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Emma Dunn: Movement and Connection as Cellular Joy

This month on Between the Art features dance artist and aerialist Emma Dunn.

Emma grew up in Alnwick, Northumberland, and began dancing at a young age. Her involvement with the Northumberland Youth Dance Company was a strong inspiration to pursue a career in dance. Growing up surrounded by fabric and costumes, Emma decided to study fashion at Newcastle College, which has informed her practice today through creating visual art work out of fabrics, and also helping to develop an understanding of the role of an artist. Realising she preferred to be in a dance studio, Emma returned to studying dance after college, including at Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London.

Emma is now a freelance dance artist, after returning to live and work in Howick, Northumberland, and establishing her company Dansformation. Her projects range from solo work to working with large groups of professional artists, with a focus on engaging the local community to offer a creative outlet through movement for all.

With a wealth of experience of working on many different types of projects and with many different people, Emma shares how her practice has grown into using dance in the outdoors as a tool to process trauma. Dance as a "cellular joy" is at the heart of her practice. Read on for more...

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

I work a lot in this room where I am currently speaking to you from! My creative work often happens at home. I used to have things scattered about in different areas, but I recently decided to put everything all in one room such as my aerial frame and sewing machine, and I also have space to move in. People who come into the room often say that they can feel my energy just in this one space. My practice has changed as a result, particularly now that I can write in the same place that I create and move in. My aerial silks are hanging up by the window so I can write, go and hang for a bit, then come back to writing. I feel very privileged to have this space.

The sea is just a field away from my home. Even before living here, the sea has always been a place of creation: using the landscape in photographs, or creating work outdoors. I also use it as a place for my therapeutic dance provision sessions that I run for young people when we work outdoors on the beach. This space outside can feel otherworldly: it feels huge along with the wind, the air, the sea…

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

It’s an interesting question, as sometimes the creative process is reliant on a project in order to fulfil the process. For example, I need funding to be able to work with the people I would like to work with; I do find that in writing the funding application, I plan to do all these different things which in a way takes up the space of the creative process!

However, my process is definitely person-led, using conversation and writing. At the moment, I’ve been developing this conversational process, with it really informing the direction of where my creativity goes: conversations with the self, with other university lecturers… they bring in other things, such as books and resources. It’s like you are being given a gift by the conversations informing different strands, almost as though it were a jigsaw puzzle and the conversations weave their way in to fit everything together.

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

A moment daily to move for myself is important, especially when working one-to-one with other people, and needing to be in a really calm state, because the other person is going to co-regulate with you. There’s a consciousness of me needing to have this calm energy for the session to unfold in the way that I would like it to unfold. When I work with others, it’s definitely not me as a leader; it’s much more of a collaborative process, with the other person being a co-researcher within my work. Whatever energy they are adding changes and informs our ideas.

On a personal level, I need to move as soon as I wake up. I have two dogs so I’ll often go out for a run with them first thing! Each day has those rituals in routine which really help to ground me and support my work. Having moments of silence is really important too, helping to gather up thoughts and creativity. Mothering and caring for my two daughters at home is also a huge part of my day and work: it comes in and out of the creative process, and it’s important to set the boundary of when I need a quiet moment to gather myself back in. Gathering the cellular joy within so that I can move on out again to whatever the work is for me!

"I’m thinking about dance as this cellular joy that reaches the body from the outside, to the inside, and back out again. It’s allowing me to give a name to all of the amazing experiences I’ve been through, which are all about connection through movement."

What are you working on at the moment?

The last big project I did was called The Lost Dances, a creative heritage project to explore the rich history of Northumbrian folk dance and music. I made a book as a result of the work which is available in the Northumbrian libraries. It was a three year project that really changed course a few times, particularly because of the pandemic! There are little bits of this historic-based project that didn’t quite make it to the final work but which I’d still like to perform or create as part of a film.

I’m also about to start my PhD! I’ve been working towards this for a while, doing interviews and a lot of writing last year, and developing space for the work to happen. At the moment I’m trying to carve out spaces in my day that will be filled with tasks for this. My PhD is around dance and health, and how the power of dance can bring joy to those who experience it. My work is trauma informed as I work with young people who have had a lot of childhood traumas or difficult circumstances. Dance can support the processing of this and relieve the stress and trauma. I’m thinking about dance as this cellular joy that reaches the body from the outside, to the inside, and back out again. It’s allowing me to give a name to all of the exciting, amazing experiences I’ve been through, which are all about connection through movement. One thing that comes to mind is delivering a dance workshop in an old people’s home, looking at consciousness and being in the present moment; suddenly someone who is struggling with dementia has a click and there’s a moment where they are able to connect fully and be in this amazing place of dance, light, joy and movement! It might only last for a few seconds but it’s a phenomenological moment: a phenomenon of the body connection with another person in the present. I think this is the magic of dance.

Part of the PhD funding application is to make a solo piece of work. It’s been nearly 15 years since I did a solo performance project, and I’m always working with other people, so I feel ready to come home and do an individual piece. It will probably involve some performing, film, writing… Creating something for myself, about myself.

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

A sense of place for me is a feeling of being really grounded with the feet on the floor, wherever that may be. There’s a sensory feeling through the body of just being stable in that place. Maybe there is also a sense of just being really happy within your own body? Maybe just being content?

I think space is an important part of sense of place. After a recent trip to London, where things felt tight, small and airless, I really felt the change in the size of space that we are lucky to have in Northumberland. There’s so much space here to explore and move in. It really is magnificent!

Being the age I am and as a woman going through menopause, I also think I’m in an interesting time of being able to find myself and re-evaluate my practice. I’m in this place where I feel really satisfied and content with everything I have. I definitely don’t feel the need to strive for something that comes with the urgency we feel when we are young, although of course there is still ambition and being excited by everything I do! My body is in an amazing place because of my practice, and is still able and willing and wanting to do all of these different things.

"There’s a sensory feeling through the body of just being stable. Maybe there is also a sense of just being really happy within your own body? Maybe just being content?"

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

I think that’s what my work is all about: being able to change the world through dance! As dance practitioners, there’s something unique in the way that we understand the world because of the amount of movement that we do. One of the things I wanted to do as a younger dancer and artist was to teach how important this movement practice is and work with as many people as I possibly could to share this message. What I’ve come to now and want to share with the world is the ease of what movement is. Dance is important and really valuable, like treasure.

Emma's Book List:

Books, and imagery and paintings sometimes from books, play an important part in my creative practice.

1. Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta

This book is a fascinating look at aboriginal custom and culture. As I’m reading it, I’m thinking about myself as indigenous to Northumberland, which is something I hadn’t really considered before: what am I trying to find out as a person from and living in Northumberland?

2. Heuristic Research: Design, Methodology, and Applications by Clark Moustakas

A bit of interesting PhD reading! It’s quite a simple and poetic read.

3. The Seaweed Collector’s Handbook by Miek Zwamborn

I’m always foraging and, as a family, we eat a lot of Japanese food, so I’m trying to collect and dry our own seaweed that’s found on our doorstep.

To find out more about Emma and her work, go to Dansformation's website and her Instagram @eleeladans

Image 1: Milli Ellaby

Images 2, 3, 4, 5: Artist's Own


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