a sort of direct embodiment, our current distance from each other contrasts sharply with the physicality of the performance and the very proximity to other bodies we are now denied.

Following the performance, artistic director Hope Mohr, writer and co-author of extreme lyric i, Maxe Crandall, and poet Dora Malech came together for a conversation on stage: “Space as Form: Sappho Now.” It is a pleasure to offer excerpts of this conversation via this space, through which we might continue nurturing our collective and collaborative Lyric I.

Tara McArthur, Karla Quintero, Suzette Sagisi, Jane Selna in extreme lyric i (2018). Photo Credit: HMD by Robbie Sweeny, video design by Ian Winters.

Dora Malech: As you refer to in the title of your piece, Sappho’s writing has come to be associated with the point of view that we call “The Lyric I.” So not a divine conduit for gods or a narrator telling epic stories of heroes, but a speaker with a singular first-person perspective, and with, of course, the feelings and frustrations and desires of such a specific speaker. And I wanted to ask, what drew you to create a piece engaged with Sappho and the Lyric I, particularly one that is not singular, but a collaborative effort between voices and visions and even across media?

Maxe Crandall: We both love Anne Carson’s translations, and when Hope proposed this idea, I loved it because I had only related to Sappho’s work through the page. And you know, to be honest, I’d never really read it out loud. It had been many years since I’d cavorted with Sappho, so I think the premise was — Sappho sang these songs and performed them collectively and there might’ve been dancing and musical instruments. So the premise for me was what is going to happen to this text when we put it back into the body?

Hope Mohr: I would add that an interest of mine in making the piece was how we can lose the self through extreme states of embodiment and sensuality. And I was interested in exploring that not only through the solo body but through the body in relationship to other people.

Tara McArthur, Karla Quintero, Suzette Sagisi, Jane Selna in extreme lyric i (2018). Photo Credit: HMD by Robbie Sweeny, video design by Ian Winters.

DM: I was thinking about that. Obviously the piece is not just called Lyric I, it’s called “extreme lyric i,” and as I was listening I was thinking, you know, extremis and also extremities and thinking about the kind of embodied roots of that word, not just as the utmost, but the physical sort of farthest ends of the spectrum, and the outermost areas of the body, the exterior. So it’s an intensifier with physical roots. And in thinking about form, it’s another word that we use to discuss aesthetics that’s never far from the physical with the human form or the poetic form; you’re talking about embodiment. I was curious about what responsibilities, if any, you feel in terms of working with the text in which that embodiment is so far away, temporarily. For which that distance is so great.

MC: I want to pick up on you calling attention to the word extreme because I think at first I was kind of indifferent or intimidated to work with Sappho’s texts because they seem so set, so historically intimidating, or something like that. But what wound up happening is that we found this invitation in the lyric, especially I think in terms of choreography and movement. To recognize “Oh, the way Sappho articulates the body is actually weird and unfamiliar to us.” I think that was an invitation in the source text that led not just to thematizing self-making and unmaking, but also to thinking about how to express this through movement. We would give the dancers prompts and it was really amazing to watch them lose themselves in movement. Without text attached.

HM: It was really important to me to make the text feel contemporary and to me the idea of fracture, and rupture, and fragment, is very contemporary. I didn’t feel a sense of intimidation at the historical distance of the text, I just wanted to bring it into a contemporary conversation with the body.

DM: In thinking about Carson’s translation, you said those translations in particular were important to you. Anne Carson published these translations in 2003, I think. It’s in the flyer that we have, but these are translations that leave the fragmentation, that kind highlight those moments when the papyrus crumbled away. They leave those blanks in the translation. So her translations formally embody a strangeness, or trouble the texts in a certain way. Were there ways in which you translated that into the body itself? The human body?

HM: Yes. We built all of the dance, well I think most of the dance, around individual fragments. A lot of the rhythms in the body come from the syllabic rhythms in the syntax. And I was thinking a lot about breaks and ruptures and the white space. Carson loves the white space. So yeah, it’s chunky and episodic in that way.

Photo Credit: HMD by Robbie Sweeny, video design by Ian Winters.

DM: I’m thinking about the human body, and also physically thinking about space as form. So I was wondering if you could speak to space politically, aesthetically, and even logistically. I know, for example, that there are some differences between different iterations of this performance depending on the physical space you have available.

HM: We built it in the round for a pretty intimate audience of about seventy people with four-sided video projection. And there was a white box of canvas or kind of diaphanous fabric on which the projections were cast. And at some point all of those fabrics dropped. When we say “the school is gone,” it was a very dramatic moment. Everything dropped away. So here [at the Baltimore Museum of Art] we had the opportunity to reshape the piece for a proscenium, which was really fruitful and interesting.

MC: The way that I was approaching this project had to do with using space to establish a mode of interpretation. My challenge was that I wanted to engage with this text but I wanted to do it without nostalgia. And I mean that in a political sense. Hope had this idea about performing in the round and then when we came in here to adapt it, that’s why we walked out and around [at the beginning]. We were using text in a performative way to form a space, to build a world within which we could work and use and experiment with Sappho in the now rather than like trying to take you back to an ancient world or something like that. We wanted to build a world here and now

DM: That makes sense. And I think we could feel that as well. When we’re talking about the here and now I heard fragments of contemporary language, I mean those sort of wonderful moments when fragments are called out by number and we hear “soda” and “sweat,” and then also some of the language which I think was language used to describe Sappho — “prostitute” and “school mistress” at different historical points. How did you accrete or accrue that language together? Was that collaborative? Did you work with the dancers?

HM: We co-wrote the text in kind of a long process where we just passed content back and forth, and it is very much a tapestry of both of our brains and Sappho and all the discussions we had about context.

MC: It really was this process of throwing a bunch of stuff out there and then it would wash away and we would be left with ultimately what were fragmented scenes.

DM: So Sappho is associated with The Lyric I, but obviously she’s also this sort of mythic figure in terms of gender and sexuality and her place within her culture. Are there ways in which you navigated that in particular? Wanted to foreground that? Wanted to engage with that in the present moment?

MC: Yes and no. I mean there’s also a part where we knew right away — we’re not doing that. We’re not doing like a lesbian goddess or that reductive Sappho that Anne Carson writes a lot about, and lots of people write about. It was less about, you know, it wasn’t about dealing with an icon. It was thinking about how we could use the myth that comes around Sappho. What do I want to say?

It was always like an in-between […] everything around Sappho in that constellation became a tool that we could use to crisscross time. So it’s important to me as a queer and a trans person that Sappho can be seen in that legacy. Right? And it’s important to me because it’s that moment before identity, before the body, before the way in which we think about things now. Sappho’s fragments offer a way to think about desire in a way that’s completely unscripted.

HM: Something I love about dance is the ambiguity. It’s beyond language. And for me, I really wanted to retain Sappho’s aura of ambiguity. I didn’t want to reduce her to a one-dimensional sexuality. So yeah, that’s why I really intentionally did not want to zero in on any one aspect of her identity.

DM: I was thinking about that even in terms of the kind of shroudedness, this physical shroudedness where you can see, but there’s also the sense of obscuring, and the materials that you use — the sheeting. When the dancer stops, the sheeting keeps moving forward. So those kinds of reverberations.

MC: Right. I think that’s what I was trying to say earlier. Whenever you’re working with Sappho there’s this way in which you can’t ever pin the meaning down.

Photo Credit: HMD by Robbie Sweeny, video design by Ian Winters.

DM: Absolutely. Let me open up to some questions from the audience.

Audience Member: My question is, other than Anne Carson’s text on translation of Sappho, what other source materials did you use? Did you use other artists, or writers’ interpretation of Sappho, or only Carson’s writings to inform the production?

HM: Prior to this project I co-directed a production of Anne Carson’s Antigonick, and that was a three-year project, so I was very familiar with her aesthetics and her body of work. That definitely informed my approach. But in terms of this project, it was a deep dive into Sappho.

MC: I had read a lot of critical material about Sappho, and Hope didn’t know this when she asked me to collaborate, but as a graduate student, this is for all the Classicists in the house, I was getting a degree in gender studies, but I was a teaching assistant for David Halperin. I taught a class with him for two years that was called Ancient Greek/Modern Gay Identity. And I loved it. He became a mentor to me. So I was so happy to go back to all the scholarship around ancient sexualities. We didn’t read only about Sappho, but that body of work was at play in my mind for sure.

Audience Member: Thank you. I was curious about the inclusion of the Tina Turner song [“What’s Love Got to Do With It?”]. So much of the music and the action, as you say, spans time and really plays with ideas of traversing time. The inclusion of that song really sort of locks it into a particular association with a specific time. So I’m just wondering — why that song?

DM: I object. That song is timeless.

Audience Member: Fair enough.

MC: Thank you.

HM: I like the rupture that the song produces — kind of a Brechtian moment. I like that it’s a bit of a jolt, a little funny, a gesture that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

MC: For me, it represents the long arc of the very fact that pop music is an extension of what Sappho was doing in her lyrics. Pop music is about love and desire. The lyrics are not always as poetic as Sappho’s — Tina Turner excepted. But the song was a gesture to the fact that actually this is familiar and unfamiliar, right, that this [poetry] is [also] the stuff that comes on the radio.

DM: I loved it because we don’t entirely know the context that Sappho’s poems came from and some of it may well have been a popular tradition and not completely rarefied in the sense that we receive antiquity now.

Photo Credit: HMD by Robbie Sweeny, video design by Ian Winters.

Audience Member: I was very curious just now to hear you all talking about translation. One of the things that we’re thinking about a lot in art history all the time is the translation between word and image. And I was wondering if you could say more? I was intrigued when you said you were thinking a lot about the history, and the myth of Sappho, and gender and sexuality in the past and present, and so on. How did that translate in your work? I’m interested in some of the micro-level decisions on the level of translation that are particular to dance or performance that you took into account as you were thinking about working from a fragmentary text into a work for the stage.

HM: I like to work on parallel tracks with both text and the body. I like to match language and movement, but also to surrender to the fact that there’s never a pure translation between those modes. In this work we focused on ideas of sensuality, losing the I, losing the self. There are certain choreographic methods that I used to access that territory with the dancers. It’s really important to me to avoid what I’ll call canonized dance vocabulary  — to deconstruct movement to get at strangeness. We deconstructed movement so the dancers could immerse themselves in movement without triggering associations.

MC: That’s a great question and it’s one thing I was fascinated to watch as a non-dancer in the process. One thing that Hope did was to take up and use the rhythm in Sappho’s verse. That’s translated into some of the movement and the foot work. And I thought that circling back to the rhythm in the body was really interesting. If you think about a translation of sound, that is a moment of translating one language to another.

HM: We would take a Sappho fragment and count the syllables and map out the pattern physically. All that stamping at the beginning of the dance comes right from the text. A lot of the physical phrasing maps back onto Sappho’s meter.

Audience Member: What are some ways that work with the dancers to embody what Sappho was expressing and feeling and just making sure like it’s as authentic as possible?

HM: Anytime I’m making a dance, I invite the dancers’ personal lives into the process. It was less important that they channel Sappho and more important to me that they felt permission to bring their inner lives to the work.

MC: We premiered this two years ago and so coming back to it this week the question that came to my mind was “Who loves and cares for women?” That’s a question for now.

DM: There is also that question of authenticity which has always been intertwined with the conception of The Lyric I. The Lyric I relies on a construction of authenticity. How do dancers or poets or choreographers both actually feel something, and also create even more of the illusion of feeling something, you know. And I think you brought that up at the beginning of the performance when you were both lying down in the front and talking about power and Sappho, and I’m going to mangle the phrase that you used, Sappho almost having love as her only thing to trade in.

HM: Her only political tool.

DM: Her only political tool. Thank you. Could you talk a little bit more about this question of authenticity and The Lyric I? It seems like a really important question of both for the dancers themselves, but also for Sappho and both this actual authenticity and also the illusion of authenticity, and how much we love it.

MC: It’s a favorite tension of mine to play with. I love constructing artifice so that it falls apart into something devastating and real. I think that’s part of how theater works. For example, that moment where we’re on the floor and we say something like “we release ourselves into lyric.”

Audience Member: A couple of times you’ve talked about the dissolution of the self through the body, and I’m just curious if you perceive any tension between that and the focus on identity that runs through the performance, the kind of the dissolution of the self, at the same time as a focus on individuals and whether you sought that tension or whether.

HM: It was a quest of mine in this piece to make space for the dancers to lose themselves in something akin to ecstasy, while knowing that’s impossible. Or I should say, not impossible, but elusive. That tension never goes away. I’m interested in creating tensions between formal structure and sensuality. That tension drove the composition of the entire piece. We had an ongoing dialogue about setting structures up so that the dancers could have those experiences approaching ecstasy.

Audience Member: As the dancers all kind of dissolve into themselves, they all become one thing. They begin to move as this one organic part. I thought that that was really beautiful. Thank you.

Photo Credit: HMD by Robbie Sweeny, video design by Ian Winters.

DM: I think we have time for one more question in the back there.

Audience Member: Well if I’m last, let me just say again how absolutely extraordinary that was. It was so wonderful. Just amazing to see. As a lot of people have been saying and I’ll just say it in my own way: what was so striking to me was how special the movements were without being gratuitously strange. They seem very specific and special. And you’ve talked a lot about your process coming out of the text, and around the text, and working with the dancers, and I was just wondering if you could give us, since you’re both here, a bit of the prequel to that part? Something must’ve brought you to Sappho. You must’ve felt that your practice, your artistic desires were leading you towards that text. Was there a thought process that got you to Sappho? Were you already crafting a vocabulary that you thought you could deploy there?

HM: I made a work before this one, Manifesting, about artist manifestos and aggressively coherent texts. After that, I was interested in working with fragment as the textual antithesis of the manifesto. Sappho offers the uber fragment.

MC: I came in later. I tend to like build from an epic kind of place. But with this I liked working from these small poetic fragments and building up from that.

DM: Well thank you. Thank you. Hope. Thank you Maxe. Thank you, dancers, and thanks to all of you for joining us. And let’s have one more round of applause.


[1] With generous support from: The Alexander Grass Humanities Institute (Johns Hopkins), The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Department of Classics (Johns Hopkins), The Department of the History of Art (Johns Hopkins), The Office of the Deans of KSAS (Johns Hopkins), The Office of LGBTQ Life (Johns Hopkins), The Office of Women and Gender Resources (Johns Hopkins), and The Program in Museums & Society (Johns Hopkins). With special thanks to Hiro Amano, Virginia Anderson, Michele Asuni, Tracey Beale, Brian Cole, Ashley Costello, Ella Gonzalez, Gamynne Guillotte, Asma Naeem, and Rachel Remmes.

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