Eliza Cooper: On creativity flowing with ‘Bat Lake’

Eliza Cooper's 'Bat Lake'.
Eliza Cooper's 'Bat Lake'.

Dance Informa got the chance to chat with Sydney-based independent choreographer Eliza Cooper on her life as a choreographer, what inspires her and the creation of her second full-length work, Bat Lake, which runs 13 – 15 October at the Lennox Theatre. Cooper is an incredibly talented artist with a keen eye for the quirky and unusual, she comes from a long line of talented creatives, and has partially completed an advanced level science degree, which makes her work particularly intriguing. Here, we chat with her about her background, her method and what gets her creativity flowing.  

Eliza Cooper. Photo by Martyn Thompson.
Eliza Cooper. Photo by Martyn Thompson.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and what drew you to choreography?  

“I grew up in Drummoyne on Wangal country, in a depression-era cottage house with a garden full of Australian flowers. I come from a family of creatives and artists. My mother and grandmother are both pianists and piano teachers by trade. My great-aunt was the prolific English ceramist Susie Cooper OBE, and my uncle, Martyn Thompson, is a leading multidisciplinary artist, designer and photographer. My grandfather, Peter Thompson, was a structural engineer on the Sydney Opera House. My father is a visual artist and is co-production designer on Bat Lake! When I was nine, my father and I co-exhibited and sold paintings at our local cafe-gallery Angela Jane’s Coffee Food Art.

I went to both The McDonald College and Newtown High School of the Performing Arts for my school education. In 2016, I undertook Sydney Dance Company’s Pre-Professional Year program and in 2017, Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company’s MASA Program. Alongside my career in dance, I’ve studied part-time on and off at The University of Sydney in sciences and languages; however, it has been too hard to do both in recent years. I have committed myself to the artist’s life!”

Can you run us through the evolution of Eliza Cooper as a choreographer – where it started, where it’s at, where it’s going? 

'Bat Lake' rehearsal photo by Natalia Cartney from Rolling Media for DirtyFeet.
‘Bat Lake’ rehearsal photo by Natalia Cartney from Rolling Media for DirtyFeet.

“I was always interested in choreography, but I don’t really remember the beginning. In my childhood, I painted every day and dressed up as Peter Pan, cowboys, fairies and mermaids. My parents exposed me constantly to the public arts. I remember seeing The Lost Kings, a fantastic outdoor circus and aerial work in the Sydney Festival. It was mesmerising and transported me to another planet. I remember my grandfather gave us tickets to see Bangarra Dance Theatre once, which is a vivid memory.

When I did the Pre-Professional Year program at Sydney Dance Company, my entire concept of choreography shifted. We did mountains of improvisation, task-work, and were exposed to the varied practices of local and international artists. I really had no idea how diverse dance-making was until this period. From that point onward, I had a better sense of my choreographic interests. I had seen how professional artists incorporated their everyday interests into their practice.

My interests were always animals, mythical creatures, costumes, art, performance – all the exciting things that bring you to the present moment. Simultaneously, I was always a maths brain, but to me, these go hand in hand. I loved maths at school; it was somewhere I felt deeply relaxed. 

Eliza Cooper. Photo by Martyn Thompson for Lee Mathews.
Eliza Cooper. Photo by Martyn Thompson for Lee Mathews.

My choreography is all about creating fantastic moments. I love to create things that are a bit cryptic or a bit of a struggle. Something slightly jarring amongst the beauty. This is my experience of life. I try to capture both the mundanity and exceptionality of life on Earth. My vision is really maximalist; I’m an eccentric. I respond to strong visual elements, colour schemes, fabrics and textures.”

The Bat Lake company has some very unique movers, which makes for fascinating choreography and montages of movement, and a visionary composer in Mason Peronchik. How have you worked together to create this newest full-length work?

“The Bat Lake company features some of Sydney’s finest independent artists, including prolific performers such as Allie Graham, Mitchell Christie and Jasmin Lancaster (Jazz Luna). The cast includes dancers who have worked for Opera Australia, Pinchgut Opera, Catapult Dance Company, Strut Dance, Dance Makers Collective and the Merce Cunningham Trust.

Mason Peronchik, the Bat Lake composer, and I have a long-term working relationship. We have worked on numerous projects together including my first full-length work, Old Life/Dead Life; the Lee Mathews Resort 2021 Campaign Film; and my recent short work for Configuration Company, An Army of Frogs

The Bat Lake process involved considerable research into the movement and biomechanics of bats. I am interested in transformations of the body and building creatures that exist within different states. In the studio, we do a lot of improvisation. I will come in and describe the vision or concept I’d like to explore, and the dancers improvise with this idea. We record a lot of the improvisation on our phones and then review it. I then work to shape it, and the dancers work to refine their way of performing it. My process is entirely collaborative, and my dancers produce large quantities of their choreography. We would often watch bat videos on YouTube and make an effort to notice the movements of the bats we see around us.”

Eliza Cooper's 'Bat Lake'.
Eliza Cooper’s ‘Bat Lake’.

You were inspired to create Bat Lake whilst in class in your science degree when you saw a picture of a bat emerging from a plant. What was it that sparked the need to create from this picture?

“In 2019, I was studying a Bachelor of Advanced Science at the University of Sydney majoring in Microbiology. In one lecture, I saw a fantastic image of a bat covered in pollen, crawling out of a flower. The image was so strong, so theatrical. My approach to artistic practice is quite specific. Visions come to me, and I make it my business to pursue and actualise them. I rarely start with a concept or something abstract. Usually, a fleeting moment of the performance appears in my mind, fully formed. I try to grasp the essence of it and work toward achieving it. I work with these visions, which appear in my mind as a mental image. When I envision them, the atmosphere is already clear, strong themes arise naturally.”

Do you see a creative connection between science and the arts? 

“There is a strong connection between the arts and sciences, more than most people realise! Scientific knowledge has been understood and communicated through dance, visual arts, music, language and other creative practices in human cultures for millenia. Such practices offer a thorough, multidimensional understanding of scientific principles. In particular, humans have danced as a mechanism for understanding and communicating environmental and agricultural knowledge. Scientific principles often inspire the development of new forms of dance. For example, contact improvisation is firmly grounded in the principles of physics and is primarily concerned with forces.

I hope to work more and more with scientists. I believe dance is the ultimate medium for science communication! In dance, ideas can be explored spatially, temporally, kinaesthetically, psychologically, etc.! It gives us a real, corporeal sense of phenomena, and I believe it’s more accessible than words.”

Who/what are your biggest influences?

“Local choreographers and directors: Kristina Chan, Dean Walsh, Vicki Van Hout, Constantine Costi; internationally: Hofesh Shechter, Kazuo Ohno, Rami Be’er, Marco Goecke, Lloyd Newson, Ohad Naharin; artistically: David Lynch, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Quentin Tarantino, Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons).”

For tickets and more information on Eliza Cooper’s Bat Lake, visit riversideparramatta.com.au/show/bat-lake.

By Linda Badger of Dance Informa.

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