A choreopoem is a form of dramatic expression that combines poetry, dance, music, and song. The term was first coined in 1975 by American writer Ntozake Shange in a description of her work, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Shange's attempt to depart from traditional western poetry and storytelling resulted in a new art form that doesn't contain specific plot elements or characters, but instead focuses on creating an emotional response from the audience. In Shange’s work, nontraditional spelling and vernacular are aspects of this genre that differ from traditional American literature. She emphasizes the importance of movement and nonverbal communication throughout the choreopoem so that it is able to function as a theatrical piece rather than being limited to poetry or dance.
The "XX Chromosome Genome Project" by S. Ann Johnson is a contemporary example of a choreopoem. It combines poetry, song and dance to illuminate the commonalities and differences between women of various cultures. In this choreopoem, Johnson writes about eight women in search of self-acceptance and liberation. These colorfully dressed women, who are named after flavors of foods, represent international cultures around the world through music, spoken word, and movement.
Influenced by women from the Black Arts Movement, based on Black Nationalism that encouraged black separatism, and the feminist arts movement, which focused on using art of various mediums as acts against war and in favor of civil and homosexual rights, Shange wanted to create a genre that was interdisciplinary and allowed for performers to use all senses of the body. Working closely with choreographer Dianne McIntyre, Shange was able to confront her childhood experiences through movement. McIntyre helped to choreograph for colored girls with Shange, as they wanted to convey awareness and community through dance. The inclusion of movement and dance in a choreopoem was as essential to her as the poetry aspect. Shange described that "with dance (she) discovered (her) body more intimately than (she) had imagined possible." Shange’s emphasis on dance was a result of her experience with African dance and movement classes as well as her exposure to Santeria through dance and music as it relates to African dance.
In her choreopoems, Shange tends to focus on “self-awareness, self-definition, and solidarity”.
Many choreopoems were performed with African-American cultural inspiration but were not focused on black separatism. These choreopoems were focused upon teaching the culture and history of Africans and Americans of African descent to all comers interested in learning. Seattle's Choreopoets held this philosophy. Members of the Choreopoets included Mary Stone Hanley who founded Choreopoets along with Gilda Sheppard. Michael Hureaux, an early board member of Red Sky Poetry Theatre, was an active part of Choreopoets. Other Choreopoets were Gina Miller, Sabria Rahima, Karen Simms, Giovanna Westward, Akele Ayanna, Reyburn Brown, and Calvalita Browning.
Choreopoems by Ntozake Shange
- for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1975)
- A Photograph: Lovers in Motion (1977)
- Boogie Woogie Landscapes (1979)
- Spell #7 (1979)
- Daddy Says (1989)
- I Am A Black American by Peter Shaffer
- Langston by Tom Krusinski
- "Love Soup" by Tom Krusinski
- XX Chromosome Genome Project by S. Ann Jonhson
- You're All I Need To Get By written by Sababu Norris and Dr. James Mumford, choreographed by Nina Butts, and performed by Hampton University's Department of Speech Communications and Theatre Arts (1985)
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