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Bessie Nominee Profile: Ellen Fisher

By Helen Shaw
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For the next two weeks, we'll be counting down to the Bessie Awards—also known as the New York Dance and Performance Awards—by talking to the 15 performance nominees. This year, the nominators have honored a remarkably diverse group, one which manages to span the spectrum from trance dancers to flamenco performers, from long-time legends to exciting new faces. We'll be posting new interviews nearly every day, so be sure to check back to learn about the best New York dance has to offer, and start getting your fanciest duds together for the Bessie Awards at the Apollo Theater on October 19th.

RECOMMENDED: See more on the Bessie Awards

Ellen Fisher—dancer, teacher, documentarian, choreographer—has been nominated for a Bessie for her long commitment to and participation in the Meredith Monk Ensemble. A palpably spiritual performer, Fisher dances with a simultaneous lightness and gravitas; her own work draws on her deep knowledge of South Asian ritual, and lovers of the Monk repertoire recognize the way she seems to slow the work so that there is always time for a fully embodied prayer.

How many years have you danced with Meredith Monk?
Many! I had a break there—I performed from the '70s to '84; then I took a break for 15 to 20 years, and then I came back, which was a full circle for me.

What was your first show with her?
It was a piece in Chicago called Plateau. I was teaching at the Art Institute; she came with MoMing and I wasn't with a dance company, and yet she wanted me to dance.

What has brought you back to performing with her for so long?
Meredith recognizes everybody's individual talents— the real personas, the strengths. She has a knack for pulling natural talents out of people, and using them. With Meredith's work, it's very collaborative. She's surrounded herself with people who surrender themselves to her vision, but then she is also asking us to contribute. For instance, she'll say, “Fight death”—and then I'll try to personify that image in my body. In this way we contribute.

Do you have a performance philosophy?
I'm a firm believer that you lose yourself as a performer within the character. I've done a lot of research into this very idea, going back to when I was 21 in Sri Lanka and studying with the temple dancers there. That work informed my whole idea of dance as an agent of change and transformation.

What is your particular gift as a performer?
I don't have a traditional dance background, I was a gymnast and I went to art school. And yet I think I have been lucky to develop a way into my unconscious, to tap into something. I don't want to sound too ooga-booga, but I've seen trance dance and possession, and I know it works! I think that anybody in dance, even at a dance party, you sense yourself going to another level—and endurance has something to do with that.

Meredith uses me as a trance dancer, and so while piece is different, I'm willing to go to this unknown space onstage. It has to do with the durational aspect: I've got three minutes to complete an “image,” and I have to get into this state, an almost out-of-body experience.

Can you recall a particularly memorable moment from one of your performances?
In On Behalf of Nature [ed: in which she spins like a Sufi],I do a section in which I'm interplaying with the music, a sustained note that I've divided into the heavens. I think of the vocal part as in the heavens and the percussive part as that which brings me down to earth, so in that way I do think of the choreography as very illustrative.

Do you have a preshow ritual?
I dance for 45 minutes, full out. I'm a firm believer that the warmer your body, the more acute your reactions are. We're like gorillas! That's why they've got all that hair! My perceptual awareness has to be at its utmost before we go—and I'll get so hot, sometimes I have to take my makeup off and start over. [Laughs]

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