Ela Mesma Company

Dispora Dance Theatre

From Caterpillar to Butterfly: 9 Months with The Bench, Roots of Rumba 2016 and other projects…

May 2016: The Bench

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This year I really flew. I always felt it was in me and there was more to come, and in this project, like the Maya Angelou quote, ‘“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” I feel like I really realised how far I have come and allowed myself the permission to blossom. These 9 months include:

Brazil with the Winston Churchill Travelling Scholarship (Blog coming soon)

Ladylike funded by Arts Council of England (March 2016-May 2016)

Ajé (Orixas) with Chelsea Theatre and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (March 2016-May 2016)

Roots of Rumba at Richmix funded by Arts Council of England (April 11th & 12th 2016)

And it all began when I returned from Cuba with The Bench.

The Bench with 2Faced Dance Company Director Tamsin Fitzgerald (November 2015-May 2016)

The Bench is a new programme this year, where 5 female choreographers (Jennifer Essex, Rachel Erdos, Rebecca Evans, Lee Griffiths and myself), working within the UK Arts sector, are given an opportunity to participate in a 9 month programme of training, discussion, debate and mentoring all within a bespoke and creative framework. I found out when I was in Cuba with The Winston Churchill Scholarship that I had been successful with my application, and was so happy- this really did feel like my big break.

The Bench was very special in that it was a direct response to the evidence (Some examples below) around female choreographers having less opportunities. 

‘We need to see female choreographers given the same opportunities as their male colleagues. Not “for the sake of it”, but because it’s time for dance to shed its institutionalised sexism, to rid itself of the whiff of privileged boys’ clubs and backstairs deals and join the artistic mainstream. It’s time for the lions to have their say.’ Luke Jennings- The Guardian




I had never recognised it as discrimination, but I had noticed my male counterparts having much more luck, much more quickly with regards to meetings with big venues, programming and supported opportunities. The most dissappointing rejection for me was being told I was overqualified for a choreography project and then seeing the line up of those selected and realising how much more qualified or experienced the male choreographers on that list were. Still I have never let that put me off or give up, because I had already taken so many risks and made sacrifices to become a dancer. But the journey is not always easy and those knock backs affect us all, so, when someone does believe in you and you are given the opportunity to do what you love, you will always step up a level. Having The Bench believe in me was one of those opportunities. I have stepped up and so much has changed in this 9 months.

The Bench set out to:

  • Raise the profile of female choreographers in the UK and Internationally.
  • Provide bespoke talent development/training for female choreographers working within the UK Arts sector.
  • Change and influence current behaviour within the UK contemporary dance sector towards female choreographers.
  • Build a network of venues and producers both in the UK and abroad who will promote the work of female choreographers and support educational initiatives which encourage girls to make dance.

What Is The BENCH? from 2Faced Dance Company on Vimeo.

The process for me was a challenge at first. I came to the project at quite a difficult time, and also had a lot of self doubt. 

The first session was with Sharon Watson and we had to pitch to her to make a piece of work. I have always been very shy to speak in public, and true to my experiences I closed up and began to desperately grasp at reasons to prove my worth. We were told that in 9 months time we would pitch at The Bench conference in Birmingham Hippodrome, and every time I thought of it my heart would start pounding.

Next we worked with Rosie Kay, and again we were pitching. It was less intimidating and I enjoyed creating the choreographic work she set us. Over the next sessions we worked with Charlotte Vincent, Isabelle Mortimer, Kate Flatt and many more. With each workshop I felt I shed a little more of my past and gained a little more in confidence. I experienced so much support, amazing workshops and such honesty from my mentor and Bench fellows, that I was really able to look at myself and realise what was and wasn’t working, how I was not helping myself, and make changes in the way I approached my work, relationships and business for the better.

Working with Charlotte was a wonderful experience, her honesty and integrity was so inspiring. I had wanted to work with her since 2009 reading about her experiences as a female choreographer in the Guardian, and since then have loved her very real approach, her appreciation of Black feminist writers and her work. She helped me to ‘cut out the crap’ and really focus on my goals.

The Bench culminated on May 17th with the Bench event in Birmingham at The Hippodrome. The first panel I took part in after a quick rehearsal was about the experience of being on The Bench, and I felt nervous, but as I began to speak I realised how passionate I was about this experience, how far I had come and inspired in the future of the Bench. We listened to many talks. Some of my favourite speakers were Hannah Williams, Seeta Patel and Luke Jennings. 

Finally our Pitch time arrived and I danced around in the way my body knew to prepare itself to be in public, then began to focus my mind on the talk. As people entered suddenly I felt an excited calm that I knew it would be ok, that I had so much to share with this very giving audience, and I began to relax into my talk-even giving a demo of the dry mouth smile effect when you do a salsa or samba show and your lips get stuck! The whole pitch went really well, Emma Houston did a great sharing of her solo in Ladylike, and I felt happy that I had delivered my vision and way of working to the participants.

The Bench finished with the launch of the manifesto which has been signed up to by the organisations present http://www.the-bench.org/about/

I am very proud of all the Bench artists who were involved, all of us have come a long way. Particular congratulations to Rebecca Evans who recieved this years Commission and a massive thanks to Tamsin Fitzgerald and Lisa Sullivan of 2Faced for making this happen and to my mentor Charlotte Vincent. I am particularly excited about the Bench Manifesto and seeing how that impacts on the future of dance in the UK.

Ladylike funded by Arts Council of England (March 2016-May 2016)

After the first part of the project in November 2015, I secured one more week funding through Arts Council of England to fine tune and solidify Ladylike into a 55 minute show. We began, only a few days after my return from Brazil with the Winston Churchill travelling scholarship, with getting ready to perform an extract of Ladylike in Leeds on the Sketch program at Yorkshire Dance.

Yorkshire Dance have also been an incredibly supportive institution, both in believeing in my work even though it is very different to the typical aesthetic of the instituion, and in giving the Company support through the Sketch program. We spent two glorious days with the amazing Peggy Olislaegers as Dramaturgy, who introduced me to the term ‘Dance Activism’.

In true Mariposa style (my nickname from school), I was so full of new ideas and inspiration that I tried to cram all my 55 minutes of ideas to the 20 minute time slot to see my vision on stage. We actually had very positive comments from the sharing, and the choreography had grown,  but I knew I hadn’t done the work justice by showing it like this, and I swore not to do that again. I realised that it is much better to show less, be patient, clear and well rehearsed and do it well.

We further rehearsed Ladylike and had two days in Leeds, and then a final day in Brighton with Charlotte Vincent as part of The Bench program, in which we finalised the structure for the full production. It was an amazing time working with Charlotte- truly transformational- it cemented my understanding of how to structure and how important taking my time is in doing something well. I hope to work with her more in the future.

The full cast- Anna Alvarez, Emma Houston and Lianett Rodrigues and myself filmed the full production of Ladylike on May 23rd at Richmix, and are now preparing to move into a Production period with the work in September and working hard at organising a UK tour (dates and venues to be announced) and finalising and rehearsing the full 55 minute show. Ladylike has been quoted as: ‘An absolutely stunning and provocative piece.’

I have learnt so much making this piece. I have released myself from the pressures I have felt as a woman to be ‘pretty’ or ‘quiet’ or behave in anyway unnatural to me in that moment. I have asked questions about my sex and race, and let go of the need to know answers, which I hadn’t realised were holding me back. I have learnt how to hold a space. I have developed in the way I work with other artists, and in how to deal with each issue we face. I feel I have grown up, become a woman, and discovered who I am. I have also discovered an amazing way to move and how to pass this on to others. I have worked with four incredible artists, and we have laughed, cried and grown together. All of us have become less inhibited, and have developed as artists. We have also become such a tight working unit and this has deepened the work and cemented us as a company.

Ladylike Snippets Bench1min from Ella Mesma on Vimeo.

Ajé (Orixas) with Chelsea Theatre and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (March 2016-May 2016)

In mid March, we held an audition to find a new cast for Orixas. Working with the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Chelsea Theatre, the project would include re-working the pece and working with local schools. Mariana Camiloti and Gabriela Montgomery Solano joined our team for rehearsals and Company class, which each day developed the concept of Latin Dance Theatre, and the blending of Latin and Breaking further. I learnt how much potential there is in this fusion of styles and gained confidence in my skills as a creator, teacher, and in my vision of the piece and how to work with individuals and inspire others on their own journeys.

During the process, we decided to change the name of the piece Orixas, to Ajé. Ajé in Yoruba is said to be ‘both a spiritual power as well as the humans who use that power.’ I like the word because both men and women can have Aje, however it’s owners and controllers are women. I felt that this term captured the essence of my piece well as it is said to be the concept of ‘creation as well as the force of justice and retribution, a balance that completes pairs, this force can create/destroy, harm/heal’. 

We first performed Ajé in the Chelsea Theatre to students from local schools, with a question and answer session. Children at the question and answer session said: “I liked the bit where you were warriors’, ‘I liked the handstands’, I like the Egyptian dresses’. The following week, two of the team- Ama Rouge and Gabriela Montgomery Solano began teaching in two local schools ready for the performance in May. I discovered this was a really great event to collaborate with all of the talented individuals involved. The classes continued over the next month, creating dance performances by two company members. We also filmed and took interviews of the process.

Finally on May 19th, we performed alongside the two schools inviting the local community to watch the show. The Chelsea theatre was full, and the work was very well received.

Roots of Rumba at Richmix funded by Arts Council of England (April 11th & 12th 2016)

Roots of Rumba preparations began immediately upon my return from Brazil, with contracts,  promotion of the event, flyers, a panel selecting the artists to perform and setting up the crowd funder campaign. The selected artists were Luanda Pau (Cuba/France), Myriam Gadri (USA), East London Capoeira, Erika Vanessa Gil (Colombia/UK), Pexava (Mexico, UK), Tierra Morena (Sweden), Aneta ‘Modelo’ Zwierzyńska (Poland), Yuvel Soria (Bolivia, UK), Anna Alvarez (Argentina, UK) and Incendium Dance Company. The event was promoted in the press, by various support groups, as well as through the facebook event and pages on a daily basis. I learnt a lot about promotion, and it was promising to see how interested the public were by the concept. I have also arranged to review the ways I was marketing the event with Roots of Rumba. https://www.facebook.com/events/854414584599995/?active_tab=posts

The crowd funder and promotional trailer did well. Class at the Place was another opportunity to promote Roots of Rumba. Again I learnt how important the development of this work is and that we already have a following.

We organised a week of Dramaturgy and rehearsal space for the Roots of Rumba artists with Daniel Goldman of Casa Latin American Theatre Festival. It greatly improved the level of those works who attended. Having the opportunity to work with mentors & dramaturgy’s  is an important development for Latin Dance Theatre, and anyone involved in performance.

The activity proved successful in developing Latin Dance Theatre audiences through direct engagement, workshops and the performances. On the first day of Roots of Rumba, we sold 87 tickets, and day two sold 90, plus 30 in the classes throughout the day. The afterparty, featuring one of my first teachers of Latin music, DJ Lubi, was also well attended- and from feedback after, there was a real positive buzz about the event.

I always wanted to see more Latin dance in the spotlight. I knew I wanted to see Latin dance given the same respect as ballet or contemporary or more recently hiphop. My vision is to put work with Afro Brazilian and Afro Cuban at its core on the stage and it was incredible to see that happen at Roots of Rumba. I am excited about being a part of the journey to push Latin Dance Theatre forwards whilst maintaining the respect, technique and of history of these dances which all trace back through migration and slavery to Africa.

This was the third year of Roots of Rumba and we are already International. We had Brazil, Cuba Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, a team from Sweden, a dancer based in New York, and we had people from the North, South, East, West of England and London! Roots of Rumba is already global, and the start of something long term. It is about celebrating some of the most incredible dances on the planet, and pushing this scene to see where it can go.

Here are some quotes from the event: ‘Genius, vulnerable, beautiful’, ‘PURE DANCE’, ‘More please’, ‘We love Rumba’, ‘Fantastic day of dance’, ‘Amazing teachers’.

We also gave all artists involved ten high resolution images and footage of their show. Artists said:’Would love to take part again’ ’10/10′ ‘What an honour’.

The Future

One of the major things I remembered this year was how to have fun… I was so busy worrying about making it all happen I had forgotten to enjoy each moment. The future is unsure… And the only constant is change… But I feel it is going to be bright. 

I have been made an Associate Dance Artist at Dance City in Newcastle so I plan to spend quite a bit of time there. I hope to continue my relationship with Yorkshire Dance, and I also hope to build more connections in London.

In July I will travel to NYC with The Lisa Ullman scholarship to continue my research into Breaking and its connections to Latin dance. I know travel and migration is an important part of my work. I am even more determined this year to dance my way and continue developing a movement language which combines the dances of Cuba and Brazil with the vocabulary of Breaking and Contemporary. I feel it is important to talk about and research the migration of these dances around the world, how connected they all are and how they have spread and diversified. 

I will continue to push Latin Dance Theatre which I am passionate about seeing more on stage. Latin dance is seen much more in clubs and bars and is seen with small outfits and big smiles. There is so much more to these styles which have as much worth to be on stage as Ballet, Contemporary and HipHop, and I am excited about continually pushing that with Roots of Rumba, and empowering other Latin artists moving in this direction.

As a B-Girl, again only a few weeks ago I was told to ‘stop dancing like a girl’ and with this ammunition I am determined to dance just like a B-Girl. It has never felt natural to me to try to be like a guy- because I am not one, but I do love breaking and figuring out how it works best on my own body. I am excited in my quest for my own way to break, which I am sure will have Latin dance at its core. 

I have learnt how I like to make work, and I recognise my strengths. I love to work with these styles-for me this is pure dance. It is strong, beautiful, powerful, vulnerable. I love to show contrasts and juxtapositions in my work- to show the power of the individual- their story, strength and also their beauty through vulnerability. I like to make bold statements in my work-Dance Activism (as in the words of Peggy Olislaegers). I like to shake up an idea, and to juxtapose that to really make an impact. Next, perhaps I will work on a mixed cast of men, women, ethnicities, cultures, continuing to explore bold topics and this movement language. Underneath everything, at my core, and underlying all my work and activism is the belief in empowerment, in protest and in equality, because no matter how beautiful we are as individuals, deep down I believe we are all the same, we are all connected, and we are all capable of greatness.

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Photos by Sara Teresa, Angelika Bendt and Roger Barnes

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