There Comes a Warning Like a Spy: Improvised animation within live musical performance of Emily Dickinson’s folio and fragment poems

Suzie Hanna, Nicole Panizza

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

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‘Emily Dickinson, the 19th-century recluse of Amherst, Massachusetts, is reckoned to be the poet most set to music, ever. Yet in her lifetime, her song was so deeply private that it was heard by only a tiny circle of friends and family. But since her death, this quiet woman has become the biggest noise in American verse.’ (Cunningham, 2002)

I was one of four women commissioned to create an experimental performance for the Emily Dickinson International Society conference in Paris 2016. Dr Nicole Panizza, Dr Hannah Sanders, Dr Sally Bayley and I explored the fragment poems of Emily Dickinson and researched her lifestyle, daily rituals, and recurring poetic tropes and motifs, as well as conducting close examination of the poet’s own musicality as evidenced in her portfolio of salon piano pieces and popular ballads. We have since given successful improvised interdisciplinary performances of this material for the ReLit Foundation Oxford in 2017 and at Oxford Literary Festival 2018. During performances and workshops Emily Dickinson and the Responsive Body - Disruption, Interruption and Temporality and Butterflies off the Banks of Noon we invited specialist and non-specialist audiences to experience Emily Dickinson’s work in a raw, visceral, sensual and experimental form.

Each collaborator worked in their own medium to explore Dickinson’s themes, and musical and graphic structures began to form that linked fragment to ballad and image to sound. We met for intensive days of research and practice to develop the material and to critique our interdisciplinary, creative, iterative process, making a rough framework of ‘movements’ within which to improvise. We were focused on creating an experience that connected Dickinson’s musical and poetic life, when live performance of animation, piano and voice could achieve a synchretic expression.

I created new fragment animations employing analogue and historically relevant material. This included using antique glass bottles as lenses, and lace curtains as shadow screens for displaying domestic activities. I animated plants under the camera, inspired by Emily’s herbarium and her references to Nature. All this material was saved as digital animated loops for accessing and mixing live using modul8 VJ software, technology that allows the performer to paint in time.

‘Cinema becomes a particular branch of painting- painting in time. No longer a kino-eye but a kino-brush.’(Manovich 2002, p 308 )

Although there are four loosely planned movements during the performance, they are not temporally defined, containing unmapped hesitations, repeats, stutters and sudden pauses and unplanned leaps between sequences. I have to respond rapidly to improvise along with these changes and to feel them coming in order to mix the animations with flow, sensitivity and meaning, creating narrative moments on the fly, in contrast to ordered sequential animation practice.

‘Improvisation is not just a style or an acting technique, it is a dynamic principle operating in many different spheres, an independent and transformative way of being, knowing and doing.’ (Frost 2017, p 3)

The experience of the animator improvising in this context is very different to the traditional VJ role, where rhythm is commonly a reliable temporal structure to react to. There are very few women working with VJ technology and performance, it is an internationally male-dominated area of creative practice. Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry inspires and challenges fans, creatives and academics into the 21st Century, and composers and poets continue to create new work related to her oeuvre. Our active collaborative methodology has brought diverse areas of expertise together to create an innovative performative experience to new audiences.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 13 Feb 2019
EventExperimental and Expanded Animation Conference - Animation Research Centre, University of the Creative Arts, Farnham, United Kingdom
Duration: 13 Feb 201913 Feb 2019


ConferenceExperimental and Expanded Animation Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Emily Dickinson
  • Music
  • Animation
  • manuscript studies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Music
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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  • Outside Emily

    Panizza, N., Hanna, S., Bayley, S. & Sanders, H.

    1/06/16 → …

    Project: Research

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