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Pensive Spring - A Portrait of Emily Dickinson

Music composed by GORDON GETTY

Pensive Spring
Kristin Clayton, Hally Bellah-Guther, and Kathryn Roszak, Berkeley City Club, October 2010

Pensive Spring: A Portrait of Emily Dickinson features a singer, a dancer, and an actress who each portray the 19th century American poet in a series of vignettes. The music is by composer Gordon Getty, from "The White Election", his song cycle based on the poems of Emily Dickinson.

The first performance of Pensive Spring took place at the Berkeley City Club in December 1998. Other performances in the years since have included Il Teatro 450 in San Francisco (1999); the University of San Francisco (2001); Falkirk Mansion Cultural Center, San Rafael (2003); the residence of Ann and Gordon Getty (2006); Santa Sabina Center, San Rafael (2010); the Cal Performances "Fall Free For All" at Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley (2011, reviewed below); and again at the Berkeley City Club (2010 and 2011, also reviewed below).

The work takes its name from a line in Dickinson's poem "Snowdrops in Spring", a tribute to the lovely white flower that perpetually blooms in early spring, even pushing up through snow.

"Roszak translates the poetry into eloquent physical language," the Contra Costa Times observed, and "poignantly illuminates the soul of the poet." This innovative and acclaimed work offers a contemporary recreation of the mysterious Dickinson who, later in life, for reasons that remain obscure, always wore white.

Ms. Roszak selected and edited the text, woven from Dickinson's letters written over many years and many seasons, all reflecting her inner state. Roszak sees Dickinson as psychological, modern and radical in her vision of the world. She is a woman of her time and yet out of her time, so in touch with her feelings as to seem out of step with everyone else. A scientist of the soul, she approaches themes of pain and death fearlessly. Her correspondence to men and women alike is passionately rapturous. The Victorian era could have crushed her but it also made her the artist she was. In the 21st century we need this "soul of fire in a shell of pearl" more than ever.

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The Songs

Kathryn and Gordon
Kathryn Roszak and Gordon Getty, October 2010
  • I Sing to Use the Waiting
  • There Is a Morn by Men Unseen
  • I Had a Guinea Golden
  • If She Had Been the Mistletoe
  • New Feet Within My Garden Go
  • She Bore It Till the Simple Veins
  • I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed
  • I Should Not Dare to Leave My Friend
  • The First Day's Night Had Come
  • The Soul Selects Her Own Society
  • My First Well Day, Since Many Ill
  • I Like to See It Lap the Miles
  • The Going from a World We Know
  • Beauty Crowds Me Till I Die
  • I Sing to Use the Waiting (reprise)

Articles and Reviews

December 21-27, 2011
Pensive Spring was also selected by Rita Felciano,
in the SF Bay Guardian, as one of the top ten dance performances of 2011:
"Science, or writers such as Maxine Hing Kingston or Gary Snyder, often inspire Kathryn Roszak's work. The reprise of the fine Pensive Spring (Sept. 25, Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley), based on the works by Emily Dickinson, proved to be a thoroughly intelligent and finely crafted dance theater piece that illuminated a great creative mind through music, dance, and language."
SFBG Top Flight

The following review originally appeared in


San Francisco Report:
Kathryn Roszak's Danse Lumière

by Rita Felciano

Dancer, actress, writer Kathryn Roszak founded her Danse Lumière in 1996 to more intensively pursue concepts of dance theater that are based on literary (poet Gary Snyder, novelist Maxine Hong Kingston) or scientific (astronomy) sources.

One of her long-lived endeavors, most recently performed at Cal Performances Fall Free for All - a daylong celebration of the arts on the Berkeley Campus - is based on Roszak's immersing herself in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Intelligent, theatrically effective and emotionally rich, Pensive Spring brings to life the complexity of the poetry and the personality of one of America's most intriguing artists.

Roszak assigned Dickinson's character to a singer, an actress and a dancer. She used to take the dancer's part herself but today the role is given to ballet dancer Hally Bellah-Guther with Roszak stepping into the role of the diarist and letter-writer. Soprano Kristin Clayton performed a selection from Gordon Getty's The White Election, a song cycle based on Dickinson's poetry. Getty is a rather conservative composer but these settings display lovely vocal lines and a deft sense for the poetry. Some of them tend toward the operatic - especially as interpreted by Clayton - but oth­ers are elegiac or wispy and reminiscent of folk songs. Roszak's choreography - though limited, given the space limitations - responds sensitively to the music's nuances. Bellah-Guther is a tiny dancer most effective in the frolicking passages; her gestures, however, tend to the overly dramatic. Roszak is quite a good actress. The former dancer still moves with considerable grace though her greatest asset today is a beautifully modu­lated alto voice and immaculate diction. She imbued Dickinson with the sparkle and a wit that is more easily perceptible in her letters than in the poetry. The inter­action between the three performers was well designed; "Pensive" flowed with an easy grace.

The following article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of

in dance

In Dance
a publication of Dancers' Group, San Francisco

Reinventing Emily
A Choreographer's Quest to Reinvent Repertory

by Kathryn Roszak

With my company, Danse Lumière (formerly Anima Mundi), a small-scale dance-theater group, I delve into large themed projects that lead me into deeper engagement with the subjects; I create unique repertory pieces, which are performed extensively in multiple venues, over a period of many years, for an audience different than usual.

I choose a collaborative way of working that takes an intense commitment on my part, and the benefit is in the long term. My projects don't necessarily fit the usual funding time-lines and I have been frustrated by guidelines forcing artists to tailor their works to fit. I've steered clear of dreaming up pieces to obtain funding, but have instead focused on taking time to deepen the work, relying on the "buzz" around the piece itself to produce intriguing partners and venues. I made a conscious decision to move away from producing an annual dance season, eliminating the constant need to create new pieces. Rather, my pieces are like books -- they necessitate an in-depth gestation period and then a longer time in the public eye. This requires patience. Recognition often comes from outside the dance sphere.

The longest-running piece of Dance Lumière's is the exploration Pensive Spring; A Portrait of Emily Dickinson. In its twelfth year since creation, it returns this May [2011] to the place of its inception in 1998, the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club.

The piece involves three different artists -- a dancer, a singer, and an actress -- portraying Emily Dickinson, the much-misunderstood enigmatic poet. I'm focusing on something we've lost touch with these days -- the intimacy of the written word and what it reveals about relationships, nature, death, even madness. For Pensive Spring I edited the poet's letters and selected poetry to reflect the natural seasons as well as the poet's states of mind. I chose music by composer Gordon Getty that embodies the poetry, so that the choreography is shaped by songs revealing Dickinson's psyche and imagery. Perhaps it is this "Rashomon"-like perspective, offering different windows into the poetry, and letting the viewer feel that the whole piece takes place in Emily Dickinson's mind, that has led to the piece's longevity. Dickinson's poetry is a paradox -- she is of her time, and outside of it, very radical and psychological in her view. I wanted the choreography and staging to echo this paradox with a seemingly traditional presentation, balletic choreography that gets fractured and reassembled. Dickinson is always a master -- a poet/scientist whose psychic eruptions are observed with a surgeon's skill. In her hands a domestic metaphor can turn to madness.

Living with a piece over time gives me the chance to work with new casts, who each lend wildly different interpretations to the material. The nature of this piece in particular is that three different artists work in solitude, not unlike the poet, in their respective disciplines, and then are brought together for ensemble rehearsals. I danced the role, then I both acted and danced, and now, I act the role. Incredible performers have changed the texture of the piece along the way: the power of San Francisco Opera soprano Elza van den Heever, the humor of Berkeley Repertory actress Lorri Holt, and former San Francisco Ballet dancer Nicole Starbuck brought out dramatic intensity. In our current cast, soprano Kristin Clayton draws out Emily's passionate humanity while dancer Hally Bellah-Guther brings angular drama.

Kathryn at BCC
Kathryn Roszak in the original performance of "Pensive Spring"
at the Berkeley City Club, December 1998

The settings for the piece, as with much of Danse Lumière's work, have played a central part in the creative process. The piece resonates differently in its various venues: the intimate drawing rooms of the Falkirk Mansion Cultural Center, San Rafael, gave a feeling of the house's claustrophobic, period interior with the natural world looming ever-present outside the windows. The larger, 500-seat theatre at the University of San Francisco contained Dickinson's world in a sparse black-box with lighting playing a key role. Pensive Spring has an ongoing relationship with the Berkeley City Club, having been performed there originally in conjunction with the Aurora Theatre's production of The Belle of Amherst in 1998, and subsequently being presented there last fall by Berkeley Chamber Performances. This spring the Club will present the work in the light-filled ballroom.

Kathryn Roszak's recent productions include "The Fifth Book of Peace", a tale of a soldier's psyche, with Maxine Hong Kingston, Lines BFA, and Vietnam veterans (at Dance Mission) and "The Star Dances", collaborating with U.C. Berkeley astronomers (at Herbst Theatre). "Pensive Spring: A Portrait of Emily Dickinson" performs at the Berkeley City Club, May 1, 2011 at 2pm.

The following review originally appeared in the October 31, 2010 issue of

poetry flash

Poetry Flash
Literary Review & Calendar for the West

Three Musing Women: A Dickinson Triptych

a review by Sandra M. Gilbert

Three musing women dressed in Dickinson's iconic white, three arts of representation: Kathryn Roszak's Pensive Spring -- A Portrait of Emily Dickinson, onstage at the Berkeley City Club on October 19, offered spoken, sung, and danced performances of magical words from the great poet's letters and poems. The three artists were alive with the intensity of imagination and feeling that animates all the writer's work. Kathryn Roszak's incarnation of the famous recluse is a woman of poise, maturity, wit, and (sometimes) wistfulness, far from the little "pattering" presence described by her sometime patron Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Her portrait of the artist in "pensive spring" locates Dickinson in a season of writing, reading, and reaching out to the world, with her extraordinary language uttered in rich, suave cadences. And these keenly shaped cadences are reinforced by Gordon Getty's music, vigorously rendered by Kristin Clayton's strong and skilled soprano.

Kathryn as Emily
Kathryn Roszak as Emily 

Rendered with equal vigor at the piano by Kristin Pankonin, Getty's music also shapes and shadows the impassioned dancing of Hally Bellah-Guther, who sweeps across the stage like an embodiment of the yearning soul that Dickinson's poems often simultaneously reveal and conceal, as she tells "all the Truth" but "tell[s] it slant." Why did Dickinson take to wearing white from 1860 on? No one is completely sure, although she claimed "a White election." Was she the child she impersonated for Higginson? Was she a disappointed bride, like Dickens's Miss Havisham? Had she turned herself into a symbol of mystery, like Melville's Moby Dick? Or all of the above, and more?

Whatever the poet's secret was (and she herself boasted, "Big my Secret -- but it's bandaged"), Roszak's thoughtful directing lures us to want to try to grasp it. And the inspired combination of speech, song and dance that the three white-clad performers present in their triptych beautifully emphasizes the enduring vision of a world elsewhere that Dickinson articulated in one of my favorites among her verses, a vision of "a morn by men unseen-- / Whose maids upon remoter green / Keep their seraphic May," as well as her perpetual and poignant longing:

Like thee to dance--like thee to sing--
People upon the mystic green--
I ask, each new May morn.
I wait thy far--fantastic bells--
Announcing me in other dells--
Unto the different dawn!

We have to hope that Roszak's company, appropriately named Danse Lumière, will restage this mystic, musical triptych again soon.

the Sun King


© 2014 Kathryn Roszak   •   Danse Lumière   •   Dance on Center   •   (510) 233-5550   •   kdance@sonic.net

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