Features/Contemporary dance/Dance

Dance dreams are made of this

28 September 2023

Less than a decade into his career, local choreographer Scott Elstermann has presented work at the prestigious Venice Biennale, mentored by the renowned Wayne McGregor. He gives guest writer Ruby Michael the lowdown.

This article was written by third year WAAPA dance student Ruby Michael, whilst on secondment at Seesaw Magazine as part of her studies.

In 2018, I was 15 years old, taking Scott Elstermann’s contemporary dance class at King Street Arts Centre, and marvelling at the elegance, virtuosity, and versatility of this Western Australian dance artist.

I may not have understood the magnitude of his achievements at the time, but I knew that I was fortunate to be learning from someone with so much to share, and so much willingness to do so. Elstermann’s warmth and fervour brightened the space, invigorating my passion for dance and strongly influencing my decision to audition for the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) two years later.

Scott Elstermann. Photo: Hannah Bethany Laurent

Now that I am preparing to enter the industry as an emerging artist, I know of no better role model than Elstermann, a local dancer who is making a global impact.

Elstermann’s career trajectory to date is impressive. As a school student he won the titles of Junior Australasian Jazz Champion, and Youth Ballroom DanceSport Champion, before graduating from WAAPA in 2014, with a Bachelor of Arts (Dance) degree and the Palisade Award for Most Outstanding Graduate.

Only four years after graduating, Elstermann became the youngest person and first Australian to win the prestigious Pina Bausch Fellowship for Dance and Choreography. This fellowship provided him the opportunity to accompany Spanish choreographer, Marina Mascarell, and tour some of the world’s most renowned contemporary dance companies, including Nederlands Dans Theater and Gärtnerplatztheater in Munich.

“Wayne McGregor is a master of the body, so learning from him about how to push your physicality and the dancers in order to expand my movement language was incredible.”

On the home front Elstermann has danced with numerous West Australian and interstate choreographers and companies, such as Lucy Guerin Inc., Stephanie Lake Company and Brooke Leeder and Dancers. As a choreographer he has worked with the likes of West Australian Opera, Freeze Frame Opera and LINK Dance Company, as well as making independent works, including Act 2, Scenes 1-4, which won the 2020 Performing Arts WA (PAWA) Award for Best New Work, and Petrushka (Game, Set, Match) which has been shortlisted for six awards in the recently announced PAWA nominations for 2023.

Now Elstermann has won big on the international stage again. He’s one of two emerging choreographers, selected from a pool of 244 applicants from 39 different countries, commissioned to create a work for the acclaimed international exhibition, the 2023 Venice Biennale.

The commission involved a 12-week residency in Venice, in which Elstermann and France/Taiwan-based choreographer Hai-Wen Hsu, developed two separate works under the guidance and directorship of British contemporary dance luminary, Wayne McGregor. The works were performed at the Biennale by the Biennale College Danza, an ensemble of 16 dancers from nine different countries, created for the event. The festival’s performance program also included works by distinguished choreographers such as William Forsythe and Simone Forti, as well as Australia’s Lucy Guerin.

With a schedule that saw him working in the studio from 9am to 6pm, six days a week initially, then every day in the final month, it’s not surprising that Elstermann describes his experience at the residency as “challenging, inspiring, daunting, exhausting”.

Elstermann’s work ‘Mosaic’ (pictured) is inspired by the mosaics of St Mark’s Basilica and the stories they tell. Pictured are dancers from the Biennale College Danza performing in Scott Elstermann’s ‘Mosaic’. Photo: Andrea Avezzu

The first two weeks of the program were like speed-dating, he says, collaborating with the 16 dancers individually to determine who would best suit his style and way of working.

At the end of the second week, Elstermann and Hsu sat down with McGregor, and split the dancers into two groups of eight. McGregor asked the two about their plans regarding the conceptual bases of their works.

Being mentored by Wayne McGregor was a highlight. Pictured L-R: Robert Binet, Scott Elstermann, Wayne McGregor, Hai-Wen Hsu. Photo: Antoine Vereecken

“We both had ideas and tasks that we wanted to explore”, recalls Elstermann. “He [McGregor] then said to us, ‘They sound great but I don’t want you two to do that’, which was a very big surprise. I love to be organised and have a plan, plus we were starting the next day. He challenged both of us and said ‘I want you to instead respond to Venice and be inspired by where you are right now.’”

Taking McGregor’s advice, Elstermann embarked on an exploration of Venice, and the first ideas for his work, Mosaic, were sparked. “There’s the very famous St Mark’s Basilica which has these beautiful golden domes covered in mosaics that tell elaborate stories,” explains Elstermann. “That was something I could relate to because I quite like narrative work, and the metaphoric idea that we are all lots of little people (similar to the little tiles) that have come together in this moment.”

While 12 weeks may sound generous, the time-frame was challenging, says Elstermann, especially because he was working with a young cast, some of whom were not English-speaking.

“Although the program is three months, we probably only worked in the studio, on the piece, for three and a half weeks – from zero”, he recalls. Keep in mind, he was also collaborating with Australian-based artist, Louis Frere-Harvey, via Zoom, to develop a new music composition, and navigating the costuming, performance spaces and set design.

“There were lots of moving parts that came together the day before the show,” he says.

‘It was, as clichéd as it sounds, a once in a lifetime opportunity.’ Dancers from the Biennale College Danza performing in Scott Elstermann’s ‘Mosaic’. Photo: Andrea Avezzu

Being mentored by McGregor was – not surprisingly – a highlight, says Elstermann. “He’s a master of the body, so learning from him about how to push your physicality and the dancers in order to expand my movement language was incredible.”

Elstermann also appreciates the financial budget that backed the residency, which allowed him to test out his artistic visions, such as designing and fabricating reversible sequined costumes for the dancers. “It [was], as clichéd as it sounds, a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he says. “I’ve kind of been pinching myself every day.”

You’ll be able to catch footage of Mosaic when it’s made available for viewing towards the end of this year – keep your eye on Seesaw Mag’s socials for more info.

Pictured top: Dancers from the Biennale College Danza performing in Scott Elstermann’s ‘Mosaic’. Photo: Andrea Avezzu

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Author —
Ruby Michael

Raised in Darwin, Ruby Michael relocated to Perth in 2021 to study dance at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. As part of her studies she travelled to Purchase College in New York, where her love for dance and travelling developed. Currently in her third year at WAAPA, Ruby is passionate about dance, art and writing, and values the power artists have to engage with the community.

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