Blog 4

 December 2015: Ladylike R&D

Ladylike: A blog all about creating my piece Ladylike and thereafter.


The Ella Mesma Company guide: How to be a lady… or  choose not to… 

Ladylike is a concept I initially developed as a solo in 2012. I first heard the term ‘ladylike’ aged 4, when I was criticized for being ‘unladylike’ or too boisterous when playing. As anadult I have experiencedthe weight of gender expectations in dance.  As a Salsa dancer I am expected to smile,look sexy and be submissive, whereas when Breaking (Breakdance) I am required to be bold, aggressive, and I have on occasion been told I should

“act more like a guy”. 

I have often pondered this idea, feeling a sense of inner confusion both on a small scale in relation to dance styles but also in relation to how gender expectations influence our behaviours in the wider world. I knew that I wanted to explore this further through Latin and Breaking. 

Breaking, created in New York, had a huge Latino influence, and I can see the links to Salsa in so many of the steps. Since starting Breaking I have been fascinated by this, by latin breaks which is where my heart lies, and how the two are linked. I also wanted to investigate putting the undulations and hips of Salsa into Breaking movement vocabulary to create a movement language that made sense to me. As Latin dances were my first, these have always made the most sense to me. At dance school, I felt restricted when told to keep my hips still and isolate my torso sideways in Contemporary classes like Cunningham technique, rather than undulating. Creating this movement language from a blend of all my styles has been liberating in terms of understanding the inherent way in which I move.

I have often in my life felt pressures to conform, be responsible, successful, have a family, have long hair… behave according to societalor gender roles. Both male and female friends have felt this way too. Ladylike is about women but also about men. I want it to speak to the audience about equality and our universal right to live with respect and dignity, without being judged. I introduce it as:

“Madonna? Mistress? Witch? Exotic Other? Ladylike is an exploration of gender stereotypes through the voices of 5 female artists. Using Ella Mesma’s unique movement language, the Company have combined Rumba, Afro Cuban, Salsa and elements of Breaking, Rocking and Capoeira to create a visually striking & awkwardly provocative work.”

 I was sure that I wanted to work with women on Ladylike, but that I wanted the piece to speak to both men and women. I am hopeful that the piece will reach out and touch hearts. It is about personal experiences, but it is also universal. There is a lot of juxtaposition and contradiction to make the audience ask questions both during and after the performance.

I began collecting images such as the one below, reading lots of material as research and making notes and asking questions to inform the future piece as early as 2012. It was so exciting to hear I had been awarded an Arts Council Grant to make the work. I really believe this was the right time for me to make ‘Ladylike’, as I had the opportunity to work with The Bench, as well as going through changes in my personal life, and the presence of the hot topic of feminism in the media. Then I found an amazing team of Artists who believed in my vision too. 


These four wonderful artists are: Rita Vilhena, a capoeirista and contemporary dancer from Portugal; Anna Alvarez – An Anglo-Argentine with lots of experience in partner work. She has just finished an apprenticeship with VertigoDance Company in Israel; Lianett Rodrigues, an ex Ballet Revolution dancer from Cuba with a wealth of knowledge in Rumba and Afro Cuban; Emma Houston, a Scottish B-girl and contemporary dancer. It was by chance that we happen to look quite similar, but became an important part of the piece, as we could represent the many elements of one person. It was also nice because we conducted our rehearsals in a mixture of English, Spanish and Portuguese. 

“I think at first I started writing from a very judgmental position towards men and woman in general, or about what are their expectations towards me were, but then I realized that was not what wasmost important. I started listening to more stories, reading more, look at images about the theme, having my body reflecting on memories about past situations and I started writing in more open reflection about my expectations about my self and not feeling so much pressure.” Rita Vilhena, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

All four dancers brought their own experiences of, and responses to the pressures of societal norms. Each had a very individual character and style which they brought to the piece, but we also had something similar about us, and a passion for the project which I liked. It was almost as if each of us were different parts of the same character. 

“When something is created with pure intentions and the Search to know oneself and the world in a deeper and more proactive way, then the work cannot fail, and it means we can all act as true ambassadors for the message we would like to relay to our audience. Communication can be clear. Art can make people think, reconsider, think again. We have the power to evoke something, to say something about convention in an unconventional way.” Emma Houston, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

We read some excellent books and articles exploring the theme. ‘Sex, Lies and Revolution’ by Laurie Penny was particularly pertinent. 

We began the work as soon as we found out we had the grant followed by a sharing at Richmix for Casa Festival. After 4 days of putting together a piece with the expertise of Gael Le Cornec and Daniel Goldman, we performed to an audience of 100. This process, though rushed, was invaluable in preparing me to create the work and the project. The experience also united the dancers as a team, and helped me realise the strengths we had as a group.

We began the Arts Council project in Leeds, as part of the Sketch program, where we worked with the wonderful Peggy Olislaegers. We showed some sections which I had created for the Richmix Casa International Festival, in particular one called ‘Tierra’ exploring the exoticism and power of the female body. We also showed a section from ‘Ladylike’ exploring the Adam and Eve story and my physical reaction to the term ‘ladylike’. Peggy Olislaeger’s feedback and questions led me to rethink various aspects of the work including completely re-working the finale. The audience was around 25 artists, producers and choreographers as well as members of the Yorkshire Dance Team.

The following week we headed to Newcastle to continue developing the piece. With such an incredible supportive team of artists we were able to work fast. We created an introduction focused on six different states of ‘being’: aggressive, submissive, pretty, arrogant, open and coy. I decided to use these ‘states’ with a Reggaeton track to provide the backdrop as the audience enters the theatre.

We created a Rumba Breaking section using my movement language with tasks to develop the fusion. I decided to rework my old solo ‘Evol’ looking at it this time through the eyes of a woman. Previously, although beautiful, I think it lacked depth and I wanted to strip it of its romanticism. We also developed two sections, one called ‘Frustration’ looking at where we are the objects of catcalls plus a beautiful introduction, inspired by Emma’s movement called ‘Cocoons’

Dance City invited us to teach a company class which was well attended. We had very positive feedback about the structure and unique movement language we were using. 

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An audience of 35 attended a sharing at the end of the week; a large proportion were B-boys, including some international artists. It was great to hear their feedback invited through the Liz Lurman technique. Their responses included words such as 

“Rhythm, Authority, Oppression, Recrimination, Power, Strength, Identity, Tease, Light, Society, Sex, Control.” 

It was interesting and helpful to use their feedback to consider what I wanted the audience to experience, and how to bridge the gap in understanding between performers and the audience. 

Next, we were very honoured and fortunate to be invited to participate in a residency in Portugal and came up with a duet in response to the solo ‘Evol’, and another very long, beautiful and sad duet, which I have named ‘Tango’, which explores partnerships. ‘Tango’ was my exploration of relationships, a sense of saying goodbye to the past and embracing those that last and carry us through, the friendships that help us deal with break ups, or negative relationships and the pressures of society that test and can diminish us. 

“The experience of living, sleeping, eating, training and creating together was a very rich experience and I believe one in which the piece grew enormously as well as us as a team and company.” Anna Alvarez, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

We also created a section in response to the immense pressure I feel to conform, to appear happy, to say ‘Yes’ to opportunities and to give to others regardless of any internal sense of conflict. We put this to a Reggaeton track, because as a woman, I am far from comfortable with the over sexualized, misogynistic and sometimes violent lyrics of Reggaeton tracks, or songs in general today.

We gave professional classes every day in Portugal and, at the end, shared these new sections of our work. We were also invited back for further residencies in the future.

“Each rehearsal and research session would bring a light of issues, experiences and contrasting views of the term Ladylike and what this meant to each of us. The creative process was also very driven by this, the use of emotions, visual and literary sources from which the structure gradually built.” Anna Alvarez, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

In our London week, we began to put together the transitions and experiment with different possible sequences for the piece. We also started to mount the finale to our communal experience, working directly with Sabio, the composer. We explored the emotions we uncovered through the process, and the dramaturgy experiences with Peggy Olislaegers. I wanted the finale to have a positive message of hope for the future. I wanted to ‘make the personal political’, to uncover a truth about friendship and show how experiences both positive and negative leave us stronger, wiser and with the potential for change. In the final image, we invite the audience to accept each side of us. The audience will always judge, select those they connect with and decide how they perceive a character due to their performance. The ending is about asking the audience to see these 5 women as many layered individuals, to see the beauty in their individuality, and that we are also all the same. With the finale I wanted both to present the chaos of life and the fight for hope that we are all capable of.

Right up until the last day we were working on a duet with two dancers exploring the pressure of body image that we are constantly fed through films, magazines and advertising based upon the ‘perfect woman’. As the piece evolved we began to use Breaking and elements of Rocking along with Rumba to explore this external pressure on how we see ourselves. I wanted to explore how we can find freedom of expression and beauty through our own individuality to celebrate difference. 

We had Tim Ward in for most of the week documenting the process, and welcomed a photographer, Alexander Yip, into the process too. It was a pleasure to have Shelley Maxwell as an external eye in the studio towards the end of the week. She offered a wealth of insight into the piece, offering ideas for the audience to get involved, and helping to dig deeper into the meaning behind each scene. She said 

“It’s a very interesting work. I really enjoyed what I was seeing develop. For a work of the calibre that you are doing one needs to dig deep to deliver it in a truthful and impactful way. Well done you.” Shelley Maxwell.

It was also in this week that we had Sabio in the studio with us working on the music, and we finally arranged the lighting for the piece. The costume designer attended the sharing and is now working on the final designs, which will emphasise that we are, in a sense, all the same many-layered character.

For the sharing we invited promoters and photographers including Mark Neal and Roger Barnes and a professional editor, Alex Not, who is now making a video edit of the work. 

There were over 35 audience members at The Tabernacle, including ADAD and the feedback was very positive: 

“A powerful display of timeless and current issues that women continue to face everyday” Audience member- The Tabernacle-London November 2015.

“Completely engaged- enthralling, emotional, inspiring and grounding work” Audience member- The Tabernacle- London November 2015.

The following week we performed extracts of the piece in a local school to 150 students at an all girls comprehensive, and then gave a workshop to 60 of those young girls. We discussed how they feel society and family pressures influence their behaviours and choices and developed this into their own dance work. We then led a question and answer session about the work and our careers, which was incredibly moving and rewarding. 

 “Students were awed by the physical expertise of Ella Mesma Company, combined with well created dance motifs was very exciting. The question and answer session was a real eye opener- very focused and intense. All 150 students engaged fully thought the time. Excellent. Well done.” Subassa Lewis, Plashet School.

Reflection: I feel like this is just the beginning of a new chapter, an epic chapter, a beautiful chapter, an exploration of truth. This piece feels like the strongest piece of work I have made so far. The piece, and its message, are deeply important to me. In the words of Jonzi D of Breakin’ Convention (who said it to Ivan Blackstock of Birdgang, who said it to me),

“We have a role as artists to make work that reflects our time and has the potential to create change”, Jonzi D, Breakin’ Convention. 

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Ladylike is about looking to the future, to tomorrow’s reality, and speaking up for the right to decide for ourselves how we behave. It is about helping to give young people the tools they need to make autonomous decisions. It is about the world we live in and choosing our own pathway rather than just accepting the status quo and doing as we are told. As long as we understand why we are making those choices, then it is ok. 

“Basically I never felt like one of those “ladies.” But it’s a confusing word that has the power to be used in a positive or negative light. It was a word I had previously found controversial, nonetheless. Although now, I feel differently about it. I can take ownership of the word. Being ladylike can mean anything now. I feel like the project has shown the word in a different, more natural light.” Emma Houston, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

 As Malala said,

“If a woman can go to the beach and wear nothing, then why can’t she also wear everything?”, Malala.

It is about embracing our fears and those that society tells us we should have, overcoming them and taking control. 

There was something about growing up through this project… Keeping the childlike but losing the childish… Embracing myself as a woman. Emerging as a butterfly and enjoying that journey. 

“Don’t get older just to get wiser. If you get older, you will be wiser, I believe that – if you dare. But get older because it’s fun!”, Maya Angelou.

Ladylike has helped me to make sense of my worlds and the society we live in, to accept all elements of me rather than feeling that to be a woman I must hide parts of myself. The message for the audience of Ladylike is about learning to love all of ourselves, and make positive and conscientious changes for our own and our children’s futures. 

In January we will finish the final part of R&D working as part of Sketch at Yorkshire Dance. I am very excited to work with Charlotte Vincent, my mentor from the Bench and Adad for a day and a half, and with Peggy Olislaeger’s with a live audience to dramaturge and explore the concepts and movement material within the piece. Finally we will begin to plan the tour and rehearsal schedule for the piece in Autumn 2016.

The learning curve on this project has been steep. Working with such incredible artists who have been so generous with their time, thoughts and energy has been invaluable. Their willingness to share their personal stories with me has been deeply rewarding, and the process has had an element of therapy to it for all of the team. This openness to grow, share and recognise our own stories is a part of the piece’s richness and has enabled the piece to reach people on quite a profound level.

I am still astounded by how quickly the making process went and how much material we have generated. I have deepened my understanding of how I work as a choreographer and how to bring out the best in other people. There were many sections or scenes which I wrote as text first and then we developed the work from this.  

Sometimes the process started with a simple movement that I hooked onto and was able to expand and, sometimes it was something more complex. I have been struck by the flow of creativity and how everything came together, almost as if it was predetermined and I just needed to channel it onto the stage. 

Through Ladylike, I have begun to find a deeper understanding of my movement language, and will take this forward into future projects. As the only company in the UK to specialise in Latin Dance Theatre, I have learnt how to talk about my work, and found that I work best when I draw from Contemporary, Afro-Latin plus Hip Hop dance and culture to explore social and cultural identity in the UK. It was particularly exciting both creating the Tango duet, which used elements of Tango, Bachata and Salsa within a Contemporary framework, and beginning to research Rumba and Breaking and the links they have to one another.

“The process of the piece has made me reflect a great deal on what it means to be a woman and how personal/individual Ladylike is. It has changed from being a term that I associated negatively with (from childhood being told I was not ladylike and that was something to aspire to) to now being more about self-control, assertion and the power of being a woman in the society I live.” Anna Alvarez, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

Now I am looking forward to having some time to reflect and to further develop my movement research in Brazil on my scholarship as a Winston Churchill Fellow. I will be spending just over 6 weeks in Brazil where I will be focusing particularly on Afro Brazilian and the dances of the Orixas.

I have realised how important it is to take time to make sure I have clearly expressed all my understandings to the performers and to perfect the execution of my movement language.  

I am aware of how much creating Ladylike has changed me. Being so absorbed by it has affected me both personally and professionally. It has led me to question more, from my Latin dance styles, to challenging sexist comments.

“I have never seen work that deals with the issues included in the piece at this level. The piece is inclusive, reflective, soft, sexy, questioning, funny and ironic. It questions how we act in society, why, and how this affects us as people and in the relationships we develop.” Anna Alvarez, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

Ladylike has encompassed my whole world. Certainly the whirlwind nature of the task has helped me both to make a wonderful piece and to make sense of the challenges I face at this stage in my life. Working from a difficult place and putting my heart and soul into the work has meant that it truly reflects me, and with the contribution from the dancers working collaboratively, it represents all of us. For me it is raw, real, honest, sad, funny and beautiful. 

“I Felt vulnerable at times…. I felt exposed at times… I realised things about myself that I thought I already knew. And all of those feelings that happened are okay, and they were necessary. Art goes to uncomfortable places. From the discomfort comes a new awareness, something that can be grasped and then moulded into intangible vapour in our hands, something we can let go of and lighten ourselves as a result. Something that becomes our power to empower others through our own explorations. Art is a healer. This piece has been healing for all of us, I think. But it is not a selfish endeavour. For it’s purpose is bigger than ourselves, but of course it’s okay to be selfish in healing, if no harm is done.” Emma Houston, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

I am very excited about this footage and to have invested in a proper edit, and so grateful to all the contributors who have played apart in creating this work. 

A massive thanks to all those who have supported the process: Photographers and Videographers – Alexander Yip, Roger Barnes, Timothy Ward, Alex Not and Judita Kuniskyte; Lighting Designer – Ciaran Cunningham and the incredible Composer Sabio Janiak; Venues – Chelsea Theatre, Yorkshire Dance and Sketch, Dance City, ADAP Portugal, ADAD and Richmix; My friends and family who have been there; Shelley Maxwell, and Charlotte Vincent my mentor; Peggy Olislaegers; The Bench and Tamsin Fitzgerald. Most of all I must thank the wonderful dancer artists Anna Alvarez, Lianett Rodrigues Gonzalez, Emma Houston and Rita Vilhena.  Also a massive thanks to British Council for believeing me and bringing me to Edinburgh Festival this summer where I was exposed to so much art!

Thanks also to everyone who attended the sharing and to those who haven’t seen it yet, get ready to see a sample on April 9th at Richmix before we preview the full piece there on October 28th 2016. 

A massive thank you to Arts Council of England for making this possible. 

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Photographs by Roger Barnes, Alexander Yip and Tim Ward.