by Neil Nisbet

Vanessa Cook is a professional dancer currently working with Motionhouse Dance Theatre. Vanessa talks to Article19 about performing, travelling the world and being in prison! (surely not! Ed!)

Article19: How did you move from an English/Philosophy degree to a career as a professional dancer?

When I was younger I trained quite extensively in classical ballet. I had a choice when I was 16 to pursue that professionally at The Royal Ballet or continue with my A levels. I kind of wanted to continue with academic studies so I did that and then I went travelling for a year, got a round the world ticket, and did some dancing in different countries. I did a little bit of contemporary dance in New Zealand and I liked how free it felt compared to ballet.

Then I did an English degree at Leeds University and I was always looking for open classes while I was there and I saw an advert for contemporary classes at Northern [School of Contemporary Dance] which is also in Leeds. So I started going there every Tuesday and I liked it. It was kind of similar to the dance I’d done before but also really different.

I found it interesting because my body had to learn loads of new patterns. So I just started going to the community class and [eventually] I auditioned and went to Northern for a year after my degree. I graduated from Leeds University and started at Northern in ’98, which I suppose was a relatively fast transition time. I’m still learning a lot now, there’s a lot that feels and looks new to me, like I’ve only just made the transition.

Article19: Do you feel you missed out by only doing one year of training compared to three or four years for most professionals?

I don’t feel like I missed out. I really loved what I did, I loved all the travelling I did and I enjoyed my degree [in English and Philosophy]. I think my degree taught me different approaches to art, how to conceptualise about art, which I now find really useful in dance. I think if I had gone there [to Northern] for three years or when I was younger maybe I would have worked with more or different companies already but actually I really like the work I’m doing, I like the things I’m learning.

I used to admire all of the different styles of contemporary duets that were unfamiliar to me and I was kind of in awe, watching all these different styles and techniques and the way people on my course were moving. Maybe if I had trained for three years I would have been more exposed to it [contemporary dance] and developed opinions about it sooner. But then again what whet my appetite for contemporary dance and made me really hungry to learn more was fact that it was an unfamiliar world to me. I think this had a positive effect because it made me work hard. For that reason I like the order in which I did things.

Article19: When you are beginning a new piece what gets you excited and interested about a particular piece of work?

What’s exciting is when you start from scratch and there’s nothing. You just have time to use and then suddenly an idea is born. For the last piece ‘Volatile’ we talked a little bit about how people communicate and respond to each other and strangers in public places. With that simple idea immediately we started looking at what movement could be used to depict these moments and what was really exciting was how within a couple of days or a couple of hours suddenly we’d created new vocabulary.

Then the next step was looking at how effectively the movement lent itself to adding to the intended meaning or context. It is exciting starting from nothing, a blank place and quickly getting to a place where chunks of movement have been created. Also, I love the feeling of doing things that challenge and push your body. It’s a great feeling when you realise the movement that was so physically challenging at first has become much easier.

Article19: How do you approach the performance aspect of your work? You always look like you are enjoying yourself on stage.

I do enjoy myself! There are times in performance when I’m thinking specifically about what my relationship is with the other dancers. There are funny moments in everyday communication and there are similar moments in performance. Maybe there’s a split second when you look across and catch someone’s eye at a time that you don’t normally catch their eye. Like everyday interaction, in performance it’s finding little moments of interaction with the other dancers that makes it enjoyable.

Sometimes you think, “Oh we haven’t done that before, I like what happened there” . By always staying open to new ways of interpreting your material, you never get bored, it keeps things fresh. Another reason I enjoy performing is that it is a brilliant form of escapism. It is time when you focus on nothing but the requirements of the performance. Regardless of the other things going on in your life, performing demands your full attention and for that reason, for the duration of the performance, it takes you to a place away from the constant thought of everyday. I like that.

Article19: Do you think an audience can tell if you, as a dancer, are not enjoying the work you are performing?

I don’t know if it does. There are days when you’re just not enjoying the way the piece feels but the audience seem to enjoy it. Or the opposite can be true, you feel you’re doing a great performance but our director is disappointed. I suppose this shows that it’s possible to not enjoy your work one evening but be accurate with timing, partner work, unison, spacing, making it a good, sound performance and vice versa. One of the curious things about performance is that enjoying your work and your work being enjoyed don’t always go together.

Audiences come with their own way of perceiving things. Our own experience furnishes our perceptions. This means people respond to a piece of theatre in a personal way regardless of the performers’ level of enjoyment. Because of this, I think it’s possible for an audience to not notice whether the performers are enjoying their work or not. However, on the flipside, I also think when a performer enjoys their work they execute it with more energy which is surely noticeable.

Accuracy is the most important feature of a performance to enable a show to hang together. Accuracy and no enjoyment will provide a sound performance. No accuracy and maximum enjoyment won’t provide a sound performance. But accuracy and enjoyment (or extra energy) surely provides the best kind of performance!

Article19: What’s the main difference for you with the work you are doing with Motionhouse compared to other companies you have worked with?

Contracts with Motionhouse last longer than contracts I’ve had with other companies. We are constantly choreographing pieces on various community groups. We undertake lots of education projects with lots of different age groups and abilities. I know many companies have a separate education team but Motionhouse believe that teaching should be done by the performers because teaching and performing skills should inform one another. I think this is true. In practise it means we work hard, the contracts are intense.

A feature of working with Motionhouse is that there is much more opportunity to perform. The last show ‘Fearless’ was performed over 100 times. There is a massive range in the type of venue we perform in. The most unusual place we’ve worked and performed in the last year, is prison. This has provided a really different kind of opportunity in terms of teaching skills and working an all male group really hard physically.

It’s been really enjoyable watching the group achieve especially knowing we’ve helped to facilitate them. Another difference is that with Motionhouse we devise a piece as a group. Kevin [Finnan] as the Artistic Director makes final decisions but the process is collaborative. We watch each other and make suggestions, “try that again with no pause” for example. Or “Rewind and repeat that little bit, try it like this”. The piece grows through group discussion.

Article19: Do you see your long-term future in dance?

There are lots of things that excite me other than dance. There are many things that I enjoy doing. I really enjoy travelling, I’ve been learning sign language a little bit and working with deaf people, working in a voluntary capacity with youth groups, I love to write, I’d like to have more time studying capoeira, there are many things that I love to do.

But there are also many things about dance that I love and want to carry on exploring. Simply, I think, what I do will always involve being physical. I love the endorphin rush you get from being physical, so I intend to always do something physical. I also think that you just have to do whatever gives you pleasure and the day dance bores me I won’t be doing it anymore. Right now I’m really enjoying what I’m doing and I’m learning new things and as long as I can discover new things in dance that excite me I’ll continue to do it and when I don’t I’ll diversify in a related way.

Article19: Are you interested in creating your own work at any time?

At the moment it’s not my prime concern. We get the opportunity to create work with different groups constantly but sometimes I would like to create work on people who are of a professional standard just because of the things you can do with them, they have a greater physical range and I imagine I could push ideas further with them. There are a couple of dancers that I’ve worked with in the past that I sometimes get excited with about a couple of choreographic ideas that we would like to play with and I’m sure that we will do that in whatever capacity is available.

Article19: What is the best advice you could give to young dancers who are currently in training?

Although you are training you need to get out of that environment as much as possible so go and take classes with as many different people as you can. Dance is such a broad field but sometimes when you’re training you can really narrow your mind in terms of what your desired outcome for yourself is, according to the desired outcome your college has for you.

All schools have a preference in what they want to teach you. If you want to work professionally it’s good to accumulate as many skills in different styles as possible, so go to as many classes as possible! Many people start trusting college as the ultimate measure of their ability. Go out and recharge yourself if you’re feeling stale or if you’re feeling brilliant go out and see if you really are brilliant on a broader scale! Take what’s good and go and see the world outside your college, it’s big and it’s diverse.