Dancing into new musical landscape

Darren Ellis is in an ebullient mood. Despite the bitterly cold wind, the snow on the ground and fears that he may not make it back to London for an appointment tonight, rehearsals are going well. A quick check of his i-phone reveals that the trains are still running and he has another two hours before he has to make a final decision as to whether to cancel his appointment and stay in Ipswich or to brave the elements and make his meeting.

For now, lunch beckons, he orders pasta and sits down to talk about his new dance work which is being developed at the DanceHouse. Darren has been appointed DanceEast’s new associate artist and is busily working with lighting designer Guy Hoare to develop a radical new dance work using just naked light bulbs and a drum kit.

Darren has performed at the DanceHouse before when he staged his one man show, Sticks and Bones, which made a huge impression on creative director Assis Carreiro who immediately made a formal invitation for Darren to become an associate artist.

Darren is currently developing his latest work at the DanceHouse before giving Ipswich audience a sneak preview of the work in progress on January 8 as part of a Rough Cuts presentation. Using feedback from the audience he will then refine the work before it is formally unveiled later next year.

Assis said: “The beauty of being able to develop work here at the DanceHouse, is that they can try things out, discard them if they don’t work, run with things, experiment and really just have time to work away from the public gaze. Then when the work is at a certain stage it can be shown to a local audience in our James Hehir studio theatre and Darren can assess how it plays and talk to the audience about how they viewed the piece.

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“Then this information goes into refining the finished work before it receives it’s official premiere.”

Darren said that he was delighted with the invitation to come and rehearse at DanceEast because it offered him time to develop ideas and to experiment with ways of performing. He said it was a rare luxury to be able to try things out and then discard them because they weren’t what he had imagined or have the time to take ideas and develop them so they reached their full potential.

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Darren’s new work has a working title of After Effect and already this week has grown from something quite stark and simple into something more complex and intriguing. It started off using only one drum and a light. Over the course of this first week of rehearsal that one drum and one light has transformed itself into an entire drum kit accompanied by a whole phalanx of light bulbs.

As we sit talking in the DanceEats cafe, Darren is wondering if he should replace the current pre-recorded drum beats with a touch-sensitive system which would allow him to trigger each drum as part of the dance.

“It’s this ability to shape and change the work as we go that’s so appealing,” he explains.

Each bulb is secreted within a drum and illuminates when the drum sounds creating an interactive sound and light show, to accompany Darren’s lone figure.

He said: “The original idea was to have this simple scenario that we could play with. Lighting designer Guy Hoare, who I have worked with in the past and who I know very well, came up and said let’s do something with one dancer, one light and one drum and the idea was to create a new light, sound and movement installation. I am a drummer as well and I have long been involved in exploring the relationship between rhythm, phrasing and intensity of light and sound alongside movement.

“The first thing that changed was when I asked Guy to put the light inside the drum. It was a theatre light at the time but then we changed that to an ordinary 100 watt domestic light bulb – which incidentally are extremely hard to get of now, I think we have bought up all the remaining supplies in Ipswich – but what I want to do is play with the phrasing of light, to try and create a musical composition with light.”

He said that the light from the bulbs would be strong enough to light the dancer and they were not planning to use any other additional light sources. “Now that we have three drums we have additional sources of light and we have what is essentially a light installation that I can dance with. We will be playing with shadow but the light from bulbs inside the drums, do give the piece a wonderful atmosphere. There is a enough light for everyone to see what is going on. I have seen darker things on stage. The light and the pattern of light is part of the piece.”

He said that he is currently considering expanding the drum kit to five drums and so will have more light to perform with.

Darren talks passionately and enthusiastically about the way that the piece has evolved over this first week of rehearsals. He said that combining dance and drum patterns has created a unique opportunity to explore the effect rhythm has on the environment created within the performance space and the effect that this atmospheric world has on both the performer and the audiences emotions.

“There are effectively two performers within the piece; the dancer and the drum, which acts as a vessel for both light and sound. The digital elements embodied within the drum bring this inanimate object to life. It’s not only the pulse of light which is important but the type of light, the softness or harshness of the light, whether it falls away quickly or fades softly. It all helps to create a mood and atmosphere which informs the dance. We are looking at how light affects you and how you interpret that.”

Darren and Guy have experimented with programming a beat taken from Darren’s pulse and from his breathing, which is designed to bring the drum kit to life. “Then we experimented with flashing lights in my face. Did that effect my pulse or my breathing – just conducting experiments to see what we could incorporate into the finished piece.”

He said that creating a new work always raises fears and doubts as well as expectations within the performance. “You know what you want to achieve, you know what you want to put across but you are never quite sure if the audience will get it, or enjoy the experience, so there is a lot of excitement as well as a lot of nervousness.”

He said that he came to the rehearsals with only a basic idea of how he wanted to present the piece. “Choreographically, I didn’t have anything set in stone. I wanted to see how I reacted to the lights. With most shows you make a piece and then the lighting designer comes in, looks at what you have done and designs something to complement it. This is different because I wanted to work with Guy on a collaborative basis. It really is me and him designing a piece together.”

He said that this is his third solo piece and is most challenging to create. “I am getting to the stage where I need someone to watch it objectively and comment on it.” He says that having worked for other companies – he has performed with, among others, Random Dance and Richard Alston Dance Company – he is now enjoying the freedom to create his own style. “It’s nice to discover my own language, find out who I am.”

Having said that he has enjoyed experimenting with other dancers. “One of things I have tried is getting another DanceEast artist Tom Hobden in the studio and seeing him work with the lights, just letting him have a play around. Then later in the week I had the students from the DanceEast academy in and we had a workshop using the drum and it was great seeing all those bodies moving and it was interesting to see how young people reacted to it, compared to the way I reacted.

“The idea is to not only take this out on the road but also to have residencies and use it in a workshop situation to see how young people develop it and play with it.”

As well as helping with the DanceEast academy, Darren is also one of the prime-movers behind DanceEast’s hugely successful Boys In Babergh programme. “I think Boys In Babergh is great because it gets boys dancing. They come here, not really knowing what to expect, not really knowing whether they can dance but they really get into it and end up doing the most fabulous stuff.”

Darren said that although he has only recently been appointed associate artist his relationship with DanceEast goes back years, back to the time when he was dancing with Wayne McGregor and Random Dance, the longest serving of DanceEast’s associate artists.

“Assis knew me from the time when I was dancing for Wayne. Then I set up my own company in 2007 and last year we were touring with my last piece Sticks and Bones. Assis saw it, brought it to the DanceHouse, saw I could create my own work and offered me the chance to become an associate artist.”

Next year Darren is hoping to be at the Cannes Film Festival having just finished work as a director of choreography on a silent, contemporary Japanese film Venus in the Forest, which is about three statues which come to life in a wood. “I loved the experience. The director saw me on my last tour Sticks and Bones and said do you want to direct the movement on this film. Then they said: ‘We’ve got a small part for you’ which turned out to be this mad artist.” Darren pauses before adding with a wry smile, “Type casting I think. But, it was a fabulous opportunity to work with film and see what you can do with a big budget.”

Elsewhere Darren is also developing work for the prestigious dance award The Place Prize having been one of 16 artists commissioned to compete for the prize. The finals take place in April 2011 in London.

Before then Darren will be premiering the finished version of After Effect, taking on board feedback and reaction from the Rough Cuts performance at the DanceHouse on January 8. One of his ideas for the Rough Cuts event is to alter the layout of the performance space and reconfigure the seating arrangements during the evening, to see which layout gives audiences the best view of the proceedings.

n Further information on the Rough Cuts performance being staged at the DanceHouse on the Ipswich Waterfront January 8 2011 can be found online at www.danceeast.co.uk

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