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Tapping into a tumultuous life through dance, theatre, poetry

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Maybe it took someone who's both a poet and a therapist to get inside the heart and head of Elizabeth Smart.

Smart was the Canadian author of the acclaimed 1945 novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. The book, a prose-poetry classic, was based on Smart's obsessive love affair with the married British poet George Barker. It was banned in Canada, thanks to pressure applied by Smart's socially prominent Ottawa mother.

Smart, born into a privileged family in 1913, became a bohemian outsider who spent much of her life in England, daring to defy expectations for women of her era.

After falling in love with Barker by reading his poetry, she pursued him and embarked on a turbulent 20-year affair that produced four out-of-wedlock children in the 1940s.

"I will not give up belief in true love," Smart wrote, despite the fact that Barker was an egotistical cad, bisexual philanderer and heavy drinker who never paid child support and would lie to her that he was getting a divorce.

Jaik Josephson, 52, is both a therapist (a clinical social worker) and a published poet. For 24 years, he has also been the life partner of choreographer Brent Lott, 50, artistic director of Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers (WCD).

Josephson and Lott are the co-creators of 97 Positions of the Heart, an innovative blend of poetry, dance and theatre that explores Smart's life from 1939 to '59 and "celebrates her intensely lived quest for self-actualization." The title is drawn from one of Smart's journals.

It is the season-ending production by WCD, May 10-13 at the Rachel Browne Theatre. It runs about 75 minutes without intermission.

The production has the blessing of two of Smart and Barker's sons, Christopher and Sebastian, who live in England. WCD will perform it on June 13 at the Canada Dance Festival at Ottawa's National Arts Centre, marking the first time the company has been invited to the festival in more than a decade.

The piece for six dancers who speak poetic text was performed in "first-draft" form at last summer's Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival under the title Bash on Regardless. It was extremely well received, earning five stars from the Free Press.

That version had a temporary pastiche score. The finished one has a commissioned score by local composers Shirley Grierson and Tim Church.

Lott says about Smart's By Grand Central Station, "She was really trying to create a new (literary) form -- not a journal, not a diary, not really non-fiction or fiction, not really a novel or poetry. Somehow, it was a combination of all those things.

"What both attracted me and scared me was the possibility of pushing ourselves to put poems and theatre and dance together, in a way that becomes almost un-categorizable."

Josephson has added three new poems, partly to give the show a bit more biographical clarity. The poems have just been published as a $17 book, available at performances.

In creating the choreography, Lott says, he would spread Josephson's poems out on chairs in the studio and improvise to them. "Some of the rawest moments became the duets," he says, noting about Barker and Smart, "He gave her a black eye once. She went up to kiss him and bit through his upper lip."

The female dancers were initially appalled by the treatment Smart tolerated from Barker. Eventually, though, they came to appreciate that she was a complicated character who had to devour life on her own terms, the duo say.

There was a practical side to Smart that put bread on the table. She was a successful magazine editor and pre-Mad Men-era advertising copywriter.

After a 20-year sexual relationship, Smart and Barker were able to become friends and remained close until Smart's death in 1986.

Josephson first fell in love with Smart through the 1991 documentary Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels, then immersed himself in all her writings. He and Lott live near Beausejour and commute into Winnipeg together. For months, one would drive while the other read aloud from Smart.

"I'm really interested in human growth and resilience," the poet/therapist says. "It took a lot of courage for her to continue to work as a creative person and be a parent.... I think she used George as a stepping stone (to get) away from her controlling, abusive mother. But ultimately, her own liberation was letting George go."

"She really wasn't able to let her mother go, ever," Lott adds. "The mother was still a huge force in her life as an adult woman. There was this letter that her mother wrote right after (By Grand Central Station) was published, in which she said she had burned every copy of the book in Ottawa.

"Elizabeth actually carried this letter around with her for the rest of her life."

Dance Preview

97 Positions of the Heart

WCD, Rachel Browne Theatre

May 10-12 at 8 p.m.; May 13 at 3 p.m. (pay-what-you-can matinee)

Tickets $25 (students/seniors $20) at Ticketmaster or 452-0229

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2012 D5

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