Interview With…Zannah Chisholm

We chatted to Artistic Director Zannah Chisholm about Pavilion Dance South West and new dance piece Papyllon by Ella Mesma.  

Hi Zannah – could you explain a bit more about what Papyllon is about? This transformative new piece provides an opportunity to see a work in development from one of the UK’s rising dance talents, choreographer Ella Mesma. Responding to the need for high quality artistic entertainment during the current lockdown, PDSW are bringing thepowerful work back to the digital sphere to be enjoyed by audiences up and down the
country with audio description.

Inspired by the lifecycle of the butterfly and each stage of metamorphosis, Papyllon interrogates identity, privilege and imposter syndrome as Ella confesses to the audience how and why she doesn’t fit with society. The live music from Marv Radio (Sound Connections’ New Voices; Mantra) is entirely improvised in response to Ella’s work as the piece seamlessly blends dance, text, song and aerial silks. Papyllon explores ideas of race,
heritage, nature and nurture even as it uses shamanism and alchemy to inform the piece. It’s a timely piece of work that considers sensitively, so many of the main societal issues that have been brought to the surface during lockdown.

How did the piece come about? Ella Mesma Dance is our Company in Residence which means we contribute money, space and time to the company to create and rehearse work. Ella’s initial intention was to create a
group piece during the year, but the pandemic prevented that from happening, so she revisited a piece she began almost seven years ago in one of our events for hip hop artists. When the building was last open – post the first lockdown – Ella developed this archive piece using a suggestion from an audience member that she worked with silks – long flowing
strands of silk hung from a specially adapted rig that she can hang and tumble with and from. Our technical team helped her set up, Marv Radio came and rehearsed with her and we collaborated on an ‘as live’ streamed premiere of the work in progress. In due course, Ella will be touring this work for the outdoors and making an adaptation for children.

What was it about the concept of Papyllon that made you decide it would be a great way to start the company’s 25th anniversary celebrations? As an organisation with a remit to transform communities through dance, everything we do and the selection of people we work with have to align and embody our values: kind, inclusive, inspiring, passionate. Ella personifies these values and we’ve enjoyed an open and
strong partnership. For 25 years PDSW has been creating programmes, nurturing talent and enabling more people to dance and to watch dance. Our strongest roots are in contemporary dance, but we are clear that the future is framed by all of the different dance styles that are in this contemporary world. We will be embracing dance that people consider
part of their everyday lives and collaborating with professional dancers to bring more people to their feet to dance and to watch dance.

What else has Pavilion Dance South West got in store for its 25 th anniversary celebrations? COVID and lockdown has inspired us to think outside the box and go outside the box. We are working on a whole series of creative works and events that takes dance onto the street and out of the more formal theatre settings. Inspired by the commission #GOOGLEDANCE
created by Wayne Parson’s director of VOXED dance company, we entertained people in the local area with a professional performance right outside people’s homes, with the addition of their participation of specially choreographed dance performed in their living rooms! We are now collaborating with two other artists to share dance in public spaces – in the streets,roads, lanes, promenades of Bournemouth Christchurch Poole. Part one-liner gag, part public intervention, Nic Sandiland’s Trip Hazard demonstrates cause and effect between actions in a public and digital space as the movement of the public literally trips up a dancer
projected onto a wall. Clever and funny, it will bring curiosity and joy to passers-by.

We are working in partnership with Elisabeth Schilling to bring her “Invisible Dances – In And Around Lockdown” to England. Multicoloured traced lines will appear overnight on streets and pavements, outside schools – the marks left in fading chalk from a dancer dancing along in the depths of the night. This was a project she created with support from
Surf The Wave, our UK-wide project about the showcasing and touring of dance. Her intention was to give employment opportunities to freelancers who had lost their work. The concept took off and has now gone global. There is a real beauty in bringing joy to the public and at the same time virtually connecting on an international scale post-Brexit.

How easy has it been to try and adapt and provide accessible performances for people during this time? We’ve had to think and adapt fast to stay in touch with our professional and public communities and to continue to provide a dance programme. We swiftly shifted to digital
and have learned a lot about things like digital safeguarding, how to run a digital programme, how it can be different from a live programme and how to think differently about contracting digital work. We’ve focussed on how to make digital content accessible and explored audio description, captioning and sign interpretation. We’re still on that journey and it’s become a part of our future. We are exploring what our unique digital voice
will be and whether we can make a digital programme financially viable.

But live performance and in-person gatherings remain our core work and it has been a hard year of not being able do contact work or gather in groups. Our studios have been used by degree students and professional choreographers when we’ve been open. When we relaunched live classes, they sold out, but they had to be cancelled in the second lockdown,
and now again in the third. We’ve promoted one visiting show for audiences but have had to postpone or cancel the rest due to government restrictions or because the company haven’t been able to tour due to COVID incidences, lack of money or not being able to come together to rehearse. It’s been a long hard year for us and the whole industry.

What would you say is dance’s biggest strength in connecting with people? The communal experience of dance brings us together. It makes us ‘feel’, keep fit, connect with other people, and enjoy music. It is immersive. The sweat, the shared experience, the out of breath, the laughter – it’s what we all need, and will need, after the vaccines have begun to make COVID less dangerous.

What are your hopes for the company this year?We’ll bring COVID-safe dance experiences into people’s lives where they live, and work and
we’ll reopen our studios and theatre as soon as we can. We hope that we can bring more dance to more people and spread the joy!

By Emma Clarendon

To find out more about Pavilion Dance South West and new dance piece Papyllon, streaming from the 18th to the 24th January visit:

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