An interview with OFFBEAT Festival: Ladylike
Hi there, why don’t you introduce yourself?
My name is Ella Mesma. I am a UK choreographer and I am a woman! I always knew I wanted to be a choreographer, but it was a long time before I had the courage to admit that that was what I would love to do with my life: Most of the choreographers I worked for were men… they were my superheroes… but they didn’t reflect me, and seeing someone who you can fit the shoes of speaks in a different way. I had read about the struggles of women choreographers to be recognised and respected and I struggled with confidence to speak up and say I think I can do this too… so it was great to be amongst The Bench first cohort of female choreographers in 2015 and to be mentored by some awesome females.
I came to dance late: first I studied Politics and Sociology at Leeds University. Then after a few years freelancing in Latin dances (which I came to first), I was invited to join a contemporary company directed by Merville Jones (an ex Phoenix dancer) and his partner Emma in Leeds. After that I had the bug… I saved and I went back to studying. I wanted to be a dancer. I trained at Laban and The Place, graduating with a postgraduate diploma in 2011. I also began breaking around the same time I went into professional training. Breaking gave me a sense of release: I could step out of the box that defined me by body or dancing ‘sexy’ when I was dancing the Latin styles I had known and loved since age 15. I could wear baggy tshirts, I could be a different side of me. I have also trained in Cuba, Brazil and USA including The Graham school- New York, La Ena- Havana, Deborah Colker- Rio De Janeiro and Funceb- Salvador da Bahia.
Luckily (and with a lot of hard work too!) I have had a great career as performer: including a world tour with the Russell Maliphant Company and performing with Southpaw Company, in the Professional cast of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, for Wendy Houston, poet Warsan Shire… but I was really missing my Latin dance roots. I had established a Latin company: Element Arts in Leeds in 2005, but I wanted to integrate it into my more ‘serious’ performance experiences on the stage, and so I began to integrate it into my own choreography: Ella Mesma Company. The company is a Dance Theatre Company: I work with voice and sound, as well as the dance styles which are inherent in my life: Salsa, Rumba, Breaking, Contemporary, as well as politics and culture. My work is a reflection of me, my life experience, and my view of the world.
Nice to meet you! So, what’s the show you’re bringing to Offbeat and what’s it about?
My latest show is called, ‘Ladylike’. It took over a year to make and is a very provocative work! It premiered last week at Sadler’s Wells as part of my very own ‘Wild Card’ an evening called ‘Guerreras’ which was a sold-out show, and it has been quite an amazing journey of self discovery, shared experience and empowerment! We started the whole process at Casa Latin American Theatre Festival for a week before being granted an Arts Council Grant in 2015 to R&D the work. I worked with Charlotte Vincent through The Bench and ADAD (Now One Dance UK), Yorkshire Dance and Peggy Olislaegers (which was truly amazing) through their Sketch programme. I was awarded two travelling scholarships to Cuba and Brazil with The Winston Churchill Scholarship and NYC with the Lisa Ullman, and these were really integral to the depth of the development of the work. Upon my return it became more challenging but we made a preview at Richmix in 2016. Finally, with a team of superheroes, we ‘finished’ Ladylike in the North of England at Dance City during my Associate Artist Residency before the premiere at Sadler’s Wells. It has been an amazing journey: rewarding and terrifying! I have learnt so much as a choreographer and as a woman over the process.
I had a dream to make Ladylike: a one hour piece that reflected and gave a voice to real women, latin women, black women, mixed women, break-women, superhero women. In the media: the women I was seeing were beautiful, but they were not heroes, they were ‘sidechicks’ without much script, and they weren’t doing the saving but being rescued. And so I made Ladylike: about four very powerful Chicks who take centre stage to fight the shadows of history.
Ladylike focuses particularly on feminine experiences of sexuality and the body-expressed through the perspectives of four women engaging in Latin dance and theatre. The project places emphasis on the holistic show experience: dealing with our life challenges and overcoming the obstacles of our mind, with a score by Sabio Janiak who specialises in creating music with a healing ‘hertz’ vibrations and lighting by my amazing friend and colleague Ciaran Cunningham.
Ladylike was about giving women, silenced in (his)story a voice. I love to work with juxtaposition and find a rawness and realness on the stage. The topics covered are around voyeurism, consent, pornography, male gaze, and trafficking and often come from a very real place inspired by the individual dancer as a dance ‘monologue’. These are abstract references open to the interpretation of each member of the audience, but there was a lot of research to create all the ideas within the piece. For example, referencing the woman as ‘chicken’ or ‘hen’, which I decided to use after reading more of the work of various feminist writers such as Carol Adams and Alice Walker, and based on the parallels in the dance Rumba.
What kind of person do you think will enjoy this show?
Because I came into dance late, I really want to reach ‘real’ people- not just dancers, and for the audience to connect to the visceral experience. I believe my work is a theatrical and visual experience too, with a message behind it, so there is something there for everyone. Art shouldn’t just be for certain demographics of people, and the issues we cover in the work are universal and timeless and so I hope that many people will relate and enjoy them… but the work is definitely parental guidance: it is themed around sex, and we do explore the orgasm! Some is funny, some is more serious…
The four characters are archetypes, and are fluid (genderless) entities, but they could include, for example, a 1920’s housewife, a modern day ‘mistress’, a b-girl, a showgirl, as well as gods or goddesses and warriors. I made the work with the intention for it to be accessible and empowering for women but it is not women only or women exclusive. I use traditional dance forms from different time periods, so it made sense to place these entities in an abstract world between Cuba, New York, and Britain. Each of them could be in any three of these countries at different times and the enneagram archetype is not based on gender.
Can you sum up the pitch for your show in 6 words?
What’s the background to the show? Why did you make it? What’s the journey been like so far?
The predominant styles are: Rumba – a Cuban dance with elements of flamenco; Guaguanco – a game of flirtation and sexual competition between a male and female; Columbia – a dance originally performed only by men, which includes rooster like shoulder movements and fancy footwork; and also New York styles Rocking – formed in New York in the early 1970’s with influences of Salsa, Breaking and Contemporary, alongside references to gang culture. I wanted to share the history of this incredible dance style (rumba), and it’s links to Africa and Yoruba and also the gender stories there within the dance style.
I also wanted to pay my respects to some amazing women in (his)tory: From Joan of Arc, to Rosa Parks to Camille Claudel to Maya Angelou: Women in history who have been fighting for their cause: I wanted to shout a salute to them all! Many women have not had a voice in history… and so it was about fighting for the females! When I decided to become a choreographer I knew I would be unavoidably involved in the gender debate. We do live in a male dominated society, and that affects our confidence and our self belief from the minute the doctor says ‘it’s a girl’, but also how we are perceived: I have had the experience of ‘putting on a smile’ over rejections- knowing that I would not have had the same reaction if I had been a male making the same requests, and that often male choreographers are ‘assumed’ status where as many highly talented women really have to work so hard to prove themselves.
That said, I still want to be recognised for making good work and let the work speak… so come and see the show and make your own mind up! 🙂 I see Ladylike as a celebration of the female and of the sisterhood! Making political work about gender I have come up against some negative reactions, but I am making work about my experiences and collaborating with four very real and very talented women… It has been a hard journey but also a really healing experience for all of us making this work: we used the enneagrams, to explore what we were denying ourselves to heal, so it became quite a cleansing and bonding: a collaboration. I have loved working with this group.
Each role was been created for that individual with the skills, imagination, and personal experience each dancer brought as well as their very different skillsets. Hsing Ya Wu is Taiwanese and is an incredible contemporary dancer and has an amazing sense of comedic timing in her performance. Azara Meghie is a b-girl (short for breakdancing girl) and actor and has an amazing natural style. Anna Alvarez is a Tango and Contemporary dancer, and I am a salsa and b-girl. The original cast included ‘The Cuban Insider’ Lia Rodrigues.
Are you excited to take this show to Offbeat? Why?
I am really looking forward to perform this show at Offbeat. This will actually be the first time we perform the full show as the premiere at Sadler’s Wells included three other acts, so it will be really exciting to perform the piece in one straight order for the first time… and it is also an unknown terrain to me! Oxford will you show us around? 🙂
Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to folks in Oxford?
Oxford we can’t wait to meet you! This show is quite intense so we will make sure we are available post show to talk with you all! Please let us know your thoughts and once you have seen the work join the debate!
If you would like to do some more reading we have an awesome blog about the dance styles below, and more about this gender debate with some awesome poetry by Bridget Gray. I also recommend a documentary about Rumba called the Black Roots of Salsa by Christian Lieblich (which you can find on google).
We have some treats in store for you in the foyer at The Old Fire Station so make sure you come early!
LADYLIKE AT OFFBEAT FESTIVAL:
DATE: 2nd July