Dance-poetry film collaboration between poet Karen McCarthy Woolf and dancer Ella Mesma


Interview with Karen McCarthy Woolf
1) Before this project did you have an interest in dance- if so, what kind? And had you thought about doing a poetry-dance collaboration?

As a writer I have had a long-running interest in collaborative and cross-arts work. The last major collaborative project I put together was commissioned by The London Word Festival called My T-Shirt Says. I took photos of the text on peoples’ t-shirts, made video interviews and with them and projected stills and a/v images into an immersive installation space I created from the poems I wrote based on the found text. I also commissioned an original soundtrack – as we did here. I’ve experimented with poetry film before, working with Morbleu director Fiona Melville, but I’d not thought about dance and choreography. What’s amazing to me is how suited it is to lyric poetry – the dancer’s movement is a visual shadow of the white space, the silence and the emotional arc of the poem.

2) I know you had have a strong interest in word-image relationships and have collaborated with visual artists, what is it about poetry-other form collaborations which appeals to you?

For me a film or a collaboration is a way for a poem to take shape in a more three-dimensional format than the page offers – although of course the reader’s imagination is capable of projecting anything onto the screen of the mind! In this sense I see poetry film as an extension of form – in the same way that a sonnet is a traditional form, contemporary poets now have access to raft of additional formal opportunities, whether it’s Twitter haiku (another collaborative piece I made on migration while at the National Maritime Museum) or working directly with musicians, film-makers or photographers.

3) The poem for the project, Morbleu, is a highly sensitive one about your stillborn son. Why did you choose this poem? Did you have any concerns about letting another artist interpret/translate the poem in dance?

Morbleu is an expression of the moment of birth and death, which are one in the same thing in An Aviary of Small Birds, which is a collection centred around the stillbirth of my baby son Otto. To be honest, it was an obvious choice, and one that Dancing Words creative director Nathalie Teitler also seemed to have in mind. The poem favours lyric intensity over narrative, and I think it’s this more abstract approach to the emotional heart of the poem that seemed to suit both the dancer, Ella Mesma — who has a certain sprite-like, ethereal quality –and the form. I didn’t have concerns because from the outset I could see that Ella was a precise and detailed artist who was very sensitive to the nuances of the work. We had a couple of meetings before she wrote the choreography and this gave me the opportunity to clarify any moments in the text which might have brought more understanding to her interpretation.

4) What expectations, if any, did you have about the way in which the process of collaboration might work? Were they met or were  you surprised?

I knew I would be very particular about the music and that also it would be important for Ella to resound positively to it too. The composer Andrea Allegra worked with me quite closely in the composition of a draft arrangement which Ella liked. Music was a part of my writing the poem which was written not long after the bereavement: I listened to certain artists and tracks endlessly: Vini Reilly’s work and Brian Eno’s Music for Civic Recovery Centres being two such examples. I also wanted the music to sound certain high notes. What Andrea  brought to the composition was a sense of playfulness, a childlikeness, which in the intensity of the grief was not something I had fully considered. That was a new element and one I hadn’t expected, but that brings everything to life in a new way.

5) What was the hardest part of the process for you? What were the highlights?

Nothing felt difficult — it was a joy to see all the contributory components coalesce. For me the visual experience of the lyric was a highlight. Something one might even become quite addicted to!

6) Do you feel that the film does justice to your poem? Does it add anything?

The film is not illustrative of the poem, it’s a new interpretation and that’s exciting. A new collaborative authorship has come to into existence. That to me is the transformative quality of art. Seeing a dancer interpret the words and movement of the piece that in turn responds to the text and soundtrack. Fiona also trained as a painter/fine artist, and I think that she brings that aesthetic to the work. Everyone has a level of expertise to bring to the table. In a sense a collaboration is also a visual ‘reading’ of a poem — you get to experience an audience’s understanding of the work and help shape a communal reinterpretation.

7) Would you recommend to other poets that they work cross arts, particularly with dance? And if so why? Did you learn/gain anything creatively?

Dance and poetry are natural partners and I’m thankful to Nathalie Teitler, whose passion for both forms was the driving vision behind the project. I think there’s huge scope for these two art forms to communicate further. For me, poetry is writing music with words: by bringing film, music and dance into the equation the possibilities are endless.


A Profile of Dancer Ella Mesma

Ella Mesma’s achievements as a dancer & choreographer are impressive: a performer in Russell Maliphant Company’s ‘Rodin Project’ at Sadler’s Wells, a three times performer at  Jonzi D’s Breakin’ Convention and a Passista in Rio Carnival. She is a highly accomplished choreographer; Ella founded Element Arts, which focuses on authentic Latin dance. She also runs her own Company – Ella Mesa Company, exploring innovative choreography. Their latest piece, entitled ‘Ladlylike’ is a fierce, feminist exploration of rape, violence against women and challenges gender stereotypes. Ella has been mentored by Charlotte Vincent who helped her realise her ambition to work around women’s issues. This year, Ella was a Bench fellow (Tamsin Fitzgerald-2Faced Dance Company) and is Associate Dance Artist of Dance City, Newcastle.

What is most surprising about Ella’s career is that she started training in dance at a relatively late stage. Working as a waitress in her late teens, she became drawn in to the Latin dance scene. Perhaps not surprising given her own background of mixed heritage. It was not until after she had completed her degree in economics and politics that Ella started to tour and train – often on the job – in other dance forms, including hip-hop and contemporary. She was later able to consolidate her training at The Place. Asked how she was able to achieve more than many dancers who have trained in contemporary dance most of their lives, Ella is forthright, ‘I think you have to be obsessive about what you’re doing, obsessive about asking the questions even more than finding the answers.’

Although she is tiny, beautiful and speaks quietly it is soon clear that Ella’s dance and choreography is guided by a powerful intelligence and a core of steel. After a day of filming for the Dancing Words piece, Morbleu, Ella was covered in an impressive array of bruises but still went on to a capoiera session. Her team of almost entirely female dancers at her company are similarly fierce but extremely feminine, and many equally at home with hip hop as they are with Latin and contemporary. Coming from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, all of her dancers are on a constant journey to train more, understand more about dance, share more with students (from adults in community settings to children) and to share more with the public through performances. Ella herself is aware of the difficulties facing female choreographers in the UK but determined to bring a truly female awareness to her work.

It was her keen intellect, sensitivity to female issues, technical expertise in diverse dance forms (Latin, contemporary and breaking) and beautiful technique which made Ella an obvious choice to dance to Karen McCarthy Woolf’s poem, Morbleu. A highly moving poem about the stillbirth of the poet’s son, Otto, the piece required someone who could be both ethereal and fiercely physical. Ella’s precise choreography and extraordinary flexibility allow her to move seamlessly from representing the spirit child, to the woman in labour. She explores the liminality between birth and death and the intense physicality of the moment when a child is born. Through her performance the poem breathes and takes on life. Ultimately the dance piece acts as a beautiful memorial to a tragically short life which nevertheless was filled with meaning.

Interview with Ella

1) Have you done any poetry collaborations before and what made you want to take part?

I worked with Warsan Shire last year and absolutely loved it. I am so inspired by her powerful words.

2) The choreography process was a little different to your usual process in that there was some collaboration. The creative director did a form of rough ‘translation’ of the poem into basic dance/movement ideas, around which you created the dance piece. What was the most challenging part of the process? What was your highlight?

It was a great experience to be given a brief and respond to that using my own natural movement. I think the highlight for me was collaborating with such a talented group of people and working in such a different way to how I normally would.

3) Your work as a choreographer and dancer, as well as a teacher has a strong female element. Most of your company are women. Can you talk a little about the difficulties you think face women choreographers and why you focus on a voice which is both female, fierce and feminist.

Yes in my current work I have an all female cast. The piece is called Ladylike, and I felt it was important to look at the issues women face in order to continue forward. I feel the female voice is too often silenced. Statistics show that in the UK Parliament, men outnumber women 4 to 1, and in dance for example, at the Royal Opera House there has not been a female choreographer on the main stage for 15 years. But things are changing and these issues are being raised which is great. The Bench (for whom I am a fellow) are writing a manifesto which they aim to have backed by major dance houses across the UK. Their event next week in Birmingham is all about raising awareness around these issues.

My piece Ladylike is really about being silenced and controlled, and how society expectations impact us. Ladylike was inspired by the fact that 81% of girls aged 11-21 have seen/ experienced sexism. I wanted to make a piece which makes some noise about that and make the issues of the female, myself dancers personal experiences political. However it is important to me to highlight that I do not believe these are female only issues. I think men also suffer from the roles that society sets us up to play out, and I think feminism is about equality, things being run equally and I am interested in looking at the male perspective of these experiences next.

4) Your latest work, mentored by Charlotte Vincent, is a piece entitled Ladlylike. Can you say a little bit about this piece and your process in putting it together?

Sure… so the whole process has been such a wonderful learning curve and experience. I worked with three wonderful women – Anna Alvarez, Emma Houston, Lianette Rodrigues Gonzalez and myself. Each artist has their own story – a little like the vagina monologues, their own journey which we go through as a collective. We have supported one another as a sisterhood both physically, metaphorically and in the process of making this work, which explores issues around sexuality, sanity, violence, and of course femininity. The R&D of this piece has been quite spread out enabling me to really get to grips with the topics I want to cover and the voice of each individual artist. I have used Latin folklore, latin dance forms and breaking, along with contemporary dance to create the work. It has been amazing to work with Charlotte Vincent through The Bench programme, as she really helped me to understand how to structure my ideas succinctly. We will be going into Production in September ready to turn the work which is really exciting!