REVIEW: LitFest audience entranced by opening night's poetry & dance performance by Kayo Chingonyi & Sean Graham

Written by Vincent Stokes on .

Kayo Chingonyi, with dancer Sean Graham performing at The Ellis Theatre, Marlborough College on Thursday evening.   Pic:  Ben PhillipsKayo Chingonyi, with dancer Sean Graham performing at The Ellis Theatre, Marlborough College on Thursday evening. Pic: Ben Phillips

I was in Waitrose the other day taking advantage – yet again – of their delicious sushi samples.  They are so carefully crafted, made according to accepted conventions, with combinations of colours and subtle flavours that may be challenging.  Rather like poetry in many ways. Sushi is not to everyone’s taste - again like poetry, or like improvised dance …  But how about poetry AND dance together?!


I had speculated that the opening night of this year’s Literature Festival was a brave and risky choice, possibly not suiting many people’s taste.  I am delighted to report that the Ellis Theatre at the College was packed full and the audience was deeply engaged for the ninety-minute performance.  The atmosphere was intimate and charged with anticipation.

Kayo Chingonyi was born in Zambia and has lived in Britain since the age of six.  He was awarded the 2012 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize for his poem calling a spade a spade.  Kayo is a Fellow of the Complete Works programme for diversity and quality in British poetry.  His poetry has been translated into several languages.

Pic:  Ben PhillipsPic: Ben PhillipsKayo explained that a central theme in his poetry is the exploration of the many ways in which ideas, memories and cultures intersect.  A physical intersection, a crossroads in London’s East End can open up memories of his deceased forbears, can provoke questions about his identity as a British, yet not British person.

When he sees people crossing the street this can suggest the way that dancers might move, or somehow suggest a word sequence or phrase, that leads to a line, an image … and an observation then takes shape.

Kayo Chingonyi’s collaborative work with dancer Sean Graham is a deep, genuine duet. They feed off each other. In the performance last night, Sean’s improvised dance and Kayo’s paced delivery were harmoniously attuned.

The importance of hearing the spoken word reinforced my belief that poetry is to be spoken rather than silently read. The audience was entranced – yes, that’s the word – held trance-like by the clarity, music and beauty of Kayo’s voice, together with the fluidity and invention of Sean’s dance.

All of the young people I spoke with afterwards were energised, mesmerised even, by the experience of hearing such rich language delivered with feeling and precision.

Just as we can observe people crossing the street, so movement in performance can convey meaning. This was wonderfully illustrated as Kayo delivered the title poem of his latest book Kumukanda with the final line: “and his father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s …father…”

He said this as he backed slowly into a dark corner, giving us the time and space to understand that the word could also be ‘farther’- a moving away from birthplace, perhaps.  A fading of memories…

To see so many young people caught up in language of the imagination is a wonderful thing and bodes well for a continuing recognition of the importance of poetry in enriching our everyday life.

Congratulations to Mike Ponsford, Marlborough College and the Marlborough LitFest for a memorable evening, for a truly unambiguous pleasure.

Kumukanda is published by Chatto & Windus and is available from The White Horse Bookshop.


All pics by Ben Phillips: