Blog 2: September 2015: Orixás

Reflections on the water: Looking back over the last six months funded by Arts Council of England

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“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” – Toni Morrison

So on November 28th, on my way out the door to fly to Valencia to film my second Samba no Pe DVD, there was a most beautiful brown envelope… and inside that beautiful brown envelope were some beautiful words telling me that I had been successful with my Arts Council application. So much has happened since then that it feels like a lifetime ago. I have learnt and matured so much as performer, choreographer, and Director of Element Arts and Ella Mesma Company, and on reflection, I had to put this beautiful experience into words and onto paper.

So here is my second blog entry since my wonderful Placement student Samantha Mashuta set me up a Tumblr account earlier this year, and this one will be all about my reflections as an Artist with an Arts Council Grant. So my project began with ‘Orixas’ rehearsals in December, working towards a sketch of the piece ready for the January Premiere at Resolutions at The Place. Through the Resolutions programme, The Place also offered various skill sessions, including, ‘How to sell your work’ which I attended knowing that I needed to get my head around the idea of selling something I love. As an early exercise, sitting in the Theatre at The Place, we were asked to describe our work to the person sitting next to us, then close our eyes while they put up their hands if they would like to see the show. My partner (I sneaked a peak) did not put up her hand, and I realised how important it is to be able to articulate what you are passionate about, and I determined that I would prove her wrong. I set about rewriting my copy, and making sure my theatre was full for the next three shows that I had planned… every single time…

The bid covered my work with Ella Mesma Company (strong artistic work looking at social, political and cultural through dance movement) to create Ecdysis and Como Agua para Chocolate and Element Arts (Latin Dance Theatre and events) to create Birds Of Paradise and Curate Roots of Rumba on April 11th, and An evening with Element Arts on 16th May.

This was the first time I would choreograph a group piece, so I had a big responsibility and as I had some difficulties with my first four day R&D in July, I was feeling nervous. I worked with three wonderful artists and people from Element Arts: Simone Foster, Rita Vilhena and Sophia Theodosiou. I had a mixture of pre tried out ideas, material based on traditional dances, as well as wanting to explore and find the personalities of each individual dancer. Teaching the dance styles I wanted within the piece as well as finding this time to be creative, reflect and also drill was hard, but with determination, some sleepless nights for me and hard graft, we pulled it together. I also knew that I needed to return to Cuba and Brazil for further research and how imperative this was to the continuation of the piece, and so it was with excitement and anticipation that I attended my WCMT interview that week. I also had Shelley Maxwell as my mentor, which was invaluable- it was wonderful to have an outside support to give me the confidence I needed. One of my biggest learning curves was in how lonely it can be as the choreographer. Dancers are ready and waiting for your instruction and work so hard once they grasp your vision, but on the days when I wasn’t confident in what my vision was, I would feel them slipping away from me, or their frustration that unless I believed in it, they couldn’t, but with Shelley Maxwell on board, plus an inner stubbornness and a lot of meditations later, we did it, and we did it well… And what a wonderful team we made…

On January 9th we invited an audience to our first sharing at The Yaa Centre. Using the Liz Lerman technique we asked questions about the work and had some wonderful responses, which prepared us for our premiere the following day, but then the shocking news came that one of our dancers sustained an injury between leaving the sharing and teaching a class. We weren’t sure what would happen for the performance the next day, and Rita’s solo was an important part of the piece. The next day, somehow, the wonderful Rita was the strongest warrior of them all, and we made her an ankle support to match her costume and insisted she rested as much as possible, but the show went on. It was wonderful to find out we had sold out. We started late while they tried to squeeze everyone in and afterwards, receiving all the personal feedback from the audience, a feedback wall, and reading the reviews a week later,

“Sophia Theodosiou’s excellent performance in the awesome ‘Orixas’ by Ella Mesma Company. It was of a different class to the other groups. They deserve a massive congratulations.” Audience member Paddy Dodd at The Place premiere

“Ella Mesma Company’s ‘Orixas’ carried that vital spark of originality” Graham Watts- The Place Resolutions reviews

“Twenty minutes of pure Contemporary dance at its most physical and most sensual. Rhythmic and gymnastic, the piece told a captivating story of female strength and solidarity” Lilia Prier Tisdall- The Place Resolutions reviews

“Potential was evident in Ella Mesma’s ‘Orixas'” Donald Hutera-Highlights of Resolution

I knew we had made something worth continuing. Whilst I knew that the piece wasn’t finished yet, I knew that the piece had a magic in it that I needed to continue to explore. Just as I had experienced working as a dancer with Russell Maliphant, I continued to mould like a sculpture, to find a finished piece. I discovered that the colour, look, feel, texture… everything was so important and I became the ultimate perfectionist in my quest to complete my vision of the piece.

Later that month, we were invited to perform at Yorkshire Dance’s Friday Firsts in Leeds, a supported evening of emerging artists work and met Lisa Nkreumah-Mweu of ADAD who suggested I apply for the ADAD trailblazer. We also received some incredibly helpful feedback from the Director Wieke Eringa, and the Company sat together to look at integrating her feedback and talking frankly about what we all needed to push further. We had the wonderful and beautiful Myriam Gadri come in to rehearse the piece with us, and we began to explore the stories, relationships and meanings behind our movement. I continued to develop what I was coming to see as ‘the difficult second half’ and on a shorter version of the piece and a workshop for a Bristol booking  with the lovely Helen Wilson as the Professional act for Rise Youth’ yearly show. The audience feedback was very positive and we met a wonderful photographer Roger Barnes who came down to photograph our performance at The Chelsea Theatre in March.

In March, I began to assemble the artists I needed to create Element Arts piece ‘Birds of Paradise’. I wanted to choreograph not dance for this piece, and it was much easier to find my vision and observe the group dynamic this way. I worked with another wonderful group- three dancers- Simone Foster and Michela Di Felice and Laia Moraño as apprentice. I also had Marv the Radio- acclaimed Beatboxer and Xavier Osmir- Brazilian percussionist. This would  be my first time to work with live musicians. I found stepping out to choreograph difficult on those unclear days, and I found that I wasn’t able to feel my way around the piece in the same way as when I am moving, but it was great to watch the piece come alive ands the personalities of the individuals. It was wonderful to be able to create a light and funny piece to explore a deeper message of disillusionment and the mask we wear as performers and within society. Working with Ponciano Almeida as mentor was also a very magic experience, because he understood my intention, helped me enhance it, and encouraged both myself and the dancers in an exemplary way, giving them confidence and inspiration to work even harder, as well as in myself to believe with conviction. The piece has received some very positive praise and we were particularly happy to dicover how well it worked as an outdoor piece when we performed at Bloom Festival on July 5th in the Horniman Museum.

In March I also found out I had been successful in applying for a WCMT grant, and would be travelling to Cuba in August and Brazil in January for further research.

In April, final preparations for Roots Of Rumba at Richmix were underway. I curated the festival with the help of a panel of Element Artists and we chose to book Ponciano Almeida, Yami Rowdy (this year’s ADAD Trailblazer), Candy Bloise and Miguel Gonzalez. It was hard work promoting  with a constant flurry of messages, statuses, images and event updates online, as well as distributing 5000 flyers around the locality and at classes. There was also an epic preparation of costumes for the Birds of Paradise show to be done, equalling lots of late nights! At 10am on the morning of the event, we sold out, and people began to send call out messages for tickets. The show started late due to the crowd attempting to get tickets, but the event was just perfect. We had a wonderful host Rikki Livermore, a wonderful team of artists and the most organised Stage Manager on this  earth. Carly Woodbridge was exactly what we needed to make the event flow with perfect synchronicity. As we made our ‘wishings’ backstage, a calm tranquillity and focused energy overcame us, and my nerves began to turn from highly strung to a determination and strength. We had wonderful tweets from the audience and a great sense of community.

“An evening showcasing the incredible talents, cultures, skills embedded within latin dance theatre, where I was privileged to be hosting some of the best talent on the scene right now.” Rikki Livermore-Host of Roots of Rumba

“Totally stunning moves Ella and Rita gorgeous!” Gemma Coldicott at a Step Into Dance Sharing of the work

Rikki interviewed me on stage and despite my shyness and surprise at talking on the spot, it was wonderful to explain and understand my visions for the future of Latin Dance Theatre. We continued to hear wonderful praise of the event, including from Mercy Nabirye of ADAD and Casa Festival, and I began to understand further the importance of this event and how it can contribute to and pave the way for the development of the Latin Dance scene in the UK.

“I found it entertaining and at the same time different in a positive way and I believe with potential to develop a secure platform for the enjoyment and edutainment of the dance forms you work with” Mercy Nabirye ADAD

I began to really feel the enormity of the project and the tiredness in May, but when I began making small changes, and running Ecdysis without heels, I was enthused with energy as I realised how strong it was and I discovered that my body felt stronger, fitter, more flexible. I understood how to develop the piece much better than I had in 2012, so was excited to perform ‘Ecdysis’ at The Chelsea Theatre.  Meanwhile, based on the feedback and what I had seen from the footage of Roots Of Rumba, I was able to put the finishing touches to Birds Of Paradise, and finally I understood how to finish Orixas. I sent one last version of music to the amazing Matthew Olden, and the piece began to feel whole… my difficult second-half made sense.

To promote the 16th May show at the Chelsea Theatre- an evening of Latin Dance Theatre by Element Arts and Ella Mesma Company, myself and Samantha Mashuta contacted newspapers, magazines, online event sites as well as flyering and facebook. It was hard to reach the local community, but our work paid off, and whilst there were difficulties buying tickets, the event sold out. This time joined by host Bia, and Carly Woodbridge, we received a standing ovation from the whole audience-such a rewarding feeling. We asked the audience to fill in evaluations and got some great feedback!

“Everytime I see her she is better  and better. The performances amazing Xavi Osmir, Simone Foster, Michela Di Felice, Rita Vilhena and others still to see but Ella Mesma you awed me with this last piece. Beautiful girl you are so talented- much love Liliana at The Chelsea Theatre” Audience member Liliana Martins at The Chelsea Theatre

There have been many successes as a result of this project, for example, British Council who watched our January sharing at The Yaa Centre, recommended us to Dep Arts, and Dep Arts then selected the company to become Incubate Artists 2015. We are working with the lovely Jen Sullivan who will be putting together our 2016 tour and applying for our next Ella Mesma Company piece creation and R&D, which we are so excited to share with you soon!.

British Council also selected Ella Mesma for an Emerging Artists tour to Edinburgh and have been giving helpful advice on our copy, website and development. We met the team at Casa festival and hope to work with them in co-producing Roots of Rumba in 2016, which has been confirmed for next year and will be expanding to a two day event on the 8th and 9th of April. We were awarded an ADAD Micro Grant to be supported by a mentor over the next year, which will be invaluable for my progression and efficiency over the next year. We have excellent quality footage and photographs and have a much bigger selection of work to sell for 2016.

The company has grown in strength and team work and I personally am much clearer in who I am as an artist, how to manage a team and the necessary steps I need to take going forwards. For the next project I feel more confident working with artists effectively, and understand the importance of being in a very strong place to mentally support everyone involved, and in having my own support network to be able to turn to. I understand on a more profound level what needs to occur to make a programme of events like this happen and  the skills required to ensure it is done to the highest level possible. I feel I am better equipped with the tools and know-how to make my next R&D, Roots of Rumba 2016, and UK tour of work even better, more powerful and more magic. We will be taking submissions to perform very soon on the Element Arts website (www.elementdance.co.uk). You can also watch our latest work on our Youtube channels (EllaMesma and ElementDanceCo).

We want to say a massive thank you and shout out to everyone who has been involved over the past 7 months including: Rita Vilhena, Sophia Theodosiou, Simone Foster, Ciaran Cunningham, Matthew Olden, Shelley Maxwell, Ponciano Almeida, Laia Moraño, Michela Di Felice, Xavier Osmir, Marv the Radio, Mercy Ackah and all at The Chelsea Theatre, Oliver Carruthers and all at Richmix, Richard Pitt, Mercy Nabirye, Judith Palmer and all at ADAD, Tara Hobson, Michael and all at The Yaa Centre, Wieke Eringa, Kirsty Redhead and all at Yorkshire Dance Centre, Danielle Byars, Ama Rouge, Samantha Mashuta, Miguel Gonzalez, Candy Bloise, Yami Rowdy, Rikki Livermore, Carly Woodbridge, Bia Gaspar, Liliana Martins, Lora Krasteva, Daniel Goldman and all at Casa Festival, British Council, Jen Sullivan and all at Dep Arts, Sue Goodman and all at Step into Dance, Patricia Stead and all at Dance City, Anthony Egea and Compagnie Revolution, Gavin Vincent, Charlotte Levy, Sonia York-Price, Tim Ward, Danno Scordino, Roger Barnes, Helen Wilson and all at Rise Youth, Tania Diggory and all at PHD Events, Donald Hutera, Yaz Symlaur and Nick Eade, Kate Scanlan, Nathalie Teitler, Femi Oyewole, John McCarthy, The Place, Billingham Festival, Laura Hunter, Phil and all at Middlesbrough Council, The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Hannah Bertram, Lubi Jovanovic, Mariana Pinho, Global Grooves, Iris De Brito, Nikolas Barrera and Vamos Festival, all the audiences who came to support us, gave us words of encouragement, all my family and friends who were there for the process… thank you! 

So now it is off to Cuba to research and rejuvenate and refresh my skills with WCMT ready for an exciting year ahead.

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