Researching the Underwater Love story that is: Foreign Bodies

Foreign Bodies | Ella Mesma Company | Interview R & D phase 1 from Ella Mesma on Vimeo.

This autumn, I have been supported by Arts Council of England and Metal to research and develop a dance theatre piece. Danced to Fado, Kizomba and Kuduro rhythms by composer Sabio Janiak we created FOREIGN BODIES: An underwater love story.

Triggered by something I learnt a family member on one side of my parents said about someone from the other side, the piece became a love story involving two people of different heritage to explore identity, belonging and racism. We used the notion of disease, contamination, and transplantation as metaphors to explore the experience of ‘the other’ –BAME people, and other marginalised groups, and ask what is gained and lost through integration. We have been researching movement and dance techniques to translate an underwater love story between two people of different heritages (inspired by my parents).

Told through the narration of host Milton Lopes, Foreign Bodies is an interactive anonymous quiz show.

I am extremely grateful to have been able to use this R&D period to develop the choreographic language of the piece drawing on folkloric styles like Kuduro and Kizomba as well as working with an experienced Creative Technologist to explore how digital technologies can build on the sensory and empathetic experiences of audience members.

In the age of Aquarius: a time where technology like the worldwide web connect us, I wanted to explore the difference between online worlds: without borders, to the world of immigration, visas and forced migration. In the R & D for Foreign Bodies, we set out to cross borders and oceans to illuminate the enormity of time, to tell the stories of individuals and echo the bigger stories: ancestry, evolution and the haunting legacy of historical power structures. I spent a lot of time developing the text and researching around science, religion, language and colonialism.

During the process I reaffirmed that the piece was a love story: that even worked its way into the title! Most of my work also speaks of transformation, of the journey to know ourselves and during this  & D, I discovered that in this work, the metaphor around trauma would be told using ‘jellyfish.’ Inspired by Jellyfish, Foreign Bodies is about the healing of trauma and the planet earth.

My ultimate ambition during this R&D was to make a structure for a one hour show. I am happy to say I did just that and surpassed it, because I also wrote a script! I developed the script, with the support of Edson Burton, Milton Lopes (actor) and Luke Pell, and was able to put together a full framework for the script and an hour long show, which Sabio Janiak is now using to develop the music.

Over the period, I was offered in kind mentoring by Annie Rigby from Unfolding Theatre and it was super helpful to have someone I could call up and talk over the various challenges in the studio. I learnt that this is extremely important and valuable to an effective creative process and what a wonderful human being she is!

With the support of South East Dance I had the opportunity to work with experienced dramaturge Luke Pell, and I would like to continue to nurture this relationship for the future. I loved working with Luke and really benefitted from having him present.

I like to work with diverse casts who have a range of different styles and experiences and tend to work collaboratively, each bringing our personal experiences to the work, allowing a depth and a vulnerability to the work and a safe space to learn and grow. I collaborated with a cast of 6 artists (Milton Lopes, Lucia Afonso, Elsabet Yonas, David Evans, Franck Arnaud Lusbec, Isaac Ouro Gnao). Each artist brought special skills and a range of dance styles such as Bele (Martinique), Kuduro (Angola), Breaking & House, as well as contemporary dance. I also worked with  Sabrina Henry (costume designer who works with artists of various disciplines to connect pre-colonial traditions with the British experience as a way to re-imagine the future). The development of this work was a deeply personal piece for the cast and myself and we grew as a collaboration, and a company. The entire cast, including musician, costume designer and technologist are invested in the future of this work, which is super exciting: I cannot wait to see where it goes at the next phase.

We spent 1 week rehearsing in Liverpool and also visited the Slavery Museum, one week in Bristol, including a transatlantic slavery history tour of the city with Dr Edson Burton, and one week in London.

In addition to the R &D, we shared the work with the Creative Youth Network in Bristol, who fed back on the work and to small audiences in London and Bristol, and invited Ersen Ermis a videographer to film the work, creating a short trailer and interview about the piece. We offered morning company class to professional dancers and one workshop aimed at amateur dancers and people who are new to dance in Bristol.

I developed technology with Gentlemen Octopus Limited (who are currently creating technology for Massive Attack) to create an interactive anonymous quiz show. This meant I was able to further develop my desire to make work which is immersive for the audience but without putting the audience on the spot or making them feel pressured or singled out. I researched the British Citizenship test and many texts, and from that, developed a fun quiz, which explores “what does it mean to be a citizen of the world?” Long term, I want the audience to have a fun immersive experience that is informative, provocative and presents different viewpoints and stories to shed light on history.

During the process, I had been thinking about how art can be used as a tool to tell personal and global and stories and speak up about what is happening in the world. It had been a strange and sad time globally, with Bolsonaro coming to power in Brazil, the migrant caravan headed from Honduras to the US and the death of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, and so this work became an important opportunity to provide a message. I believe that art can be used as a tool to shed light on the collective suffering in the world and as a tool to protest and make our views heard. I aim with this work to make peaceful yet provocative art that engages non-dancers and breaks the fourth wall accessibly and comfortably.

In this creative process, I was able to finally step into and be the choreographer I always wanted to be. By changing my role to just choreographer and not dancing, I was able to work fast, efficiently and intuitively, bringing new sides to my personality to the space, and seeing the whole picture of the work truly. I have learnt that I am truly moving into and across art forms with this work, and to understand how I work and who I am as an artist.

I learnt a lot about holding the space and all the tension in it: artists bring their own lives and their personal stories and history to the space. I developed a system to check in each morning and allow that stuff to be seen so that we could raise above it and work effectively. I also used this to deal with some of the bigger and heavy topics in the space and to deal with any dynamics in the space. I feel I learnt a lot about this in terms of the people in the space: the work that I am making: that asks a lot of the company, and I got further insight into how to manage that so I can get the best out of each dancer and allow them to feel safe and held.

I also learnt a lot about how to protect and care for myself in that environment: a lot is needed to balance such a space and not get worn down or worn out by the needs of everyone in the space, and so I learnt to appreciate the self care needed to work in this environment and stay true to me. I realised how important it is to state what I want and need clearly and not to take on others ‘stuff’, or to take things personally, but instead to uphold my standards of excellence, and to strive consistently for that.

Thank you to everyone who has been involved in this process: I could not have done it without you all! I look forward to sharing more news on this exciting project soon!

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