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Saturday, November 2, 2013


(Nicola Elliott. Pic: Timmy Henny)

The National Arts Festival has named an unprecedented eight young South Africans winners of the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award, bringing to 125 the total number honoured since Standard Bank began sponsoring the Awards three decades ago.

The Award is made annually to young South African artists who are either on the threshold of national acclaim, or whose artistic excellence has enabled them to make international breakthroughs. “Celebrating excellence, innovation and a refined technical skill and artistry rests at the heart of the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards. Each of this year’s winners represent the vibrancy and sophistication with which South Africa’s artistic and cultural legacy continues to be enriched” said Festival Artistic Director, Ismail Mahomed.

The 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance, Nicola Elliott (30), is inspired by aesthetics and by the bizarre experiences that come with being human and living in South African society.

As a choreographer-director, performer, dance lecturer and facilitator, Elliott is known for her intellectual rigour, wit and irony; and her aesthetic favours bold juxtaposition, detailed performance crafting and starkness. She admits that she is very ambitious in making her visions manifest.

Elliott works in the fields of dance, theatre, dance-theatre, physical theatre and integrated dance and has briefly explored dance film. She completed her Master’s degree in Drama at Rhodes University, specialising in Choreography, before returning to her home-town of Cape Town, where she continues to work on a project basis. She has received several commissions from notable entities such as The First Physical Theatre Company (four during the years 2010 and 2011), the Dance Umbrella (2011), The Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary (2012) and a funding grant from the National Arts Council of South Africa (2012-2013).

Elliott has explored the processes of collaboration (most successfully with Brink Scholtz and Sonja Smit for Spier Contemporary, 2010), co-production (notably with Underground Dance Theatre) and choreographing for a text-based play (notably with Brink Scholtz and Jared Kruger). Her work has received several accolades: In 2006, she received the Jonathan Marks Prize for Choreography from Rhodes; in 2010, Spyt, which featured her choreography, won an Anglo-Gold Ashanti Fyngoud prize for Best Production at Aardklop; Loss and Having (which she co-produced and co-choreographed) won a 2011 Standard Bank Ovation Award for Excellence; she was nominated for a KykNet Fiesta award for Proximity Loss and Having (2011); Keepsake Minus 3 (which she co-produced with Underground Dance Theatre and which featured her work Keeps ake) won a 2012 Standard Bank Ovation Award for Excellence and a KykNet Fiesta Award (2013); and she was nominated for a Naledi Award for Best Original Choreography for her work on the play In the Wings (2012).

“I was very exposed to the arts while growing up,” she remembers.. My family went to probably about 10 National Arts Festivals and we saw a lot of everything. Andrew Buckland and Nicholas Ellenbogen were household names. I was infatuated with performance, especially dance and physical theatre. I always thought that physical performers were doing something very, very important and brilliant!

“I went to a Waldorf school, which integrates creative arts into the curriculum,” she continues. “My sisters and I were encouraged to take lots of extra mural lessons in music and sport. I branched quite seriously into belly-dancing at one point, but I don’t have a traditional dance training background. I was more interested in movement and the Eurythmy taught at Waldorf instilled in me a sense of movement dynamics and qualities.”

Rhodes Drama exposed her to what was possible, in a meaning-making sense, with movement, and she began to consume the conceptual ideas that were playing out in choreography internationally. Inspired by the work of choreographers Ana Teresa de Keersmaeker, La Ribot, and Jonathan Burrows; she also pays homage to her First Physical Theatre Company lineage, and considers music very much a part of her creative process. Considering how performance is constructed and troubled by dance language, and inspired by the interplay between the real and the representational, Elliott hunts beauty – although admits that her spectrum of what is beautiful is not traditional.

She approaches meaning-making via performer “presence” and choreographic crafting, and her work is often underpinned by existential questions. For example, she has, in the past, focused on particular human experiences, such as the experience of irrevocable change, alienation, or, more formally, of space and rhythm. In these instances, there is a core to be accessed but not a message to be delivered. Perhaps as a result, her work is less as a product for consumption and more of an experience that aims to create (subtle) shifts in one’s state of being.

“I believe that when artists listen carefully to their intuitive sense of themselves and the world around them; and if they work in an intelligent, rigorous way that keeps intuition close by; then what they produce has a good chance of resonating with an audience and reflecting broader ideas than (just) the personal, narcissistic, naval-gazing self.” she says, adding that “Making what I think is beautiful and important remains the central aim.

“The Standard Bank Young Artist Award legitimises risky theatre-making, in the best sense,” she adds. It has created the space in the industry for artists to make bold choices and I have capitalised on that liberty. I am honoured that my work is being taken seriously and being considered to be important and interesting by people who are constructing the industry. It is also very moving to know that work that I consider to be very personal is being given this spotlight.”

Apart from choreography, Elliott has tutored and lectured at Rhodes University Drama Department, and currently works part-time at the University of Cape Town School of Dance and the South African College of Music. She facilitates Integrated Dance workshops at schools with The Chaeli Campaign and with Remix Dance Company / ASSITEJ. After a break due to injury, she has begun performing again.

For more information on her work, see: