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In search of wonder

Alexandra Elliott Dance explores the artistic process, from creation to loss


By: Holly Harris

Posted: 6:00 AM CDT Wednesday, Apr. 5, 2023


Inspiration struck like a thunderbolt after local dance artist Alexandra Elliott attended her first Winnipeg New Music Festival back in January 2018.

Grappling with the intensely knotty, 21st-century score, she became transfixed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s then-maestro Alexander Mickelthwate’s fluid conducting style, as he cued players and embodied the music with every wave of his baton.

“I was sitting in the very first row of the concert hall in line with him,” Elliott recalls during a phone interview. “His movements were incredible. He was so connected to all these musicians and I went into a fantasyland, wondering what would that look like if we turned him around?”

Mike Sudoma Free Press.png

Mike Sudoma/Winnipeg Free Press

Performer Alex Elliott plays the part of an orchestral conductor as she practices her performance at Prairie Theatre Exchange.

Dance fans will be able to judge for themselves as Alexandra Elliott Dance opens its latest show Phase 4.0 tonight at 7:30 p.m. and running through April 9 (masks required for the Sunday 2:30 pm matinée) at Prairie Theatre Exchange’s Colin Jackson Studio Theatre. The bill includes two world premieres: Elliott’s solo Conduct being performed by herself, as well as duet Ellipsis 2.0, featuring dancers Neilla Hawley and Justine Erickson. Phase 4.0 refers to phases of dance-making: research, creation, development and, ultimately, performance.

Her imagination sparked, the artist began researching conductors and their lexicon of gestural language, including poring through YouTube videos of charismatic Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. She discovered the darker, more controversial truths of the legendary maestro who died in 1989, both revered as an artist who led the Berlin Philharmonic among other world-class orchestras; and reviled for his ardent support of Hitler, as a card-carrying member of the Nazi party.

“I became interested in ideas about control, hierarchy and power dynamics in the arts, whether between a conductor and the orchestra, or choreographer and dancers,” she explains of her creative process taking an unexpected turn. “During the first half, I’m appearing to conduct the audience, which will be seated around the stage in a horseshoe pattern like an orchestra, with very sharp, angular movements.

“The second half becomes more of an exploration of the interior world of a conductor, with all its deeper, emotional layers. I go inside myself and everything has to come out from this internal landscape.”

Dasha Plett serves as co-creator of the 25-minute solo, as well as composer/sound designer for both premières. She became gobsmacked after discovering that a box stuffed full of old classical music cassette tapes, purchased for another creative project back in 2019 via Kijiji, contained “20 or 30” tapes featuring Karajan on the podium. Plett digitized and sampled the tapes, weaving the crackly tracks together to create an otherworldly score.

“I sampled phrases from these very, very sensuous classical music performances and then sort of mashed them together,” she reveals during a phone call. “It felt like a chaotic attack on source material and sounds very eerie, and atmospheric.”

The second work, Ellipsis 2.0, explores the medical world in relation to the human body and all its complexities, originally inspired by Elliott’s moonlighting as a medical assistant at a local health clinic, and staged as an earlier incarnation in 2018. Back on Kijiji, she searched for — and found — a vintage-examining table now morphed into a customized set piece on wheels, able to be whirled around.

Erickson, notably marking her company debut, shares her thoughts about being “inside” the decidedly futuristic, roughly 20-minute work loosely evoking a patient and nurse relationship. Plett’s ear-popping score self-described as a “club mix,” in turn derived from another tape of breathing sounds that accompanied the antique exam table, becomes sonic counterpoint.

“The world we are creating within this duet feels quite apocalyptic, and that we are the only people left in this strange new world,” the dancer says via email.

Says Hawley (who uses pronouns they/them), Elliott’s fluid, “intricate partnering is a puzzle that continuously challenges my intellect as a dancer and my ability to listen to my partner from creation to performance. It’s one of my favourite types of partnering because there is always so much to do, which keeps me ultra present on stage.”

The show is particularly meaningful for Elliott, who also serves as director for performance series Art Holm. The artist premièred Canadian choreographer/performer and former artistic director of WCD Tedd Robinson’s duet Logarian Rhapsody, a guttural piece brought to life with Ian Mozdzen. The duet explored the archetypal images of Adam and Eve, and the nature of “ecstasy” with a tantalizing Granny Smith apple their primary prop.

Elliott’s bags were packed to travel to Robinson’s creative hothouse studio in Quyon, Que. last August when a phone call relayed tragic news that the beloved artist had unexpectedly died from a still undisclosed condition. Deeply in shock, Elliott pivoted hard and traveled to Ontario to work with Ottawa Dance Directive artistic director Yvonne Coutts, who coached her as well as provided an invaluable sense of continuity as the entire Canadian dance community reeled from Robinson’s passing (“We talked about Tedd all week, so it became our own special memorial to him,” she shares).

She is dedicating her show to Robinson’s memory, grateful to have numerous notebooks filled with years of his astute feedback and choreographic suggestions, including from an earlier mentorship dedicated to her new solo that guided her throughout her latest creative process.

“I was filming myself in the studio one day, deep into the process of working on Conduct,” she recounts. “Suddenly I felt wild chills throughout my whole body and thought, ‘If I look up right now, I’m going to see Tedd right there behind me.’ Of course he wasn’t there, however the sound on the CD weirdly started skipping, and that’s never happened before. I definitely have felt his presence and his spirit during this process,” she says of the spooky experience.

“One of the greatest things I’ve learned from Tedd is to always ask questions,” she says with reverence. “He would say, ‘We want the audience to wonder, but not be perplexed.’ That is what I’m trying to do.”

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