Elisabeth Mulenga’s choreographic journey through film, faith, and fusion
Sadler’s Wells presents the first public sharing of new work by the 2023/24 Young Associates BLUE MAKWANA, Elisabeth Mulenga, Maiya Leeke and Roseann & Sula, 22nd – 23rd November at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells.
I wanted to start by asking you about your journey into dance. It’s been quite diverse – from experimenting with screen dance-like performances. I want to know how this range and your background have shaped your vision when it comes to kind of the artistry of dance and also your choreographic style.
I started choreographing during the pandemic, and it felt like the most accessible form of creation at the time. It meant there was a reality of very little space and very little tools to create. A lot of what I created was very close-up and two-dimensional which meant that I could choreograph and focus on a lot of really small details in my facial expressions, in my hand gestures. There’s a lot of power in film to really focus on exactly what you want to focus on and make people watch things.
I didn’t have any experience with the nature of the films. It was just like rough cuts of just this kind of imagery, that kind of symbol. And I think that really influenced my focus in real life because I had a similar process of almost writing down my actions or different images that I wanted to see, but on stage. Then, the choreography part was a case of altering them and trying to figure out how to throw focus to the exact thing I wanted people to focus on in performance as well as as it can be done in a film.
Next, I wanted to talk a little bit about how your choreography is inspired by and influenced by your spirituality and cultural identities. I want to know how these manifest in your work and how you navigate the balance between the personal and the universal in your artistic expression.
Culturally, there’s a bit of an overlap between culture and spirituality for me. I grew up in a predominantly Zambian Church community and that was a huge part of my life. So for me, I had a really strong Christian upbringing and the practice of Christianity has really influenced my work in a lot of ways. I noticed that my use of repetition, I feel like has come from that. In Christianity, you’re taught to practice something in the way that people worship and the way people pray. It’s like something has to be repeated. and for it to really be processed.
Also, the nature of liturgy. For movement, it’s the language of people in Pentecostal churches, when they’re dancing out of a place of joy or going through some really intense spiritual experience. There’s the sense of being overcome and that your body is just like a vessel for something to be communicated which I really try and find, particularly with my own choreography.
On a similar note with your German and Zambian heritage, I just wanted to know a little bit about how these intersections of your cultural background manifest in your creative expression.
I wouldn’t want to generalize with nationalities, but it is my experience of like a million people around me is, as a community, there’s a lot of confidence and drive to just communicate what you want to communicate.
On a broader, cultural note I resonate with Zambian music, traditional drumming and more music specific to different tribes, as well as worship songs, the rhythms and the syncopation of the music really influence my movement in language. And I think there’s an intersection with the German side by that directness.
On a similar note, you’ve mentioned finding inspiration from writers and film directors who articulate that kind of specific details of the human psyche. Could you share any literary or cinematic influences that have left a lasting impact on your creative process?
I would definitely say Toni Morrison’s Beloved which has influenced a lot of my work. It’s an incredible novel. And there’s also the recognition it already has. For me, it’s the most intensely detailed articulation of grief and vengeance I’ve ever read, I want my work to also give justice to these experiences. In that sense, my work comes from wanting to contribute to the representation and archiving of the experiences of black women.
Your performance includes work by various choreographers, and I would like to know how collaborating with different artists impacts your own artistic development and any kind of memorable experiences.
I would say I’m quite grateful to have performed for a range of different contexts and I separate myself as a performer for quite some choreographing on other people. But even this year, I’ve been a backup dancer for Alison Goldfrapp. When performing at music festivals and performing to her music, which is a completely different performance, it’s not really contemporary dance and it’s all about like giving people a good time is actually happening. And to be able to tap into that part of the performance as well as being able and not convince myself I’m this incredible, attractive backup dancer really allows me to go back to my own work and have that same kind of persona and then distort in different ways.
I think that goes for every project I’ve done. I take something that I found in myself in that project and see how it can be distorted in my own creations, and also other projects.
Image credit: Jack Thomson.
Elisabeth Mulenga is a London based dance artist. Mulenga was born in Birmingham and is of German and Zambian heritage. Her choreography comes from a practice of sensitivity and awareness, aiming to highlight a range of lived emotional experiences. Her choreographic choices are also influenced by her spirituality and cultural identities. Mulenga is an alumnus of NYDC’s eighth cohort and trained at Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Mulenga has performed in works by Thick & Tight, Jessica Nupen, Magnus Westwell, Kennedy Junior Muntanga, Ivan Michael Blackstock, Gianna Gi and Russell Maliphant. In April 2022, she competed in the Grand Final of BBC Young Dancer 2022, winning the Choreographic Innovation Award for her solo Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?.
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