Speakeast with - Zoetic Dance Ensemble's Ellen McCollister

Corsets, dolls, bungee cords and clawfoot bathtubs provide part of the repertoire in Dirty Pretty, Zoetic Dance Ensemble's latest feat of athletic modern dance playing Oct. 30-Nov. 1 at 7 Stages. Ellen McCollister, a member of Zoetic's all-female ensemble for eight years, talks about the demands of being a dancer and the development of Zoetic's playful signature imagery. McCollister graduated from Philadelphia's University of the Arts, began her professional career with the Kris Cangelosi Dance Project, and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in dance at the University of Wisconsin.

So how are you studying dance in Milwaukee if you live in Atlanta? Dance doesn't seem like a "long-distance" craft.

It's made for professionals who can take six to seven weeks off and go to Milwaukee in the summer. In fall and spring I have directed study, and I get credit for some of the stuff I do with Zoetic.

How often do you train?

You should be in class every day as a dancer – if you're not, it goes away quick. At Zoetic, we get together two times a week to work together. Most of us are also teachers who dance, so we're dancing in a studio every day. I'd say that in general, class time is an hour and a half a day. One of our dancers would take 10 classes a day if she could, but for me, one is enough.

Do you have any habits or rituals when you perform or prepare to dance?

We go into the theater this week for tech and rehearsals of Dirty Pretty. I'm very consistent and I like consistency, so whatever I do the first day – how I do my hair and makeup, for instance – I'll have to do it the same way each time until the show's over. Everything for me has to be the same as on the first day. The others make fun of me for it.

Can you tell me about the piece you choreographed for Dirty Pretty?

My piece is called "Rooms." We have panels of material on the set to represent rooms, which are like the corners of our minds, the places we're not supposed to show as women. Three dancers are in the rooms in the first part, and the second part is a solo by Amanda Thompson. I thought of it this summer when I was in Milwaukee, and called Melanie Lynch-Blanchard, Zoetic's co-founder and said, "I have this great idea for a set." At college, you have access to lots of resources that you don't necessarily have on the outside. Melanie told me, "Good luck with that." Luckily, my husband is making the panels for me.

How do you pick the music for something you choreograph? Does it happen immediately or over time?

I started on some of the choreography for "Rooms" when I was at school. At some point a song by Rupa & the April Fishes popped up on my iTunes, and I thought, "Oh, I have to use that one." It's in the second part solo. The first part has a song by Emilie Simon, one I went back and forth on. It's kind of creepy and dark, but it works.

How did Zoetic pick the theme Dirty Pretty? What's the show about?

Way back in the spring, we were tossing around what to call our next show, since most of our previous shows just had one-word names. Melanie came up with Dirty Pretty, and we all said, "Oh my god, that's it." I think we can all relate to images in pop culture that are hard to attain. It starts out with a duet that basically deals with how women relate to one another – sisters, mothers, friends, and how they can be nice and not nice, supportive and not supportive. It ends with a piece in which we all wear corsets made out of muslin, and we're all connected together with bungee cord. It'll be interesting. The tension from the earlier parts resolves itself at the end by being untied.

What can you tell me about the show's Barbie-themed piece?

I don't want to give away its surprises. It's about two minutes long, and the five of us in the ensemble got together in the studio and knocked out the piece in about an hour. It's about the different kinds of Barbies. We all picked a Barbie that's dear to our hearts. We laugh every time we rehearse it, and I hope everyone thinks it's as fun as we do.

In general, do dancers prefer to dance in pieces that they choreograph, or remain separate from them?

When you're young, you want to be on stage as much as possible. As I've gotten older, I don't want to dance to my pieces. Being in it and not being able to see it with your own eyes is a completely different experience. Over time, I think a lot of us at Zoetic have come to feel the same way.

When you're performing, is it fun to dance, or is it like work?

It's an amazing feeling. We've been working on this show since spring, and the preparation involves lots of long hours, but it's just so worth it getting onto the stage and expressing yourself. It's exhilarating. I would never say it's work.

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