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Interview: Everything That Rises Must Dance: Choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies on Celebrating both Women and Dance

Everything That Rises Must Dance, is the latest work by choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies (pictured above), devised with composer and long term collaborator Lucy Railton. Known for making large scales dance and theatre works, Sasha’s piece has been created working with more than 200 women across London. This piece is an ode to female movement, drawn from the every day and universal.

The work is being shown as part of this years Dance Umbrella, a festival showcasing choreography and dance. This year's festival is supporting the Mayor’s #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign, celebrating the centenary of the first women winning the right to vote and tackle gender equality in London. 

Run Riot contributor Bethan Wood, chats with Sasha to find out about her inspirations and intentions, and what it means to be a choreographer creating and platforming this piece at this time, celebrating women and dance.

Bethan Wood: Everything That Rises Must Dance receives its premiere as part of Dance Umbrella 2018. The choreography is a celebration of female movement, incorporating both the everyday and the universal. What inspired you to focus on women and their movement in this way and during this time?

Sasha Milavic Davies: I’ve always wanted to make a movement census. The way people have moved over time changes and often there is no record of this change. Obviously some dance moves embed themselves in ritual and folk dance but on the whole everyday, domestic movements are lost in time. So I was interested in documenting movement on a large scale. It’s a political thing, too: how does gesture express a moment, a culture, society or ancestry? Can we think about our movement as a current expression of our collective movement history? And it’s even more charged when it’s about female movement. So this piece is an attempt to create an archive of contemporary female movement and to celebrate its provenance and its future.

Bethan: Making this piece, you worked with more than 200 women across London. How did you begin to engage with this group of women, and what direction or messages did you communicate during the choreographic process and why?

Sasha: Whenever a collective exists, everyone’s individuality is necessarily threatened. Or at least put in to question. What Lucy and I are trying to do is give every single member of our company a chance to express their individual instincts and to share that expression with a community. Each woman is asked to bring 8 gestures she has observed a woman make in the streets of London, at home, at work, at play. We turn this sequence of gesture into a dance and we then share that dance with the whole group. We have to be methodical and mathematic. It’s all about patterns and forms. But on top of that, the concept is celebration: in sharing her dance with 199 other women a culture of listening and respect and solidarity is engendered and that becomes magnanimous and celebratory.

Bethan: Did any unexpected reactions or situations arise from working with this group of women?

Sasha: After a workshop we ran with 60 women, we realised that we hit the ground running so hard that we didn’t even do a circle where we introduced each other and said who we were, where we came from, what we did. We just started moving and dancing. People obviously met each other in the corridors of the rehearsal space but mostly the women just watched each other move. This was refreshing and bonding. What happened was that you knew nothing of the woman you were watching, you just knew the way she moved. What a relief to disregard context and CV and life story and just experience the expression of a moment. It was a wonderful accident.

Bethan: You worked with composer Lucy Railton on this piece, how did yourself and Lucy collaborate together and what role does music play within the choreography?

Sasha: Over the years that Lucy and I have been working together, the theme of abstracting the narrative has been fairly consistent, where gesture and movement is abstracted and reassembled in the choreography, so too is Lucy working with found sounds, traditional melodies and new compositions to mirror and narrate the richness in the physical language that our participants are using. Often Lucy builds the score as we are working, picking up on the energy that is needed and using recordings she has makes in the rehearsal space, incorporating sounds or musical extracts that are unique to the group of women we are working with. It's important that each time this work is performed, the musical score evolves too with the movement, this being a people specific work, it should sounds something off the people involved, and that will reflect the city we are in, and the combined sound and character of an incredibly diverse group women.

Bethan: You are known for making some incredible and immersive large scale works within dance and theatre, what do you like about working on a large scale?

Sasha: I did a Politics degree at university before I went in to dance and theatre. My major impetus for doing this was my heritage - I’m half British, half Yugoslav. Yugoslavia was still a country when I was born. It fell apart when I was a kid. Somehow that affected me. And, essentially, I think it comes down to the dichotomy between individuality and the collective. How do you square your personal, deeply rich and varied identity with a general, all-encompassing, tick-box categorisation and stereotyping? Especially when your identity is in the minority, especially when it’s a voice no one has really paid much attention to. So, seeing a large group of people on stage, mirroring the society you’re living in has a visceral effect on you as a spectator. You start to question the role of society, the image of yourself within it and its power.

I love the energy of big groups. With the right input and process, the love grows exponentially and if you’re lucky - as we were with The Suppliant Women - you end up in the final performance with a group that can blow the roof off any theatre with their energy.

Bethan: Dance Umbrella, London’s flagship festival of international dance celebrates its 40th anniversary this autumn. Why do you feel that it important to celebrate choreography as a creative practice, and why is being part of this festival important to you and your work?

Sasha: Since we’re asking 200 women to take part in a free piece of work, we wanted to make the process of development enriching for them. So we’ve asked some of the top female dancers in London to lead a workshop at the beginning of each rehearsal to teach our participants about their style of dance, to train them for the process ahead, and ultimately to help them release their bodies for the performance.

It’s also a form of activism: I want to introduce 200 women to the work of these important dancers. That’s why it’s such a privilege to be at Dance Umbrella because that’s what they do. Not only does the festival assail London with dance, providing experiences to as many people as possible, but it also brings the most exciting dance from all over the world to the city for a month. Choreography is a huge term for an unbelievable collection of work, thinking and expression. Dance Umbrella has reached out over 40 years to find the most exciting, moving, and boundary pushing work there is. I feel very proud to be part of that tradition.

Bethan: Have you any recommendations for other pieces to look out for during this year’s Dance Umbrella?

Sasha: Dimitris Papainnou is an amazing artist who I’m very much looking forward to seeing. Gregory Maqoma is an incredible choreographer and I’m excited to see his Via Kanana. Big Dance Theatre is something to behold, so I would rush to get tickets for that. I’m also very much looking forward to Ruth Little and Vicky Featherstone in conversation about the role of performance for the Dance Umbrella Lecture. Both Ruth and Vicky are serious and important voices in our cultural world and if you have any interest in the future of dance and theatre, make sure you get to see this conversation. 

Bethan: Do you have any plans in the pipeline for new work that you can share with us?

Sasha: I’ll be in Serbia mid 2019 working on a new play by the constantly radical writer and poet, Milena Markovic. Everything that Rises will be touring. We’re trying to get as many cities as possible. The aim is to create a global archive of female movement. A global celebration.

Sasha Milavic Davies

Dance Umbrella presents:
Everything The Rises Must Dance
By Sasha Milavic Davies
Devised with composer Lucy Railton

Peninsula Square, Greenwich Peninsula
Sat 29 Sep
2:00 pm & 4:00 pm

Boxpark, Croydon
Sun 7 Oct
12:30 pm & 2:00 pm

Somerset House, Strand
Sat 13 Oct
3:00 pm & 5:00 pm