After recently seeing a double bill of two thought-provoking dance works pedal and Castles, to say the least we were intrigued. Presented by emerging theatre company House of Sand, these innovative works mixed dance, theatre and cabaret seamlessly, deftly exploring subject matter often left untouched by the medium of dance. Each work was created and performed by Eliza Sanders and directed by Charles Sanders, the bother and sister behind House of Sand. We sat down with Eliza, to find out more about the making of these works as well as her and Charles’ critically acclaimed new company.
What is your background in dance? Where did you study dance?
I started doing ballet when I was five at the Kim Harvey School of Dance in Canberra. I studied there in classical ballet mostly (as well as jazz, modern, tap, and contemporary) until I left Canberra to train at NZSD in the contemporary course. I was involved with QL2 dancing in the major projects and creating works for their various young choreographers programs from age 15.
What was your experience like?
I loved it all while I was in Canberra. Just could not get enough of it. It was often a bit of a struggle negotiating how to fit in all the different things I wanted to do. I loved performing and competing in eisteddfods and I was also very passionate about exploring my own voice as an artist and creating my own things. Unfortunately, as a young dancer there are not many things that combine those two things so I had to perform a pretty delicate balancing act.
When I moved to NZ I really struggled for a few years. It turned out that what I loved so much about dance and movement was how it interacted with my other artistic interest. I love theatre and visual art, and doing such an intensive technical, physical course did not leave much time or energy to explore those things. I pulled myself a away from school a little in my last year and started traveling to do workshops instead of being involved in all of the events at school. Being able to explore my interests outside of the institution helped me to understand how valuable what I was receiving from school of dance was when I went back. I wish I had that understanding the whole time I was there. It has made me committed to constantly exploring and evolving in my practice. Any opportunity I have to take workshops in choreographic or somatic practices I take. My dance education experience is still going and I hope it never ends!
Describe your creative practice. How do you approach making a new work?
I usually start from some kind of image or setting and then work toward creating that. In that process I discover limitless meanings and interpretations of the work that in turn fuel the physical (and vocal) content.
I think I often have an idea that has nothing to do with dance or movement and then I use my physical skills to investigate that idea and bring it to life. For example in Pedal my task was to create a work around a dress which transforms from a cocoon wrapped tightly around my body to a dress with a five meter long train. In Knitting While Sleeping I was interested in giving audiences a chance to observe a dancer from below (as I have in countless rehearsals when I end up lying on the floor from exhaustion) and in the process of creating a setting in which that was possible a whole world emerged in which me and my collaborators could explore things that felt really relevant to us but were not necessarily apparent as the works ‘meaning’ at the outset.
However, it’s always a little different, I don’t think I have established one way of working yet and I hope that I can continue to be spontaneous and work from what is interesting me moment to moment. One of the major ideologies of House of Sand is that we work with new collaborators wherever possible and rather than bringing them into our own set ‘methodologies,’ we collaborate to create a new working process for each show. So embracing how new people work in each project has really influenced the way I work.
Your use of dance, voice, and theatre is interesting and unique. What made you decide to bring these disciplines together?
It felt like a pretty natural thing to me. I guess I felt as though all the different forms have the potential to communicate things that one could not alone so by bringing them together I could generate things with far richer, many layered meanings. Having said that I’m not interested at all in dictating what those ‘meanings’ are. I think my initial interest in using text with movement was to discover the possibilities for ambiguity ― trying to discover how the movement informs the interpretation of the text and vice versa.
I also just like talking and singing wanted to set a physical challenge for myself to see what I could get away with physically while scoring it all myself simultaneously. It changes the way I’m able to move and forces me to investigate different ways of doing things.
It’s also much easier to create text and generate theatrical ideas when you’re on the road than it is to make movement because you don’t need a studio in the same way you do for dance, so It means I can be working all the time.
As House of Sand generates more work as a company we want to promote our belief that the way forward for live performing arts is to smash together the forms and structures of traditional artform categories ― utilising all and being beholden to none. In this way we hope to open up new avenues for reading meaning in performance, and create inroads for new audiences to find an appreciation of a variety of artforms.
You have co-founded House of Sand with your brother Charles. What is it like working with family?
Mostly excellent and occasionally terrifying.
Our strengths are in pretty different areas so we help each other to expose things the other has overlooked, which brings a real sense of security. It helps me to feel open to experiment with my more ridiculous ideas. I never feel self-conscious about my creative ideas with Charlie and once we get talking about a new idea it’s hard to get us to stop.
We are incredibly honest with each other which I think is the most wonderful part, it’s also the very scary part ― he sometimes brings me back to reality when I’m not sure I’m ready to be there.
As well as being a super talented, insightful director, Charles is entirely the business brains of House of Sand. I can’t express in words how incredibly grateful I am to him for being so patient with me in helping me to learn about the logistics of what it takes to produce works. If it had been up to me it would have been a much more bumpy ride.
Your works explore some politically charged and often taboo subject matter. Why is it important to you to explore these themes?
It’s really no a conscious choice to be honest. I suppose my work just reflects my view of the world and I don’t feel any need to censor things that I feel open to and want to explore even if they might offend some people.
I don’t aim to make controversial choices but I do think it’s important that my work exposes alternative perspectives on certain things. Art plays a really important role in exposing the experiences of marginalized people and proposing alternative understandings of things that are considered out of the norm. I’m incredibly proud that my work contributes to that conversation and I hope that it exposes people to more accepting, open-minded perspectives, or even just to make them aware of their prejudices.
Working with Charles has really opened my eyes to the power of the content of my works. I suppose I’m so used to my perspective of the world that I don’t realize when what I am making might challenge some people. Charles has a way of encouraging my creative interests while quietly unpacking the impact they will have on audiences and then helping me to make that as potent as possible.
Your use of set and costume is clever and quite sensory. How do you go about creating them?
It’s a little different every time. With Pedal I had the dress made before I put the work together. For Castles I knew I wanted some kind of puppet that transformed so I started by making a simple version that I would experiment with in the studio. Then I’d go home each night and add things or take things away until I had made something which enabled me to explore what I wanted to physically and had an interesting aesthetic.
My mum plays a pretty large part in this. I’m very much a big ideas person and sometime my methods for making things are needlessly time consuming, she puts in hours at the sewing machine for me.
I love the idea that how I made the costumes/props mirrors the creative process in the studio. For me it’s patching different ideas together and embracing what emerges.
As an emerging artist, what do you think about the current state of the arts and art funding in Australia? How would you like to see things change?
I think it’s fucking awful and going down hill. It makes me feel outrageously angry and sad that there is not the respect for the arts in Australia that it deserves. I have no doubt that the arts is a vital part of a diverse, intelligent, and self-reflective society. It baffles me how often I find out about more cuts of arts funding and other forms of support ― like the recent culling of a large percentage of vocational arts courses from the VET Fee Help program.
I think it’s incredible that there are still so many artists making important, fascinating work on far less than they deserve and without a quarter of the means they need to do so. Artists in Australia are working in a system that does not value their prodigious contribution to society. More people go to live arts event each year in Australia than the football, about 15 million Australians and the arts & creative industries taken together are a larger economic driver than either mining or manufacturing and still support is decreasing at an alarming rate. The lack of appreciation is small minded and it’s heartbreaking to me that it does not seam to be changing any time soon.
I hope that a cultural appreciation for the arts and the countless goods the arts facilitate is endorsed by our future government, and I hope it happens soon!
What is next for you and House of Sand?
We are about to start working on a new show in Wellington. It’s duet between two incredibly talented NZ performers that will be part of the NZ Fringe Festival. We are collaborating in a slightly different way this time so I’m super nervous and excited to see how it all goes.
We are madly writing applications all the time trying to find ways to make new work and to keep our previous works alive and touring. Considering the nature of arts funding in Australia, it’s hard to plan to far ahead. It’s not an easy road but we power on because we love it!
I’ll be working in Canberra on the Made to Move program early next year and then hoping to explore some opportunities for working as a dancer in Europe later in the year. And (hopefully) getting our immersive group work Knitting While Sleeping (premiered in NZ earlier this year) to Australia.
Hopefully we’ll be able to make some exciting HOS announcements soon!