Elixir Ensemble – Sadler’s Wells

Professor Christopher Bannerman
First posted: April 2017
Update: March 2021

The 2014 inception of the Elixir Ensemble was part of the Elixir Festival, an initiative celebrating life-long creativity conceived and presented by Sadler’s Wells which featured works presented in both the main house and in the Lilian Baylis Studio.

The Elixir Ensemble performances and associated web pages cover three completed dance works, The Elders Project, noted above, which was nominated for an Olivier Award, The Road Awaits Us (Parson and Lazar, 2017) and Forest Revisited (Cohan and Welton, 2017); and a glimpse into the beginnings of a new work by Ben Duke suspended due to Covid-19, but rescheduled for performance at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells in autumn-winter 2021.

As an Elixir Ensemble performer, and as the person who is responsible for the partnership with Sadler’s Wells that allows this documentation to take place, I intended from the outset to be as absent as possible on the website so that the views of others can be captured without my potentially distorting influence. This was a decision that sprang from necessity as each Elixir project also involved some considerable energy directed towards remembering my dancing body and dancer persona, as well as engaging with a creative process as fully as possible. Luckily, I was able to draw on a colleague from ResCen’s ArtsCross project, Martin Welton, from Queen Mary University of London, to act as observer for The Elders Project. This in turn led to his active involvement as the Director for Forest Revisited and both contributions, as always, were much appreciated. However, writing this introduction for a re-imagined website in March 2021 allows me an important opportunity for reflective thoughts, also induced by the semi-seclusion of Covid-19.

It is only now clear how each Elixir Ensemble iteration represented a return to a place both external and internal, revisiting the dance studio and the dancing body, noting neuro-physical sensations and processes re-accessed and re-activated, and for brief moments achieving an inner place of belonging, centring and calm as if returning to a home. Then, the inevitable punctuations when neuro-physical impulses no longer achieve the intended result; the reality of a material body altered by the passage of time and a sedentary existence.

The adjustments required to explore these new realities were assisted by the fact that each iteration also represented an extension beyond past practices and experiences in both the creative processes and in the works created. This was important to me as I entered the project fearing the seductive but deadening embrace of nostalgia. I needn’t have worried as the artists involved required not just a re-membering of the dancing body, but asked us as performers to find agency, to re-programme neural pathways, overwriting the palimpsest. This creative exploration was fulfilling in ways that, for me, are seldom available in other contexts in life. The fact that it also involved accepting what has already been embedded in the body and inscribed on its surfaces by both my dancing past and by the passage of time, brought a kind of comforting reconciliation with that dancing past.

It was also the skilful practice and generosity of the creators that allowed a shared creative engagement to be exciting, and the devised choreographic processes were made more intriguing by the idiosyncratic, individualised abilities of older dancers which necessitated individualised, idiosyncratic movement explorations. The inclusion of spoken text generated by the performers was also a challenge as it involved personal rememberings not often revealed to audiences – as in The Elders Project which featured autobiographical solos interspersed with unison and group sections; and in the rehearsals for a new Ben Duke work (postponed due to Covid-19) involving an intergenerational cast with early-career dancers representing the younger Elixir Ensemble members. Other uses of text include Annie-B Parson’s The Road Awaits Us, which included text extracted from Ionesco’s absurdist playscript The Bald Soprano, and presented a particular personal challenge, the Fireman’s monologue requiring non-sequitur, but very precise movement and words. These new performing experiences not only allowed, they required and enabled, exploration and the precious feeling of new internal landscapes being unfolded.

The challenges of Robert Cohan’s Forest Revisited were different. This work largely eschewed individualised movement, instead utilising pre-existing dance vocabulary from the original work Forest (1977) created for London Contemporary Dance Theatre, where I danced and choreographed from 1974-1989. In 2017, decades after retiring from professional dance, Forest Revisited involved a particularly acute re-membering of the dancing body with myriad resonances of the past in sensation, in particular movement patterns and in the painful confusion of revisiting a past in dance and a special time that will never return. The task of transmitting the dance to a new generation of dancers also raised other challenges as it involved the attempt to instil in them a way of moving that the LCDT dancers acquired over years through an intense and repeated engagement with a specific psychophysical training that was simply not available to the younger dancers. This point is made more resonant by the fact that Robert Cohan departed this world on 13th January 2021. These experiences raised issues which I plan to explore further in another piece of writing relating to re-enactments in performance, their viability, accuracy and usefulness – particularly when they are attempted in body-based performance forms such as dance, where distinguishing between the dancer and the dance so often eludes the spectator’s perception.

In the pages that follow you can see how the passage of time is reflected and manifested in physical form – how each choreographer has found ways to enable the Elixir Ensemble dancers to recalibrate their practice to account for current realities. For me, and I suspect my dancing colleagues, there is still an internal sense of ‘habitus’, a familiar centred place which remains accessible, testament to the efficacy of past dance training and performing experiences, but now requiring new exploration, new agency to be present and actualise a new moment on stage at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Writing now about these experiences allows reflection on the process of re-membering, a special way of being in the dance studio, the theatre and on stage, facing the audience. I hope that you can share the trepidation and excitement that is part of returning to the stage in the Elixir Ensemble.

Elixir Ensemble 2014 The Elders Project (Burrows and Fargion)
Elixir Ensemble 2017 Forest Revisited (Cohan) & The Road Awaits Us (Parson)
Elixir Ensemble 2020 (Ben Duke) – Suspended due to covid-19