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If you know, or have known, someone with dementia, prepare to be deeply moved by Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s new dance film, The Poet. If you love, or have loved, someone with dementia, prepare to feel your eyes well up with grief but also with remembered happiness. If neither is true for you, prepare to enjoy a beautiful, nearly flawless work of art that both celebrates and mourns a father–daughter relationship.

For a ballet dealing with dementia — an estimated 6.2 million Americans age 65 and older have it — The Poet is surprisingly joyful. Dementia in real life is a lot darker and messier, but this is art and if it romanticizes the condition at times, that’s OK with me. To tackle the subject in a ballet to begin with is daring. Choreographer Tara Lee, who directed it with her life partner, visual artist Joseph Guay, has created a work full of love and tenderness. 

Tara Lee

Tara Lee choreographed and codirected “The Poet.”

The Poet seamlessly bonds dance, theater, poetry, spoken word in voiceovers, and film techniques such as dissolves, double exposures and an overhead drone shot. Intimate scenes between father and daughter alternate with passages of dance.

The film opens with the written word: a passage from Kahlil Gibran’s prose-poem Resurrection that begins: “But today Nature is bathed in light.” Dissolve to a close-up of John Welker’s eyes. He’s the father. Cue the soaring strings of A.D. Kurtz’s original score as the image fades to dark. Dancer Laura Morton, dressed in white and barely lit, walks slowly toward the camera. Lights suddenly dispel the darkness and the Terminus dancers burst into view, running through the space and executing buoyant partnering. Two of them toss a white piece of cloth in the air. It billows into the frame. Dissolve to a small bedroom, where the cloth becomes a sheet. Two caregivers are making the bed. 

Next we see Rachel Van Buskirk, as the daughter, walking down a sidewalk in street clothes. She carries a bag of groceries and walks into a house. One of the things that makes The Poet so successful is how it alternates scenes of everyday life with exuberant passages of dance on a bare and gorgeously lit stage. These sections feel like joyful memories.

We see the father — the poet — at a desk in his bedroom trying to write. Sometimes he can, sometimes he can’t. The daughter plays a vinyl record on an old turntable and watches her father smile as memories emerge. (Research has shown that music can elicit emotions and memories in dementia patients.) They share movement phrases here that are repeated throughout: their hands placed next to one another on the window, him standing behind her and cupping her hands in his.

One day, the daughter arrives and her father no longer recognizes her. It would be easy in this and other scenes to overact, but Van Buskirk is subdued in her portrayal and it works. Gesture, more than facial expressions, tells her story. Welker does a superb job as the poet, confused, angry at times, aimless and lost at others. Dancers Morton, Christian Clark, Heath Gill, Abigayle Wright and Isaiah Franklin are strong in the fluid, swooping and radiant choreography. 

The Poet

Rachel Van Buskirk and John Welker share movement phrases that repeat throughout the ballet, as though representing the remaining strands of their relationship. (Photo by Felipe Barral)

Depicting loss and life after death in any art form isn’t easy. Lee and Guay do their best in the epilogue, but it didn’t work for me. Out-of-focus shots of flowers and fields paired with passages from Gibran’s “The Poet,” voiced by Lee and Welker, create an almost Hallmark-y ending. 

Lee’s overall theme seems to be that living in the moment, as dementia patients are doomed to do — and their loved ones are called to do — isn’t always a bad thing. “I can’t remember your name, but I know I love you.” That’s possibly The Poet’s most touching line. Love, laughter and poetry can’t cure or conquer dementia, but in this ballet they provide bittersweet relief from the pain and inevitable loss. 

The Poet was designed for film and could not exist without Guay’s and Cody Collins’ beautiful cinematography. Collins and Lee did a fine job with the editing. Ben Rawson designed the evocative lighting and Tamara Cobus the costumes. Terminus is a small company and each member contributes in myriad ways (watch for Gill mowing the lawn in the background in one scene).

Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre has created a dance film to remember. I watched it twice and will do so again. The Poet deserves to be seen not just in Atlanta but nationally and internationally. Let’s hope the company has the marketing resources to make that happen.

“The Poet” is available to stream on the Terminus website.

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