Interview: Choreographer Elisa Monte Discusses Her Storied Career

by Jodi Porter (Dance MFA 2017)

Jodi Porter, a 2017 CalArts graduate, had the opportunity at the beginning of the school year to sit with renowned choreographer Elisa Monte, whose namesake company has performed in more than 40 countries and is celebrating 36 years this year. Monte came to CalArts to set her 1982 work, Pigs & Fishes, with students from The Sharon Disney School of Dance at CalArts. The piece was performed at Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Downtown Los Angeles in December 2016. In the interview below, Porter asked Monte a series of questions about her process and her experience as a dance choreographer.

Jodi Porter: How did you come to CalArts as a guest artist, and what has been your experience with the dancers?

Elisa Monte: Upon an invitation from [Assistant Dean] Andre Tyson, I was excited to come to CalArts! [The students] are great to work with; there is a lot of hard material that I am giving them and they have come back knowing the material. We finished teaching the piece in three days—they are working very hard.

Porter: You are known for culturally diverse casting and spearheading out-of-the-box projects. What have been some of the most challenging and memorable?

Monte: Working with Ice Theatre of New York, a company that fuses dance and figure skating. I experimented with flow, patterning and momentum on the ice which I found interesting and learned that skaters differed from dancers in that they lacked stamina for anything longer than a 5-minute piece as this what they were used to in competition. I adapted to the challenge choreographing Draughtsman's Contract '98 which was a NYSCA commission and has been in Ice Theatre’s repertory since.

Another unique experience was touring Bali and working with the local Balinese traditional dancers. We workshopped dance with the locals and integrated Balinese movement and ideas with modern dance, “meshing” them together. For example, I had the Balinese form of a circle in which they sang music and in the center used dancers to explore dance improvisation and partnering. The work was performed at the Queen Victoria Theatre in Jakarta.

Porter: As a former acclaimed dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company, Lar Lubovitch and Pilobolus, how did you transition to choreography?

Monte: I trained in the hardest techniques I could find, dancing with Graham but taking classes with [Merce] Cunningham. When you spend time with something, you have informed choices to do something... My working philosophy is to live an integrated life—both as a choreographer and as a person. For many years I lived in a loft in NYC that was also my studio. I had access to work around the clock. I worked from home when my daughter was young; she would come on tour with me. Really, being stubborn helped keep the company going one step at a time. Luck also had a lot to do with my career. People came into the company. Board members dropped from heaven. Luck and tenacity—be ready for the luck to happen.

Porter: What are your thoughts on contemporary dance today? Any advice for up-and-coming choreographers?

Monte: I appreciate the freedom that dance has today to really explore and create and go places that haven’t been discovered before.

Courage. I admire that with today’s work. In the past, people used to hone their skills more to be a leader in the choreography field. Spend time with people who have been in the field. Work and deep investigation informs and develops imagination. Today, I see chasing the idea more than really living and committing to it.

For more information on Elisa Monte and her company, please visit elisamontedance.org.

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