David Ferry – A Choreographer of Words

David Ferry is my uncle.  He was never Uncle David.  Just David, my mother’s “little brother.” He’s tall, carries himself with lyrical ease, and laughs easily. He listens intently to others, sitting with splayed legs, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands gesturing with flowing thought. For most of my growing up, it was “David and Anne” together, inseparable. (David’s beloved wife, Anne Davidson Ferry, passed away in 2006). Both of them were English professors. Sending letters to them—whether as questions about a school project or simple thank-you notes for birthdays or Christmas—tormented me because I knew words and language mattered.

Movement is my language, as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher of movement for actors. After college I was fortunate to live in Cambridge, near their wonderful home on Ellery Street. Late evenings, bourbon in hand, we discussed family and friends, listened to classical music, jazz, and Billie Holliday, talked about political movements, the arts, and great movies at the Orson Welles Theatre. In discussions about his work, my work, performances we’d attended together, we found common language in our appreciation for rhythm, and the importance of personal experiences in understanding the human condition.

David’s deep appreciation for his family, and the world at large have been, in his words, important “opportunities” for his art. He has taught me through his poetry not to be afraid of personalizing an event or idea, either in my choreography or acting. His poetry is like a journal that takes readers from the personal to universal understanding. He would send us copies of poems he was working on about our family: Grandma’s sister, Nellie (At Lake Hopatcong), or his great grandfather in the Civil War (After Spotsylvania Courthouse), or summers on the Jersey Shore. Nobody in our family ever talked about insecurities, or sadness, or rejection, but there they were, in poetic meter.

My mother’s 2-year struggle with cancer in the late 60s resulted in 5 short poems that capture the complexities of not understanding how someone so generous, kind, and giving could die so young. Three are titled At the Hospital; with one capturing the end of her struggle in two lines:

She was the sentence the cancer spoke at last.
Its blurred grammar finally clarified.

David’s support for her, and for all of us after her long struggle, has been loving and compassionate, often with gentle humor. He cares deeply for, and about, people.

Over the years, David has come to performances of my work, both in dance and theatre. He is supportively candid, and joyfully effusive about what works or doesn’t, not whether it is good or bad. Discussions often evolved into the importance of rhythms in poetry and dance. Watching modern dance, David gets it, when and why a dance works or how it goes off on tangents–I think because he feels and understands the rhythms in the development of the dance. It’s the same with his poetry; he knows when the meter should be iambic pentameter, and then how dynamic it is when the poet slips in a trochee or anapest. He gets animated in discussing the power of line-endings, and how rhythm allows us to hear the lyricism of the words.

David sometimes calls to read a poem or two, or discuss something we’ve read recently. On one of those calls he sounded excited, “Can I read one of Horace’s Odes? In Book iii-4, To the Muses”?

Come down from heaven, Calliope, and play

“Do you hear the strength in the word ‘play’ at the end of the line”? He read it again!
Then the next line:

Upon the flute, the lingering melody,

“The anapest on the word “lingering” uses the rhythm to help us linger!  Can you feel that? Listen to this!”

Or unaccompanied, sing in clearest voice,
Or accompanied by the strings of Apollo’s lyre.

“There’s music going on all over! The rhythm makes the poem dance! I can feel the gestures in the words!!”

His excitement was palpable, infectious, enlightening. What an amazing afternoon on the phone!

I think of David as the Mark Morris of poetry. His love of the Classics informs his poignant understanding of modern art.  Mark Morris’s dance/opera version of “Dido and Aeneas” is spare in staging but complex in musicality; David’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid takes the heroic meter to iambic pentameter, a more natural meter, with room to breathe. The Latin literal translation of:

……………………….Where are you fleeing to, Aeneas?
Don’t abandon your contracted marriage.

In Book Ten, becomes:

……………………………………Aeneas, come back,
You’re going to miss your wedding.

David is especially attuned to iambic pentameter and has helped us (my sisters, and cousins) understand and feel the meter in the poetry during our bi-weekly readings with him. He is forever a patient, kind, fully engaged teacher, breathing with us as we take turns reading, encouraging us to take our time, reminding us the importance of “stopping at the end of the line”—because the pause helps deepen the possibilities of that word and also the meaning of the next line. Several years ago, he and I had a fun conversation about iambic pentameter, how the rhythm is danceable.  I was teaching iambic pentameter to actors working on Shakespeare and told David my process: hold a shoe in one hand, skip 5 times, and, on the 5th, stop, throw the shoe in the air to catch it, and begin again.  David and I wondered if we could teach it together, laughing aloud as we imagined poets skipping around the room, pausing at the end of the line as they catch their shoes.

In a recent casual phone call, I asked him how he was doing; he said he was thinking about meter in some of his poems.  I said you are meter, you are rhythm, and he chuckled and said, “Rhythm is all I know!”

During this past quarantine year, David has guided the reading of his poems by describing a context for each poem. It has illuminated both his translations and his own poetry. As I listen to his descriptions, I hear a connection to acting: allow vulnerability, and personalize the text. Hearing details of his personal stories has enriched an understanding of my own creative process in choreography: start with personal experience, let the work grow, recognize what is actually there, develop what has emerged.

I had an “Aha!” moment about my own process in creating a dance when we were reading “The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People”. After the first stanza, he stopped for a moment and said “By the way, this is a sestina: six stanzas of six lines, the word at the end of each line repeated in a different order, with all six words forming the meaning of the final tercet.  I didn’t start out wanting to write a sestina, I discovered the sestina as I was writing the second stanza…”. Aha! That discovery for him reinforced surprises I have had in choreographing a dance. He manipulated the shape of the poem so the final tercet had all the ending words of the 6 stanzas:

Her body witness is, so also is her voice,
Of torment coming from unknown event;
Unclean is the nature and name of the enchantment.

The sestina came out of finding how a poem is developing and then, as described by David in an interview with Peter Mishler (https://lithub.com ”Literary Hub”, 3/5/2020): “learning from your attempts to write further inside the poems and seeing them become something with a shape and an identity”, i.e. modern dance choreography!

At 97, David is still writing. He continues to nurture loving relationships with his family and friends. His intellect and artistic sensibilities are flourishing, and his memory astounds us.

What a beautiful person David is.  How lucky we have been to have him in our lives. I can’t imagine where I’d be without his encouragement, and his love. I’m so fortunate that David Ferry is my uncle.

Judith Chaffee

Judith Chaffee

Judith Chaffe is a retired dancer, choreographer, Equity actor, and Associate Professor Emerita, School of Theatre at Boston University. She co-edited The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte with Olly Crick, and created two CDs on Period Styles through Insight Media.
Judith Chaffee

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Author: Judith Chaffee

Judith Chaffe is a retired dancer, choreographer, Equity actor, and Associate Professor Emerita, School of Theatre at Boston University. She co-edited The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte with Olly Crick, and created two CDs on Period Styles through Insight Media.