Choreographer and dancer Christopher Williams answers some reading questions about his art and life.
My childhood reading of mythology and folklore sparked a personal mythopoetic quest that remains the hallmark of my choreographic career to this day. Apart from C S Lewis, Tolkien and Lewis Carroll, read to me by my parents, the first thing I remember reading on my own with great voracity and fascination was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. Just as compelling to me were the fantastical folktales in Andrew Lang‘s Fairy Books of Many Colors: a series of twelve collections of fairytales published between 1889 and 1910. A craving for the ritual activity associated with myth and folklore led me to perform in plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream in high school, and while honing my passion for the ritual practice of theatre and dance in college, I dived into Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths and The White Goddess, J G Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as well as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God.
Intrigued by the concept of comparative mythology and the uncanny correlations between the Odyssey and early Irish Echtrae and Immrama as well between the Iliad and The Cattle Raid of Cooley from the Ulster Cycle, I got hooked on researching fragments of ancient Indo-European mythology and folklore in medieval literature. I soon discovered the Welsh Mabinogi, The Lais of Marie de France and the Barzaz Breiz from Brittany, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, The Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man and The Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries, all of which have profoundly inspired my creative work.
Much of what I read for work is already based on journeys to the otherworld and escapes therefrom. I recently read the Kalevala while escaping from the grind of urban life during a creative residency up at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs. I tend to gravitate towards books on medieval history and earlier if given the choice. I grabbed L’Ours. Histoire d’un roi déchu by Michel Pastoureau and Les chamanes de la préhistoire by Jean Clottes & David Lewis-Williams off the shelf for pleasure while I was working in Bordeaux recently, but both turned out to relate to my research on early mythology as well. The last books of fiction that I remember reading purely for pleasure were Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography.
Reading for long journeys often falls into two categories: to evoke the cultural flavour of the place I’m headed (either geographically or creatively speaking) and reading that others have recommended. I fondly remember Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn that I read on my way to Japan, the 13th-century Legenda Aurea Sanctorum by the blessed Jacobus de Voragine in preparation for The Golden Legend, a dance I made in 2009 which consisted of ‘dance portraits’ of 17 medieval male saints, and To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization by Matthew G. Looper and The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Rosario Aguilar, read in preparation for choreographing a production of Henry Purcell’s final unfinished opera The Indian Queen. Among the works in my personal queue for upcoming long journeys are the Physiologus (an anonymous 2nd-century predecessor to the medieval bestiary), Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness, On Beauty, The Silmarillion, and Carl Jung’s The Red Book: Liber Novus, all of which I can’t believe I haven’t yet read.
Returning to books that I read early on in life and in my teenage years tend to occupy this category. The Story of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting, The Jungle Books and The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, One and Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, The Dot and the Line: a Romance in Lower Mathematics by Norton Juster, Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Beyond the Looking Glass: Extraordinary Works of Fairy Tale & Fantasy edited by Jonathan Cott, Grimm’s Fairytales, the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Rumi, and Hafiz are all reading I never seem to tire of.
What was your last huge reading disappointment?
My greatest disappointment in reading is when untainted ancient folklore and mythology is smothered in a Christian gloss or censored by ethnocentric, xenophobic, racist and/or prudish opinions. That said, we would not have a clue about some mythic tropes if not for Celtic Christian scribes who painstakingly recorded them. Although some scholars clearly viewed their subjects as ‘savages’ (Frazer of The Golden Bough and Thomas Bullfinch of Bullfinch’s Mythology), they did advance our anthropological knowledge about the stories of those who came before us.
True moments of happy surprise for me are characterized by rapid-fire synaptic activity resulting from the sudden coupling of my own knowledge with the radiance of supporting perspectives. To my great delight, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath by Carlo Ginzburg did just that for me by presenting pretty compelling evidence of a hidden shamanistic culture that had flourished across Europe and the British Isles for thousands of years. Wendy Doniger of The New York Times Book Review said: “Ecstasies manages, with extraordinary candor, clarity, grace, and erudition, to steer between lurid sensationalism and dry-as-dust academic drivel, and between localized historiography and universalism.” I couldn’t agree more.