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Sculpting with human form, Chloe Rosser’s latest collaboration with Scottish Ballet shines the spotlight on the lived experience of those with neurological conditions
words – chloe rosser
location – london, united kingdom
A vital, poetic yet unnerving portrayal of neurological conditions through movement, Forming sees photographer Chloe Rosser partner with Co-director Scottish Ballet’s Eve McConnachie and dancers from Scottish Ballet’s Elevate© programme, alongside Principal dancer from the company Marge Hendrick, to capture the complexities of bodies which refuse to obey their minds. Amidst a landscape lacking in understanding of even the most commonplace neurological conditions, Forming serves to capture attention and highlight the lived experience of others. Extraordinarily human yet somehow otherworldly, the piece jerks, crunches and twists its way into our psyche, forcing us to consider the movements and dialogues of others so often internalised. In this exclusive interview, Chloe shares the process which led to the creation of the piece and explains how it further develops her earlier work.
What was the process behind this piece?
The first step was to find our dancers for the film. We worked with two dancers, Denise Noone and Joanne Harrow, who we found through Elevate© – a dance programme for people living with Multiple Sclerosis [MS], developed by Scottish Ballet. The aim of Elevate is to positively impact on the health and wellbeing of the dancers involved, and I’ve been amazed to see how it actively benefits people’s lives. Our third dancer was Marge Hendrick, who is one of Scottish Ballet’s Principal professional dancers.
Co-director Eve McConnachie and I did plenty of discussing and planning, but when we arrived at the studio to start workshopping with the dancers we had very little idea of what they would actually be doing in the film. We wanted the movements to be developed collaboratively and informed by the dancers’ bodies. We brought many ideas to try out, but we were keen to approach the project with a completely open mind in regards to where it would end up. I brought a large selection of reference material to work from: sketches of various ideas; images from my earlier work, Form & Function; stills and videos of movement pieces by Alain Platel; images of works by Berlinde De Bruyckere and also new photographic works that I’m currently developing. We laid them all out on the top of a grand piano in the corner of the room, and then started by seeing what our dancers were drawn to.
Movement Director Maddy Squire and I worked closely with our three dancers. We took the poses I had brought and added movement to them. Everyone’s body is unique in the way it moves, and our dancers had very different levels and areas of flexibility, movement and balance. We worked collaboratively for three long days, devising and adjusting movements and poses – starting with small, minimal and intuitive movements, before expanding them to some quite complicated and large gestures. Over the days, we built short phrases of motion that were not only tailored to each of our dancers, but felt connected to how they personally move.
During the workshops, Eve and I began to find a shape for the film and we devised a loose narrative. By the end of the three days, we had planned out what we wanted to shoot.
Amazingly, the shoot itself pretty much all went to plan and we captured everything we needed to make the film. Eve did the editing, and we went to and fro with ideas and adjustments for it. One of the most fulfilling aspects of the whole process was working collaboratively throughout. Being able to bounce ideas off people and actually discuss what you’re making was so enjoyable! I’m always working on artwork by myself and this was particularly refreshing.
The music and sound design was done by Carlo Ascrizzi. We wanted it to be very textural with organic elements; we wanted it to relate to the movements but not be too direct, and we wanted it to be unsettling. All post production was completed with a distance of 400 miles between us, so there were a lot of email discussions and video calls to get it to where we wanted it to be.
What led you to collaborate with Eve McConnachie?
Eve approached me with the idea of making a collaborative film based on my artwork. She’s a filmmaker and Brand Creative Lead at Scottish Ballet and she had seen my work and liked it. It was pretty much the dream commission for me! She’s very experienced at making films, whereas I’m predominantly a photographer so working together on this was ideal. We discussed everything and made decisions together, but having two slightly different areas of expertise worked perfectly for us and meant that each of us naturally took the lead at different points of the process.
Forming sees you capture the narrative of living with a neurological condition. How important was research to this, and what was the input of the dancers?
It was so important to us to be informed before we began workshopping movement for the film, so that we had an understanding of MS, how it can affect people physically and mentally, and so that we could support our dancers and make sure everyone was comfortable and safe. But, also, so that we had a starting point for understanding what movement might mean to our dancers with MS.
Before we began working with our dancers, the core team involved in the film undertook a training session with the Dance Health Programme Manager for Elevate, which dealt with the condition itself as well as how we can support our dancers with MS while working together. We also read the research report written by Dr Bethany Whiteside on the Elevate programme. It contains many direct quotes from the dancers themselves and details the benefits they feel the class has had on them. We attended a number of the Elevate dance sessions as well, taking the opportunity to join in and also meet the people taking part. It was important to all of the team that we hear the experiences of people living with MS, so we were asking them about it from the beginning. We had an emotional discussion after one of the Elevate classes that really made me see how important those classes are to some of the dancers. I’ve been interested in the relationship between the mind and the body for a long time, and hearing how they have been affected by the disruption of that relationship was profound.
Our Movement Director, Maddy Squire, herself had a neurological attack five years ago where she was near paralysed. She is a professional dancer at Scottish Ballet as well as a choreographer and movement director, so to have that very sudden and drastic physical change for her was potentially life changing. Amazingly, she managed to rebuild her movement back to a place where she’s now dancing professionally again. Going through that has given her a new appreciation for dancers and what dance can be. The focus of the film was the lived experience of our dancers, but working with a movement director who has had personal experience with a neurological condition definitely fed into the final piece.
Marge is an impressive ballet dancer, but she’s also excellent at articulating precise parts of her body. She can move in an almost inhuman way. She and the other dancers worked very closely when devising phrases. Keeping body contact, many of the movements were put together intuitively as they responded to each other’s motions. Most of the film depicts two figures moving together,
...connected as though they are part of the same creature.
We wanted to work with two figures because it would allow us to build stranger and less human shapes: there’s just more scope when you have more body. The relationships between figures is also a focus in my wider practice, especially looking at poses where they are supporting and relying on each other. When they can build a structure together that would be impossible without the other, it feels like they have created something poignant. I love the interaction you get when that happens. It takes so much trust and communication to fuse like that.
Your work is known for embracing the surreal, often erring on the side of confusion and – to some – repulsion. How does this translate within this piece?
We haven’t shied away from any of that in this piece. We wanted to use those aspects to explore our dancer’s experiences. Abstracting the bodies in this way allows them to merge, meaning that our dancers were working and moving together to create a collaborative sculpture that morphs and breathes. Living in a body that is changing is full of nuanced shifts, as well as bigger noticeable adjustments, so we wanted to reflect that with the movement in the film. Small, uncomfortable crunching movements build to big, swooping, tense extensions. There’s a sense of the body shifting and changing, but also adapting and growing.
What role should the arts play in highlighting the experience of those living with neurological conditions?
To me, art made is always very personal, and it comes from individual people wanting to express something. So although I find it difficult to say art in general should be doing anything, I do think that it’s so good at communicating experiences and exploring difficult ideas that it’s a perfect tool to talk about this with.
The difficulty can be making sure that important and diverse art gets seen.
Co-Directors – Chloe Rosser & Eve McConnachie
DoP – Caroline Bridges
Movement Director – Madeline Squire
Music & Sound design – Carlo Ascrizzi
Music Supervision – Dolce
Executive Producer – Tony Currie
Producer – Caitlin McKenna
Colour Grade – @forestofblack
There’s also a huge personal benefit in being able to express yourself and for that to be heard. When I talked to our dancers who have MS, one of them told me that she felt it really did capture something of what it’s like for her to live with MS. Our other dancer said that making the film was a really positive experience for her, as it allowed her to take back control from a condition that was threatening to control her. She felt strong in her body, not weak like she thought she was becoming.
How does this work evolve the messaging of your previous project, Form & Function, in particular the exploration of our often fraught relationships with our own bodies?
In Form & Function, I was already considering what it’s like to inhabit a body that grows, changes and ages. It can be an isolating experience that reveals an unwelcome side of that relationship. Maybe we discover a fragility or an uncertainty that we did not expect.
Forming takes those ideas further with its particular focus on the experience of living with a neurological condition. However the film isn’t trying to say one definite statement, but rather to gently consider different aspects. Physical experience, emotional shifts. Uncertainty, alienation and facing the unknown. But also adaptation, discovery, growth and strength. Through collaboratively choreographed movements, we explore a new, unsettling body; one that expands, grows, and then boldly takes up space.
Forming sees you work with movement for the first time, an evolution from your photographic practice; how did you find this medium?
With photography I was already sculpting with living flesh and then using the camera to record it, but here we were able to bring even more life to these bodily sculptures. I have previously flirted with the idea of putting on a live performance with abstracted figures, but I’ve never felt it would be possible. You can only hide so many limbs if you view it from a very restricted vantage point. But using film does create something of what I was imagining. I love the early moments of the film, where we only see one acorn-like body in the centre of a large room, and as we watch, it breathes. The moment where you first become aware of the movement really engages you. Breathing is the most basic evidence of life, so it felt good to linger on that function.
It was also interesting to make something that lasts for a period of time. It’s a short film but people watch it for longer than they would my photographs. There’s more scope for curating the experience and taking people on a journey.
Partly, I didn’t know what to expect when making this film. When I setup a photograph with my kit, I can see how it’s going to come out – but with a whole team working on Forming, I didn’t know the process and so I couldn’t foresee how it would come together. I had to just trust that when everything was finished we’d have what we had hoped to make. And we absolutely did. Caroline Bridges, our DOP, did such a good job, but it was very alien to me not to be behind the camera. There were points when making this film felt a little bit like I was shooting blind, but I’m delighted with the final result.
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