The Place: TIMBER is a work about risk, uncertainty, and tension. What is your own position towards navigating risk? An artist’s life is always precarious to an extent. Is this something you had to learn or teach yourself?
EL: I’m someone who is very meticulous when it comes to navigating risk, it’s always been something that induces anxiety in me, especially the precariousness of freelance work. I’ve had to accept and learn to manage the fact that even positive forms of risk, such as spontaneity, opportunity and chance, can sometimes be overwhelming for me. My creative practice is a way of processing that by creating these tiny microcosm worlds on stage where there’s a set risk at play. It has helped me re-jig my own way of thinking about risk and uncertainty.
When it comes to navigating uncertainty and the unknown, I’m a planner. I like to plan for every eventuality. It’s always reassuring to have a blueprint, even if you don’t end up using it. I really wanted to challenge myself with TIMBER, to see whether you can make a rigorous piece and try to plan for every eventuality, and yet there’s still the risk that everything could just topple all around you. I was interested to see how Hannah Parsons (fellow performer and creative contributor in TIMBER) and I would deal with the pressure of performing that piece in front of an audience with this risk dangling over us. There’s a certain amount of ego you just have to take out of the situation. The process has been quite humbling, recognising and accepting that you are never completely in control.
The Place: In film, people like to say don’t work with children, animals, or props, because whatever CAN go wrong WILL go wrong. Things could go very wrong in TIMBER?
EL: Yes definitely! The set design is made up of 6 rectangular wooden door-sized frames. During the performance they could fall to the ground at any time. The frames can be quite uncooperative collaborators at times. To a certain extent, they have a life of their own. They are very sensitive to different air currents and we don’t know how they will react to 100 people walking into the space or the air con. There is a bit of an unknown factor that could make things interesting… But Hannah and I have been working with these objects for so long, they are almost like fellow performers on stage. We’ve developed a specific skillset to manage their unpredictability – We’ve become very sensitive to their balancing points, how they react to different pressures from us and we’ve become very quick to react when catching the frames before they impact with the floor. There will always be an active risk when working with the frames but the skills we’ve built up allow us to work with that risk rather than let that risk dominate us.
My previous piece Orchard (with Nuria Legarda Andueza) dealt with a similar theme, it had a set design of 90 cardboard tubes all balanced vertically in a grid formation. It only took a slight nudge for a tube to fall to the floor. Orchard was about navigating this precarious space. Normally we would only ever knock down one or two in a performance, but we had one showcase where within the first 5 minutes we knocked almost everything over, and we just hadn’t planned what would happen in this scenario! It was a very difficult performance to process, but also really helped me interrogate my own relationship with risk and failure. For all following performances of that work I felt a lot less pressured because ‘the worst’ had already happened. It was a big release.
The Place: Where does your interest come from to work with objects rather than bodies?
I’m a natural introvert. I think that’s what draws me to the silence and stillness of objects. I think there can be something powerful about the way they occupy space, especially on stage. I also like how objects are largely unpredictable. Like a puzzle, I enjoy working out how they react to my movements and investigating their different movement capabilities. It’s like having a conversation with someone who doesn’t understand your language and because of that you have to approach moving with objects with a very specific, insular focus and sensitivity - learn to read how the object reacts to the pressure of your body so you understand how it’s personality. Objects don’t have the capacity for conscious choice, and I find the unpredictability of that exciting and creative. With humans there’s more choice and consciousness involved so you can often predict, especially on a trained body, how it might react to different impetus. There’s less of a puzzle to solve there.
When I started working with the frames for TIMBER, they seemed quite alien. Through the process of working with them I began to piece together the personality of each frame, growing sensitive to the different noises they started to make as their joints degraded through use. Hannah and I have come to see the frames as collaborators, and in a way, I think they take the leading role in TIMBER.
When Hannah and I first started working with the door frames, I found that they rocked beautifully. I tried over a process of hours, to somatically understand how that movement worked and how it moved through my own body. That attention span on for hours. You can only hold that level of introverted focus for so long when working with a human dance partner. Objects are patient.
The Place: In Orchard there was no music and when those tubes fell it was so incredibly loud and nerve wrecking. Audiences tend to get very nervous and on edge when faced with silence. Is that an atmosphere you create on purpose?
Definitely! I like flirting with audiences. I enjoy the playfulness of making an audience feel just a little bit uncomfortable, or even just that little bit bored before snagging their attention back in and offering them something funny or visually exciting. It’s very rare for people to just sit in silence without something noisy or visual to take up our attention. I really enjoy resetting the audience’s focus, and also subverting what virtuosity is in performance – seeing how I can make a simple turn of the head to the left seem like a triple pirouette. I think TIMBER, at its core, is about the power of subtle change and slowness and how you don’t always have to be loud, fast or strong to be powerful and to hold space. I think there’s something intrinsically political and feminist as well about TIMBER, in with femme presenting bodies defiantly and powerfully occupying a volatile space.
The Place: You did a lot of research for TIMBER to explore other peoples’ experiences and you are also working as a duet for this piece. What does collaboration mean to you and your work?
Collaboration is everything. I’ve learned over the years that my best way of working and creating is a really dynamic exchange of ideas one to one. These sorts of collaborations challenges me to introspect on my world view, gives me a better understanding of my own creative preferences, and push me to try new approaches. Working with Hannah Parsons on TIMBER was a really special collaboration because we are very close friends as well. We’ve both taken on different roles within the creative process. I devise very precise, rigorous choreography but sometimes struggle to retain information. I have always struggled with my recall memory. Whereas Hannah finds it really easy to remember precise choreography, so we really held each other within that process of creating TIMBER.
As a really important part of TIMBER’s creative research was the restorative conversations about risk and uncertainty I had with 10 women and non-binary people. Everyone I talked to had different lived experiences of risk and uncertainty, whether it be their lived experiences, interests, or profession. This think tank of people included an ex-professional snowboarder, a survivor of domestic violence and an armed forces veteran. I was really interested in reaching out to people to understand more about how people perceive and manage risk. I bought these different perspectives with me into the studio and used them to influence TIMBER’s choreography. I’ve had some very beautiful, intimate and surprising conversations with this think tank of people, and I am really excited to share these conversations with others. I think we are living in a time where through Covid, everyone has experienced an unprecedented amount of uncertainty. Collectively as a society we are still working out how to process and move forward from this. People who have experience of managing or overcoming prolonged uncertainty - whether they have a disability, or have overcome an anxiety disorder or are a survivor of abuse – have so much wisdom to share that I think can really help people right now.