Elise May – Australia’s ‘Outstanding Female Dancer’

By Kristy Johnson.

Elise May of Queensland’s Expressions Dance Company earned herself the title of ‘Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer’ at this year’s Australian Dance Awards. Performing Artistic Director, Natalie Weir’s choreography for R&J (Romeo and Juliet), her rendition was described as “memorable”, “brave” and “emotional”.

Recounting the experience to Dance Informa, Elise is clearly still overwhelmed by all of the praise and compliments she has received.

Congratulations on winning the title of ‘Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer’ at this year’s Australian Dance Awards. How do you feel about it all?

To be honest, I was surprised and overwhelmed. It took a long while for the news to sink in! I really enjoyed the Australian Dance Awards ceremony and was completely in awe of the achievements of all the nominees throughout the evening. When my name was announced, I experienced a mixture of feelings. Expressions Dance Company had already done extremely well with Natalie Weir receiving her award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Choreography’. Naturally I was very proud that R&J had received this level of recognition. R&J was a physically and emotionally challenging work in which we had all invested so much, and to be acknowledged on an individual level is such an honour. I felt, and still feel, very overwhelmed. The ceremony was such a celebration of dance and I was surrounded by so many talented people. I quickly realised I’m very lucky to be part of a strong and vibrant dance community here in Australia. I feel blessed to have a career here, and to have found my own little niche understanding of dance and choreography amongst such strength and diversity.

Elise May in Natalie Weir's R&J

Elise May in Natalie Weir’s R&J. Photo by Chris Herzfeld.

What do you think Natalie Weir’s strengths are as a choreographer?

Natalie’s choreography is both challenging and rewarding to dance. I always observe her extraordinary ability to draw out the individual strengths of each dancer with whom she works. Her conceptual work, organisation and pre-planning is a meticulous and thorough process that allows her to enter the studio knowing what she wants to achieve. Having said that, she works with such an intuitive and innate understanding of movement and visual communication, that the process is also very organic and fluid. As a dancer involved in her process, it feels as though the process is an intimate conversation between dancer and choreographer that together creates the movement vocabulary for the work. Natalie has an amazing imagination and a real desire to tell stories and convey deep meaning to her audiences, and I think that can really be seen in her works. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with her.

What did you find challenging about R&J?

R&J is based on the overarching themes of Romeo and Juliet, featuring three versions of the Romeo and Juliet story set in three distinctly separate time periods. My 1950’s exploration of Juliet delved into emotional extremes: domestic bliss, extreme love and happiness, but also shock, the loss of a loved one and absolute despair. It became important in the early stages of the creative process to find gestures and specific ways of moving that encapsulated the essence of the Juliet character and the extremes of her emotional range. We were experimental in our approach to the movement, and spoke a lot about the ideas, but once we found a shape for the movement, Natalie then gave me space to let the characterisation evolve. Taking on a character of this nature for me was about commitment and trust. I trust Natalie’s direction implicitly, and I knew that if I was well prepared and was able to remain present and connected to the thoughts and emotions of the character, that I would be best equipped to make that ultimate commitment to the character in performance.

Expressions Dance Company's Elise May

Elise May in Natalie Weir’s R&J. Photo by Chris Herzfeld

Where do you hope your career will lead?

My practice as a dance artist has always been choreographically inclined. Before I joined Expressions Dance Company I was working independently as a performer, choreographer and freelance teacher. I feel like the experience of joining a company has added a breadth of experience to my career. I have also been given choreographic opportunities with the company, which have extended and challenged me. It is also wonderful to get to know the choreographer and dancer relationship from both perspectives. I am particularly interested in film, moving image, installation and site-specific work. This year I began a part-time Practice-led Research Masters degree at Queensland University of Technology, where I have been collaborating with an animator and looking at the intersections between dance movement, animation and the moving image. It is really interesting working closely with someone from another discipline and letting this new information inform my practice. I hope to explore these areas more in the future, but I am also immensely enjoying my time as a performer with EDC.

Top photo by Fiona Cullen.

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