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Dora Frankel: Exploring a Tapestry of Senses, Places and Memories

Between the Art’s artist for October is Choreographer, Performer, and Educator Dora Frankel.

Dora was born and raised in London, and trained at Rambert School of Ballet. After a serious illness, she undertook a second training as a choreologist at Benesh International. Dora went on to join Rambert Company as a choreologist, and also performed in some of the company’s works, before moving to American Ballet Theatre. It was whilst working at Rambert that Dora had the opportunity to choreograph her first professional work, Images for Two. She worked in Finland and then Gothenburg, Sweden, where she designed and led a dance programme for Angered Gymnasium for ten years.

Dora returned to further education, gaining an MA Choreography at Middlesex University, before relocating to the North East of England to teach at Newcastle College and create her first project as Dora Frankel Dance (DFD). After a few years of teaching at several universities, Dora decided to entirely shift emphasis towards her choreographic work, exploring the site-specific and site-responsive. She reformed DFD as dance company Fertile Ground in 2013, a platform for developing the best of the North East professional dance talent. Since handing over the reins in 2018, Dora has continued her freelance career and formed the Dora Frankel Ensemble as a platform for her choreography, filmmaking, and touring work.

Here, Dora shares many of her fascinating experiences as a professional dancer and choreographer, including exciting details of her current project! She gives us an insight into her choreographic process, with both the inner and outer landscapes being an important influence. Read on to learn more...

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

I think I have to approach this firstly from a very wide sense in that I became really aware of the environment in Scandinavia. This is what triggered my excitement and understanding that choreography was not just choreography, it was surrounded by something. In Sweden, they often choreograph outside, in the snow and other conditions that we in England are perhaps just approaching now. During my time there, I started taking students outside to film, and then coming back inside with found objects. The environment and architecture of Scandinavia had a big influence on me. I realised that one of the reasons why I'm so interested in Newcastle, alongside the fact that its dance scene was already well known, was that it echoed the climate, the light and the situation in Gothenburg. Newcastle is an ex-industrial city on a big river and I was really taken by the light. I was working with it consciously, but also less consciously.

The trilogy, Trails, which I first started in 2013 and completed in 2022, is inspired by the artist J.M.W Turner; but really I was inspired by Turner's work, not so much him as a person, but by his use of space. He always painted these extraordinary spaces and I became really caught up in that. I became more political due to the situation in England and was fascinated by industry and the collapse of the industry, and the tragedy of this. Even though we have to move forward in order to protect our environment, there’s still a personal tragedy particularly for working class people.

I'm also interested in the inner landscape. I'm interested in what we as sentient beings feel and experience when in big landscapes. There can be a sense of despair and there is a sense of anxiety in this climate. When I made the film Touch the Beast, it was very much about an internal world, the internal landscape of guilt and anxiety, and the seeds of your own destruction within. That's a gothic, romantic idea, which I think is really interesting. So, I work with both the inner and the outer landscape.

"I'm interested in what we as sentient beings feel and experience when in big landscapes. There can be a sense of despair and there is a sense of anxiety in this climate."

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

It's taken me a really long time to find clarity around my creative process. I haven’t been able to describe it until very recently. Young choreographers don’t fear – it can take 50 years sometimes! I plan and research well, but I'm extremely spontaneous in the studio. I'm slightly chaotic in a crafted way, but also in the sense that there's a sense of unknowing. The process is actually ensuring that there's a really good democracy and collaboration between myself and the dancers, and that we are on the same page working together. There’s often improvisatory work as well as set work, and I go from one to the other. The improvisations almost always have a sense of purpose because I've set up the task for a specific reason. The more time I have, the more chaos I allow myself because we never know what's on the other side! Then I always bring some set material to give us pillars for the work. I’ve realised that I tend to work section by section but they don't have an order, I don't like to work from A to Z. I'm not a minimalist, I'm a modern choreographer and so I work with expressive tools, but I try not to do anything too obvious. Then as we work, and as I sleep on it, we find together some kind of shape. I create a lot of material, but I tend to know after a certain point that I have enough.

It’s a collaborative process, especially as I’ve got older and moved less. I find it a fantastically rewarding process to work with such gifted and experienced dancers who realise and understand how to work with me and who like to be challenged. I like to fill the space, but I don't like to fill space before I know what the work will be. I like it to be very organic.

Do you have any rituals that help with this process of creating work?

I definitely know that coffee is part of my ritual! Even to the point where I now have a special small thermos that I take into Dance City. I love working there, but as long as the space has some daylight and a sprung floor, I'm happy. I always change into rehearsal clothes; I always drink coffee; I always spend some time on the floor, stretching. I also have a very short routine every day, regardless of whether I'm working or not, which is to do with physicality and yoga. It's not strictly yoga but a combination, and I might repeat this in the studio or I might observe the dancers a bit at the end of class and then lie in the back corner and do what I need to do.

Also, there's a ritual I started when I first went to Sweden, as nobody seemed to say good morning and I felt quite shut out. So one of the things that I always do is to say good morning to the dancers and have a little chat before starting a rehearsal.

What are you working on at the moment?

It’s exciting because I’m currently doing a project called The Poe Saga. We’re in R&D at the moment, supported by the Arts Council which I'm very happy about. It's going back to this theme of the inner landscape but it also looks back even further, and all of this is to then move forward again. It looks back to a work, Angel of the Odd, which was a dance theatre piece. It was far more concrete in a sense than my Turner works which were very expansive, site responsive, musical, very much about the ambience. Edgar Allan Poe said, “The seeds of your own destruction are within you.” When I created my work Touch the Beast, I suggested that actually the beast within you is not necessarily destructive, but it is taboo and it is hidden and it is dark, but it can actually be a great energy. I began to think very particularly about gender for very personal reasons, and touched on gender fluidity in the broad sense, age, discrimination, fear of age, anxiety, and then fear of sexuality. These things work in this very strange and typical Poe place, and the film has had huge recognition globally. Angel of the Odd had looked at the internal landscapes or the compressed spaces of some of Poe’s stories where people were in rooms or dark houses. There are two things going on here that are really interesting.

So that's where we are now, reviving these works and creating new work. We are creating a really big work using these Poe’s tales, not to recreate them but to see them through contemporary eyes, queer eyes and old eyes. It will also touch on climate anxiety as well as anxiety around revealing that you're queer because of course there is still prejudice around that. It's quite a complex process. I'm also working with a team of people who aren't dancers. We just come together to discuss ideas and watch rehearsals, and if a dancer is available, then they are also part of the discussion. This is to keep questioning what is it that people are thinking and experiencing? And what is it about the work that is really going to speak to them?

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

When people first started talking about sense of place, I couldn't get it. I felt slightly trapped by the idea. I’m an artist and I hope that there's universality about my work, even if a lot of it might be inspired by the actual place I'm in at the moment. But now I understand that I have a sense of place and it's influenced by my whole life, by memories and traces of things. My sense of place is obviously parental influenced, life influenced, lived experience. The bottom line is I’m a Londoner, I’m half Jewish and I’m a European. I feel European but I hope that I'm a bit of an internationalist. I'm also an urban person, rather than a rural person. So yes, I have a sense of place but like for many people, if you unpicked it, it's like a tapestry of senses. Sense of place infiltrates everything I do when I allow it to. So when I'm relaxed and I allow it, I’m infiltrated by all these senses, memories, sense of place and who I am.

It’s a fine balance between knowing your job as a choreographer, a project manager, a mentor, a dancer, and also just a being. I think that’s when the most important and authentic work happens. It will have that blend of your skill and then this other element, which if you get it right, and not just you, the whole ensemble, it becomes the gift that is then put on stage. It's really important that everybody feels it as it doesn't always happen. It's very difficult if you're not getting proper funding or you don’t feel supported, but it's fantastic when you can arrive at that place.

"I have a sense of place and it's influenced by my whole life, by memories and traces of things. But like for many people, if you unpicked it, it's like a tapestry of senses. Sense of place infiltrates everything I do when I allow it to."

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world through your practice?

A message for the world… I think this is too big for me. It sounds pretentious. But, I would say never undervalue the power of dance. People think it's nice and audiences think that it's beautiful, but always remember that it is more than that. It is the power of movements, and movement is active and movement is future thinking. We live in dreadful times, particularly in England. Somehow I have to remind myself that the act of moving or sharing and crafting that movement is so powerful. If the message was for the world, I'd say to please respect what we're trying to do, but also please ask questions.

I trained in a period of great hope and great development in the seventies, and these big companies that I worked for still exist. It was a great period of experimentation and there was an implicit, political understanding that the arts were important. Our voices should be heard, whether it's through a blog like this or by getting work on stage. Try and get work out there! As dancers, we are often encouraged to do workshops and other similar things, which are important, but actually it’s the finished work that is most important.

Dora's Book List:

1. Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life by George Monbiot

This book is a plea for rewilding, in a political a sense, but also about the author being out in the environment, such as spending time in Wales in his kayak.

2. Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

I was sent this contemporary Japanese novel by my child. It’s about three women, but I’ve only just started it and it’s fascinating.

3. Work by Edgar Allan Poe

I return to Poe’s work over and over to try and unpick what is really going on.

To find out more about Dora's work, visit her website and Instagram @frankeldora.

Images 1: Garrod Kirkwood

Image 2: Luke Waddington

Image 3: Louise Todd

Image 4: Bec Hughes

Image 5: Artist's Own


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