Eleesha Drennan Reaches Tipping Point
The Canadian choreographer takes dance into public spaces to explore the feeling of 'life spiralling out of focus' in her first Maiden Voyage piece
She’s just off a night flight from her native Canada, where she’s been visiting family in Ottawa and Montreal, and she admits that she’s tired and more than a little jet-lagged. But within seconds of talking about Tipping Point, her new commission for Maiden Voyage Dance, dancer and choreographer Eleesha Drennan becomes animated and engaged.
She is the daughter of the popular Ulster-Scots musician Willie Drennan, though her accent would suggest otherwise. And while she describes her father as '… pure bred Northern Ireland…', through marriage and from her mother’s side of the house, she has inherited a rather exotic cultural mix, which sits perfectly with her burgeoning international career.
'I was born in Montreal and grew up in Nova Scotia. We moved to Northern Ireland when I was fourteen and I went to school in Ballymena,' she explains. 'Now I live in London, my husband is Canadian and I am of Austrian, Latvian and Irish descent. I came to England to study and I danced for a long time with a company in Wales. Dance is so international these days, you are constantly working with and in touch with people from all over the world.'
Drennan is one of the most highly regarded up-and-coming practitioners in the contemporary dance world, a fact underlined by the announcement, just a few days ago, that she has been nominated for the prized New Adventures Choreographer Award, presented to emerging choreographers of all ages by Matthew Bourne’s world famous company and responsible for launching some highly respected individual careers.
'It’s a huge honour,' says Drennan. 'It’s such a sought-after opportunity, which can give a huge lift to your career. These are difficult times in the arts, particularly if you are trying to make your own work and forge a career as an independent artist.'
On the flip side, Maiden Voyage is equally delighted to have enlisted Drennan for this latest addition to its Dance Exposed programme, which takes dance into public spaces.
Tipping Point will first be performed in the Ulster Museum on 13 September as part of 2015 European Heritage Open Days and will then kick start Culture Night Lisburn at lunchtime on 18 September, before heading back to Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter later that day for two performances in the MAC’s Upper Gallery as part of Culture Night Belfast.
The piece is described in the publicity material as '… a fast-paced trio about the loss of control and how it feels to be living on a knife edge.' While it is Drennan’s first commission from Maiden Voyage, she explains that she had worked previously with the company’s artistic director Nicola Curry on a project for Young at Art.
'I bumped into Nicola again at the Children’s Festival last year. We reconnected and it felt good to be back in touch. She had seen some of my work and was interested in my making a piece for Maiden Voyage.
'I really like the notion of Dance Exposed, of taking dance out of a theatre and putting it into places where people can bump into it accidentally. It’s a great way of bringing new audiences to dance and can be very effective, particularly when people are unprepared for a dance performance coming at them out of the blue.
'Nicola allowed the content to be pretty open; I was at liberty to devise something based on whatever inspired me. I found the whole concept exciting and challenging.'
Tipping Point is an abstract piece, containing themes with which anyone will identify. Audience members are invited to write their own narratives and to direct their own experiences onto their enjoyment and appreciation of the performance.
'I don’t have a laid down way of working,' says Drennan. 'I don’t necessarily start from an abstract place. A piece of work can be inspired by what’s going on in the moment, as well as what the dancers respond to. This is my first time of working with this special and unique group of dancers, who offer all kinds of new possibilities and new energy. Initially, it was about getting to know them and giving them movement ideas. Together we started to respond to what was going on in the rehearsal room at a specific time.
'When I started on this piece, I was coming out of a time where my life was very intense. I’d been working on many projects at once and there were times when I’d been seized by a sense of chaos.
'The content is reflected by the title - it’s about living on that tipping point, when your life is spiralling out of focus and you begin to question how much control you have over what you do. That shared sensation has created a tremendous impetus, which is great to work with.
'But there’s also an element of trying to find a place to land; it's about coming full circle. That aspect of the piece has real personal meaning for me, as I return to a place where I have lived and worked before.'
Drennan says the piece is also about unpredictability and the unexpected twists and turns that life can take. The three dancers - Carmen Fuentes Guaza, David Ogle and Ryan O’Neill - are no strangers to followers of Maiden Voyage, but Drennan has enjoyed getting to know them anew and discovering what sparks their creative instincts.
'In the early stages, we played games which involved, first, interaction and then a variety of interruptions. It’s really interesting to see how, as individuals, we deal with moments of uncertainty which arise in the moment and then, as dancers, how to translate reactions into physical feelings and movement.
Are we open and responsive or do we struggle to assert a sense of direction and control? The audience will be really close to the performers and should be able to identify with the experiences that are being embodied by the dancers to the extent that they can ‘write' their own individual stories andassociations.'
Drennan started to craft her career through membership of Ulster Youth Dance and her studies at BIFHE (now Belfast Metropolitan College). But the need to spread her wings outside home territory soon became clear.
She gained a place at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and the McMahon School of Ballet in Yorkshire. This mix of classical and contemporary training propelled her into Wales’s flagship company Diversions (now National Dance Company Wales), which was then under the inspirational leadership of its long-time artistic director Roy Campbell-Moore.
She danced for the company for ten years before becoming house choreographer in 2011. Dance circles being small and close-knit, one of her early mentors and teachers in Belfast was Sandy Cuthbert, herself a former member of Diversions and a regular performer during the company’s many visits to the Grand Opera House and Stranmillis College Theatre.
In a neat piece of symmetry with her family background, Drennan has teamed up with another prominent Northern Ireland musician in the creation of Tipping Point. She says that guitarist Colin Reid has played “… a huge part in the project. He was with us in the studio every day for the first few weeks, so the music and dance were created together.
'I knew of Colin an his reputation as a fine musician, but I had never worked with him. It was a massive privilege to do so. The piece has evolved between the two of us. He was there while we were discerning the movement and he was experimenting musically. I would describe a sequence of movements and he would respond. He could just see it. Or I would ask him for a certain musical sequence and there it would be.
'There was a great atmosphere of creative freedom between us all, which was really exciting.'
Standing on the cusp of a new upward career trajectory, Drennan pays warm tribute to the practitioners with whom she worked during her early days in Northern Ireland.
Prominent among them are dance teachers and choreographers Cuthbert and Jo Burns, Karl Wallace, former artistic director of Kabosh Theatre, and Paul Bosco McEneaney of Cahoots NI, who created a character for his early Puppet Magic show, based on a miniature version of Drennan herself - “ a little Mini Me’, as she describes it.
'I went out on my own at the end of 2013,' she says. 'After ten years in Cardiff, I took the plunge and moved to London. I was lucky to receive a Sky Academy Arts Scholarship in 2014 to get me started. To be honest, I’ve been given a lot very quickly. And, even if I don’t win the New Adventures award, it’s a great boost to be included among such an incredible group of nominees.
'I’m still dancing, as well as choreographing and making work for myself and other dancers. I’m trying very hard to keep both going but, like so many others in this business, I need all the help I can get.'
Tipping Point is at Ulster Museum on Sunday, September 13 at 12.00pm & 1:30pm; Island Arts Centre, Lisburn on Friday, September 18 at 1:30pm; The MAC, Belfast on Friday 18 September at 6.00pm & 7.00pm. Performances in Ulster Museum and the MAC will have live music and will be audio described.