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CHOREOGRAPHER Nicola Elliott is the most recent recipient of the Theatre Arts Admin Collective Emerging Theatre Directors Bursary, supported by Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) and the Baxter Theatre.
Elliott’s latest production, Fragile, was staged at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective last week. The work was inspired by Claudio Stellato’s L’Autre, which combines theatre, dance, realism and abstraction into philosophical collage.
Her relationship with dance has been a meandering journey. “I went to a Waldorf school where movement in the forms of Eurythmy and Botha Gym are integrated into the curriculum. Then there were other experiences – dabbling with tai chi, yoga, synchronised ice skating. So it has been quite an eclectic collage and very much off the beaten track”, she said.
Choreography as her career of choice evolved over time.
“My tertiary education has been at Rhodes University (I finished with my Master’s degree in drama in 2010). I went there with the aim to become a physical theatre performer. At the time, Professor Gary Gordon was head of department. He is such a fantastic teacher. In my Honours year, choreography was one of my specialisations and I became very intrigued by it – the many layers of meaning that one can play with, the possibility for embodiment while at the same time having ironic detachment. Performing became a fun thing to do, but choreography became the real thing to do.”
What has the bursary meant to her? “The Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary is becoming increasingly prestigious the more years it runs. Apart from the joy of the opportunity to create a work, it is becoming a valuable asset on the CV and crucial opportunity to introduce oneself to the wider industry. When one is trying to make it in this industry, one doesn’t get many chances.”
What is the experience of dancing in a piece that you have choreographed and directed yourself?
“I very seldom perform in my own works. I find myself too frustrating to work with! Not only that, but my ability with choreography and direction relies on me being able to witness from the outside, and to craft the performance from offstage. The choreographic signature for me is a process of engaging with other performers.”
Elliott’s work combines elements of theatre and dance. “My training has been in theatre and dance. I call myself a choreographer because the body and the meanings that the performer generates are the central things to me – as opposed to narrative, for instance. But as far as I’m concerned, no performance style is off limits.
“One of my favourite aspects to creating a work is the chance to put often very different people on stage at the same time – the chance to highlight difference.
“In Fragile, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of working with three such different performers: Jori Snell, Thabiso Pule and Lucy Kruger. They are remarkable performers with very different backgrounds and training histories. I have also added a fourth performer into the mix: my mother Louise Elliott inhabits the space for the duration of the work,” she added.
Illka Louw has produced some of the most spectacular costumes on local stages. When asked what it was like working with her, Elliot said: “Illka has been fantastic! She brings a deep intelligence and an attitude of exploration, as well as incredible expertise. I hope to be able to work with her many times in the future.”
And what can audiences expect from Fragile? “The cast and I have attempted to create the experience of change. The work is not an explicit story. It is an experience. We think of the audience more as witnesses to an event, rather than as (passive) viewers.
“In my mind, I have modelled it on our experience of very good instrumental music: the most important aspect is most often what the experience is of listening to it, if one has shifted emotionally, intellectually, psychologically, spiritually, and how. The meaning behind the music is often not as relevant. That is how Fragile works. It is a crafted experience of irrevocable change and it is, at times, devastating, humorous, ironic, emotional and also sometimes pretty silly.”
Apart from the run at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective last week, the work is also being taken to The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown where it will run on the Arena programme from June 28 to July 1.
Dancing requires a rigorous practice and fitness regime – what is hers? “I have been injured for what seems like ages, so I have been ordered out of the studio. When I choreograph, I prefer not to be in training myself as the physical vocabulary of dance training sometimes gets in the way a little bit.”
To relax Elliott enjoys a particular rock pool in False Bay. “The first thing I’m going to do when my physiotherapist gives me the go-ahead is climb the mountain again. It’s been leering at me for over a year now.”
l For information, call 021 447 3683, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.nationalartsfestival.co.za