Walt-zing around! Dancer celebrates the Bard of Brooklyn

In harmony: Dancer Johari Mayfield will perform to a reading of the Walt Whitman poem “One Hour to Madness and Joy” at Standard Toykraft on May 31.
Photo by Jason Speakman

It is poetry in motion!

A Bushwick dancer will honor Walt Whitman by performing an interpretive dance to a live reading of one of the legendary poet’s verses, as part of a birthday celebration for the Bard of Brooklyn at Standard ToyKraft in Williamsburg on May 31. Whitman’s 160-year-old words translate surprisingly well into modern dance, said the performer.

“His poetry for me is very visual and very kinetically driven,” said Johari Mayfield, who is also a dance teacher and choreographer. “The verbs that he uses are very active and dance is a visual and visceral language, so the marriage between the words and movement is a good synergy.”

Johari Mayfield will perform while actors Adam Thompson and Rachel Boschen recite Whitman’s poem “One Hour to Madness and Joy” from his seminal work “Leaves of Grass.” The dancer said she has a rough structure for the dance already, but wants to leave the choreography open so she can react to the words in real-time.

“I’m going to allow myself to ride whatever is happening in the moment,” said Mayfield, who has previously danced to “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” at a Langston Hughes birthday party.

Mayfield won’t be the only artist putting her own spin — literal or otherwise — on Whitman’s work at the party, dubbed “Cake, Whiskey, and Whitman.” Other poets will recite their own Whitman-inspired prose, and a photographer will exhibit a slideshow of her snaps of tattooed bodies as the actors read “I Sing the Body Electric” — a pairing that is particularly inspired, the event’s organizer said.

“Tattoos and body images go so well with the poem,” said Gina Inzunza of Pop Lab, the experimental poetry performance troupe throwing the birthday bash. “It’s crazy that it goes so well with something so trendy right now.”

The celebration is the latest in a long line of creative tributes to Whitman in his native borough in recent years. A theater troupe turned his poems into a musical, restaurateurs translated his diet into a Clinton Hill eatery, sport-loving sonneteers slapped his name on a baseball jersey, an artist made a bust of his head entirely out of Legos, and every year, dozens of Whitmaniacs dress up like their hero and gather to give a marathon reading of his poem “Song of Myself.”

Whitman would be 196 year old this year, but Inzunza said he is still someone that many modern Brooklynites can relate to.

“He’s the kind of figure that embodies the eccentric artist-poet-writer that a lot of the people who come to New York aspire to be,” she said. “He embodies free thought and free-living.”

“Cake, Whiskey and Whitman: The Walt Whitman Birthday Party” at Standard ToyKraft (722 Metropolitan Ave. between Graham and Manhattan avenues in Williamsburg, www.standardtoykraft.org). May 31 at 2 pm. $5.

Reach reporter Allegra Hobbs at ahobbs@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8312.