Harriet Ellis, recent graduate from Bird College of Dance, Music and Theatre Performance, shares her experiences on preparing for her debut as a professional dancer, exploring the influence of Illuminati on pop culture in her upcoming show MK Ultra, and working with award-winning choreographer Rosie Kay.
- Making the decision to commit to dance on a professional level shows a clear passion for the art. What sparked your interest in dance? How long have you been a dancer?
I’ve always loved performing; from school carol concerts to amateur dramatics to entering talent contests in holiday resorts, I’ve always taken advantage of every opportunity to perform. I’ve also grown up taking fun dance lessons at my local dance school, my first one being ‘baby ballet’ at only 3 years old. I had some of my closest friends there and the lessons were always rewarding, so going to dance has always felt like a treat.
I think what ultimately sparked my interest for dance on a professional level was my fascination with the body, which began in my mid-teens. I love exploring how the body can move through space, finding different possibilities for movement, experimenting with the speed of movement, considering how movement looks different on other bodies or on a collective of bodies. One of my favourite things to do, even now, is to improvise to my favourite music, noticing where it can take my body. There are so many possibilities and I love surprising myself by finding new ways of moving.
- As a recent university graduate from Bird College of Dance, Music and Theatre Performance and winner of the award for ‘Best Contemporary Female,’ can you tell us about your experiences in university and how they helped you get to where you are now?
I had a vast range of experiences at college which helped me to get to where I am now with the Rosie Kay Dance Company. Firstly, in my third year, I was selected to dance for a number of choreographers in the industry, including Rachel Kay, Simeon Qsyea and Theo Lowe. Being able to work with different choreographers, each with unique styles and approaches to rehearsals, prepared me for professional rehearsals.
Additionally, my contemporary teacher, Nikki O’ Hara, was a huge help. Thanks to her exhilarating classes, my technique and individual style improved and I started to believe that I was capable of working professionally as a contemporary dancer. Receiving the contemporary award at the end of the year also boosted my confidence and I left feeling like I had gained as much from my training as I could have.
College was also incredibly tough and there were times when I doubted myself. I think this has now made me stronger as a person. I have a fight in me. I approach every day of dancing as an opportunity to better myself. I never give up and I always maintain a positive attitude.
- How are you feeling about your first professional debut? What were the challenges in the transition from student to professional dancer?
I am very excited for my professional debut! I think the piece, MK ULTRA, has a lot to offer and I hope that, as dancers, we can bring the conspiracy-rigged atmosphere and underlying messages to life! Rosie has such a creative and intelligent vision for the show and I am determined to make her proud!
One challenge I faced was the intensity of the rehearsals. However, although training was intense and the days were long, every class had a different focus and this broke up the day into lots of chapters. Working on a full length dance piece can be both physically and mentally exhausting; it requires stamina, commitment and a complete focus at all times.
- Working with Rosie Kay must have been quite the experience. Can you tell us a little bit about that and about working within the company in general?
Working with Rosie is both challenging and rewarding. The work is technical, physically demanding and theatrical. As dancers, we are pushed out of our comfort zones to find a specific way of moving or performing that is most appropriate for the piece. What is so inspiring about working with Rosie is the depth of research and thought that is so transparent in every decision she makes about the choreography. As a dancer, I pay attention to the small details in the movement to ensure that it accurately represents the decisions made in the studio. It is a pleasure to work for a company that is doing something new, daring and exciting, and we all get on really well.
- What is MK Ultra about?
MK ULTRA is based on conspiracy theories within popular culture. It proposes that several artists in the music industry are being manipulated and controlled by the Illuminati through mind control programming. They have undergone experimentation and are feeding Illuminati-fuelled messages to the public. As dancers, we all represent a different pop star stereotype, with mine being “The Disney Princess Popstar”, and we each use our character alter-ego to explore our relationship with the other dancers on stage.
- The show touches on how the female body is manipulated in pop culture. What can contemporary dance teach us about body image and confidence?
Nudity and sexual behaviour references in music videos leads to insecurities about body image and worth. In this piece, we highlight the outrageousness of these themes and suggest that they are unrealistic. Contemporary dance can help dancers to explore their own body in a safe environment, without conforming to unrealistic stereotypes portrayed in the media.
- Finally, coming out of your professional debut, what advice would you give to university students who aspire to become dancers?
Believe in yourself. Train hard. Find what it is that you have to offer to the dance industry: what makes you desirable as a dance artist. Never hide who you are as a person or a dancer, as that is your strength. Be willing. Keep your mind open. Always remember that a ‘no’ is not a failure but an experience to learn from. Be bold and be beautiful, always.
Text by Alice Vily and Katt Skippon
Picture research by Jonathan W. Espiritu; featured image by Brian Slater.