By Nicole Harris
One of the best parts of this year’s NACHMO is that, because it’s entirely virtual, people can participate from wherever they are. I was thrilled when former Monkeyhouse artist, Elyssa Berg, chose to choreograph something! She moved to NYC a few years ago and it’s exciting to be able to work with her again!
Learn more about Elyssa and NACHMO, and play along with the #MonkeyhouseNACHMOChallenge by following us on Instagram!
N: What have you been doing since you moved to NYC? (P.S. We miss you!)
EB: Thank you, I miss you all too! Since moving I have been doing a variety of different things. Fitness has been a huge focus for me the past three years. I have been teaching for barre3 at the Long Island City studio where I am also a mentor to the instructors. For some time I was teaching Movement Education at a private school in Queens until the pandemic hit. I have also continued to take dance classes and have done some freelance work performing since I have moved.
N: How have you been handling quarantine? What have you been doing to keep moving and creating during this year? I know you started a new business that seems to be wildly successful…! Can you talk a little about it?
EB: Quarantine has definitely been a huge challenge for myself and I know it has been for many others too. Being in NYC, it was really difficult to shift life and adapt to living inside your small apartment. With so many people living around you even going for a walk at times felt almost impossible. As difficult as it has been thus far, it has also been a tremendous year of uncomfortable but necessary growth.
My employment has changed a lot since last March but I was able to adapt to teaching fitness classes online through Zoom. That has definitely kept me moving and given me some consistency during this time which I am so grateful for.
During quarantine I decided to open my own Etsy shop, String and Dowel. It consists of macrame pieces and handmade home decor. I taught myself how to create macrame a year ago as a way to create holiday gifts for friends and family and I honestly never stopped! I have even started to explore dip dying yarn and redoing furniture which have both been really fun ways to experiment and create without any expectations of the outcome.
N: What will you be making for NACHMO? Will you be working with dancers or on your own?
EB: I will be creating a solo for NACHMO. I am going to be choreographing, dancing, filming, and editing myself. I have created some dance films in the past with the help of other moving bodies but I am excited to approach this piece very differently than I have in the past.
N: You have performed for NACHMO before but this is your first time choreographing. What are you most excited about in this process? What are you most nervous about?
EB: Yes, I am very excited to be choreographing this time! I am most excited just to get back into the process of creating movement. I have been finding different ways of creating throughout other aspects of my life and I had recently taken a step away from dance, especially through 2020, so I am excited that NACHMO is serving as my way to get back to doing what I love. That makes me both excited and nervous at the same time. Since I am creating this piece for myself it makes it feel a lot more personal and vulnerable and that can always be a little scary to share.
Musing Prompt #46.329 (premiere)
Improvisation Prompt by Karen Krolak
Performed by Caleb Howe, Elyssa Berg, Nicole Harris, Olivia Scharff and Sam Mullen
Music by Twink the Toy Piano Band
Special Thanks to Aisha Cruse
Choreographed by Nicole Harris
Performed by Sarah Friswell Cotton, Olivia Scharff, Nicole Harris
Costumes by Nicole Harris
Special Thanks to Kelsey Griffith, Impulse Dance Center
Ukiyo (Japanese) - the “floating world”; a place of fleeting beauty and living in the moment, detached from the bothers of life.
Choreographed by Karen Krolak in collaboration with Sam Mullen
Performed by Sam Mullen
Music by Twink the Toy Piano Band
Sam would like to thank Karen for the encouragement, freedom of expression and constant support.
4 things (2018)
Choreographed by Elizabeth Powers in collaboration with the dancers
Performed by Michelle Boilard, Michela Doherty, Sarah Feinberg, and Elizabeth Powers
Music by Mystified
Costumes by Elizabeth Powers
Choreographed and Performed by Caleb Howe and Nicole Harris
Music by Francois Couture
Sound Design by Nicole Harris
Umbrella Design by Karen Krolak
Special Thanks to Karen Krolak and Peter-John de Kock
Voetstoots (Afrikaans) - refers to something, usually sold, with all its faults and without guarantees - “As is”
* Created as part of Monkeyhouse’s Choreography Mentorship Program
Nicole Harris: You are building a series of vignettes using four different dancers. Can you talk about who is in each section and what drew you to those people/pairings?
Elyssa Berg: This decision came from watching how people interacted during Musings. I was able to work quite a few times with these ideas and throughout the sessions of Musings I was able to watch the pairings of people, seeing how they interacted with the light and each other. I chose the pairings in this way so that the connections appeared genuine and true to the relationship of the pairings. Nicole and Caleb are a part of the first section in which the feeling of the piece is curious and explorative. The second section includes Elizabeth and Sarah and the feeling is more playful which is very true to the relationship between the two of them and how they move together. The last section is a solo with Elizabeth in which I wanted the feeling to be isolated and contained. Thanks to Musings each decision was made based on how the individuals and their actions inspired me as they brought themselves to the work.
N: You have built this piece very differently than you normally work. Can you talk about the differences (set choreography vs improvisation) and how you are feeling about the process of building improvisationally?
N: You have led a series of Musings (a time for choreographers to play with ideas in a low stakes setting) over the last year in preparation for creating this piece. How have you used Musing time to help get you where you are now? What was something from Musing that was unexpectedly helpful?
EB: Musings have helped me in feeling prepared to create. When you come into rehearsal with a big idea, of something you haven't done before, it can be very intimidating. The most frustrating part of building a new piece can be the trial and error process that you feel you don't have time for. It can feel like a lot of pressure to build something quickly with the resources that you have, feeling like everything you make has to be good. Musings gave me the chance to have all of the trial and error moments that you need before you start setting a work. Since there is no pressure in Musings you can try just about anything. You can go in with a small idea and just see what happens. A lot of unexpected things have happened during Musings that made their way into the piece. With all of this time to weed out the ideas that I didn't need I was able to focus on what I liked and what read the best. It was amazing to see how easy the building process of the pieces was after preparing through Musings.
By Elyssa Berg
Choreography, when combined with different mediums can create incredible results. It allows for a chance to create something in which each element would not be able to stand alone. Dance for film is an example of just that. When you combine film work and dance you are able to create things that can not be created for the stage, which opens up many doors creatively.
As a choreographer, I have found a great interest in creating not only work for the stage but also for film. The process can be quite different than that of creating a piece for the stage. When I find myself creating or preparing a new piece there is a lot more preparation time involved. You have to think of each moment in the film; the shot, the movement, what the environment is like, how the shots and the cuts are driven by the music, and much more. This involves a lot less studio rehearsal and a lot more planning and testing when it comes to the actual creation of the piece.
For myself, the most exciting part of choreographing for dance film is having complete power of exactly what the audience is seeing. By deciding the frame of each shot you are in control of what the audience's exact focus is, which is not always achievable when creating work for the stage.
You also have control of the entire environment that affects the film. This gives you great artistic power in your creation. You choose the lighting, the location, the weather or time of day you want to film in, and you can add elements that might not be accessible to the stage. For example, in dance films that I have created I have used elements that interest me such as water, dirt, and architecture. All of which I wouldn't easily be able to use in work that I want to present on a concert stage. Each of these choices of the environment is another choreographic decision that you would make and through these the lines of what is considered dance/movement can begin to blur.
A dance film doesn't always have to look like what we may all think of as "dance". A dance film could be every day movements, or actions, or maybe it has nothing to do with bodies and instead the movement of objects, nature, or even animals. The one constant in all of these possibilities is the filming of movement. To me this is quite exciting as it gives viewers a different perspective of what dance can look like. This is also a chance for artists to reach a wider audience as films and videos, especially in this time of technology, are more accessible than going to a theater to see a performance.
Photo by Paradise Photo. Graphic by Nicole Harris
A conversation between the two choreographers for this years choreographic mentorship program; Elizabeth Powers and Elyssa Berg.
EB: You just recently finished school at Roger Williams University this past May, what have you been up to since graduation?
EP: I am currently living in Providence, RI and working as a teaching artist in a middle school where I work with teachers to integrate arts into the academic curriculum. I'm taking classes and dancing in various projects around the Boston and Providence areas. I'm also working on creating some new work that pushes me into a different mode of creating movement.
EB: So now that you have a chance to pursue new ideas what are you finding yourself most interested in exploring as a choreographer?
EP: As a choreographer a lot of my interests come from thoughts. I am really interested in people and how they work. I think that dance and movement facilitate exploration of these sorts of topics. I am also interested in exploring the possibilities of improvisation. I like to create improvisation scores that involve challenges or problems that have to be solved by doing the improvisation. Personally I use this method as a way to get myself to create movement that is different from what I usually do. I find that improvisation allows dancers to constantly be pushing the limitations of movement without getting stuck in a pattern, or at least provides the option of editing a score to create an escape from the pattern. I am also interested in using improvisation within the structure of a final piece. I get sick of doing the same thing all the time and am interested in the ways that a piece can be different every time that it is performed while it is still the same piece.
EB: It sounds like you are trying to push yourself to constantly change and try new approaches and tools, where do you find most of your inspiration for these new ideas comes from?
EP: A lot of my inspiration comes from watching dance. When I need to come up with an idea for a piece, going to see a good show always brings me into that mindset and gives me ideas to play with. I'm also inspired by relationships and observations throughout daily life. I find that the movement that is constantly occurring everyday is often as interesting as any movement that we classify as dance, when it's put in the appropriate context.
EB: You are about to begin the process of creating a piece for NACHMO, as you start this process and other processes what would you say is your biggest challenge in creating a new work?
EP: My biggest challenge when creating work is probably choosing what to focus on. I often have a lot of completely random ideas and so choosing which ideas to focus on is a challenge. I like to let ideas develop and pull my work in a certain direction, but before I can do that, I have to choose which ideas to give that power to. Sometimes I'll let a piece go in one direction for a while before deciding that isn't where it is supposed to go, so being open to giving a piece multiple chances to identify itself is important to me.
EB: Do you have any plans for the near future? Are there any goals or things you would like to accomplish in the next five years or so?
EP: Honestly the only thing that I know I still want to be doing in five years is dancing. I want to be creating and sharing work regularly. I want to work with populations who have varying abilities as well as share the power of movement with anyone who could benefit from it. I want to be moving in a different way than I am right now. There are so many different ways to move and in my 22 years of life I have just scratched the surface.
EB: As you have had a long relationship with Monkeyhouse what would you say is your favorite part about working with the company?
EP: I love that I get to work with people who are so willing to try and to support. I can go into a musing with a weird idea or a hand gesture and come out with something really interesting. Also working with people like Karen and Nicole who have been teaching me dance since I was a kid is amazing because I know that they won't hesitate to push me out of my comfort zone but they will also help me make sense of things when they seem to be going nowhere. So, my favorite part of working with Monkeyhouse is being able to work with a community of dancers who will accept crazy ideas and make something out of anything that they are given.
by Nicole Harris
We have been so lucky over the last seventeen years to have former students from Impulse Dance Center, Dover Sherborn High School, the Dancing Arts Center, Natick High School, Groton School, Endicott College and beyond who have returned to be part of Monkeyhouse in some way. They've been board members, funders, company choreographers, audience members and guest artists. They have participated in Musings and company class as well as been invaluable advisors to us in and out of the studio. We are forever grateful to each and every one of them!
This past summer we created a series of Musings at Impulse Dance Center to give the alumni an opportunity to dance at a more professional level and to play with choreographic ideas in a low stakes setting. (We'll be talking more about that particular program in a future blog post. Keep an eye out!) During that process we were inspired to create a new Choreography Mentorship for emerging choreographers. Many of our former students have gone on to complete dance programs at the college level and came home with inspiring new skills, ideas and goals. We want to help these emerging choreographers as they transition from an academic dance life to a professional one.
We are starting this program with two of our Impulse Dance Center alumni, Elizabeth Powers and Elyssa Berg (who you might also remember as being a choreographic intern during her senior year of high school and a guest artist at Monkeyhouse's Misplaced/Displaced concert). These two dynamic choreographers will continue to lead Musings for December and January as they refine a choreographic idea. During the month of January, they will each create a piece of choreography for NACHMO (National Choreography Month) using dancers from Monkeyhouse.
This is an exciting opportunity for emerging choreographers. They receive studio space for both Musings and rehearsal; mentoring in choreography, design and all the administrative work involved in producing a new work; the opportunity to set work on a company and a whole lot more. You will hear a whole lot about these two ladies and the work they are creating over the next three months. But first, here's a quick introduction:
Elizabeth Powers graduated from Roger Williams University in May 2017 with a BA in Dance and Performance Studies and a double major in Psychology. Elizabeth grew up dancing at Impulse Dance Center in Natick, MA where she studied a variety of dance styles before finding contemporary-modern and improvisation techniques to be her passion. Nicole Harris and Karen Krolak were two of Elizabeth’s teachers at Impulse who encouraged her to find her creative voice and push boundaries. They continue to do so today.
Throughout college, Elizabeth had the opportunity to study with and perform in works by Heather Ahern, Hilary Easton, Ori Flomin, Kellie Ann Lynch, Fritha Pengelley, and Christina Robson. She was graced with the mentorship of Michael Bolger, France Hunter, Cathy Nicoli, and Gary Shore. She was also able to spend a semester studying dance and performance in London, UK where she worked with choreographer Katie Lusby.
Elizabeth is currently working as a teaching artist in Providence, RI, where she works with middle school teachers to integrate the arts into their academic curriculum. She is also performing and choreographing for various events throughout the Boston and Providence areas. She is extremely excited to be exploring a new idea with Monkeyhouse.
Elyssa Berg began her dance training at Impulse Dance Center in Natick, Massachusetts. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Virginia Commonwealth University with a BFA in Dance andChoreography. In 2016, she studied abroad with the University of South Florida’s Dance in Paris Semester Program, under the direction of Michael Foley. During her time at VCU, Elyssa performed in works by Scott Putman, Melanie Richards, Judy Steel, as well as guest artists; Doug Varone, Liz Lerman/Dance Exchange, and Dawn Bazemore. In 2015, she performed in the official music video for Victor by Prinze George, a finalist in the LA Music Video Festival.
Outside of VCU, Elyssa has studied at Bates Dance Festival’s Young Dancers Program as well as their Professional Training Program. Elyssa has been commissioned twice by Monkeyhouse to create work and has presented choreography in the Boston area as well as Richmond, Virginia.