Fringe is excited to welcome Beth McKee Elliott back who is no stranger to Hawai’i, and especially in the dance community. As she prepares to wind down and enjoy the Christmas season, we wanted to know what she has been doing since she left our shores.
When you lived here, did you take time out to explore the islands and which part of Hawai’i drew you in the most and why?
We did explore the island of O’ahu and the outer islands of Maui, Kauai, and Lanai. We were limited by our very busy schedules and also finances but we made the most out of the opportunities that presented themselves and we cherish our memories dearly. We really loved snorkeling in Shark’s Cove on the North Shore, and we also spent a lot of time at Bellows on the beach. We lived in Aiea and I went to UH and my son went to Punahou for one year, so we actually spent quite a lot of time on the H1 in our three years on the island. We left six years ago and I still think about Hawaii every day. I miss the people that I danced with the most, next would be flower leis, and apple bananas. Not to mention the sunshine (all you want of it), a view of the ocean from pretty much everywhere, and hibiscus hedges in bloom all the time. I could go on, but yes. I miss Hawai’i
Tell us what you have been doing since you left Hawai’i?
After leaving Hawai’i in 2008, my husband retired from the military and his work took my family to Northern Virginia where we have been living ever since. I spent a lot of time in the first three years here driving my kids to and from high school. (The traffic was one thing I was hoping to get away from after three years from Aiea to Manoa, but there is traffic everywhere in Northern Virginia, all the time.) In 2011, I started teaching dance for Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and have been developing my professional dance company, Beth Elliott Dance Group, as well as a choreography festival called Small Plates, and various projects for the college including advising a student-run dance company and organizing a student dance competition similar to So You Think You Can Dance that’s called NOVA’s Favorite Dancer.
What is your show about?
Mother Sister Daughter, is a collection of dances choreographed on women. Some of the dances are repertoire pieces (including one from my Master’s Thesis at UHM from 2007) that happen to carry strong female themes, and others are new works that are being created just for this event. The common thread in all of the work seems to be female relationships, as my work is heavily colored by my personal stories and life experiences (I have three sisters and no brothers), and influenced by the fact that I do not happen to have any men in my company.
Do you feel that one needs to be a mother, sister or daughter to understand or relate to your show?
I like dance to be beautiful, so there is an inherent beauty in all of the dances that makes Mother Sister Daughter a very approachable movement experience. While art is meaningful when it is relevant, one does not have to be the thing the art represents in order for it to be relevant to them. Anyone with a mother, a sister (a term that I believe describes a close female friend as well as a blood relative) or a daughter will understand and enjoy Mother, Sister, Daughter.
How have the dancers come to understand their role not just as a female dancer but also as a unit within this production?
I am only able to bring four dancers from my company of 10+ individuals, and they all realize that they have an obligation to represent the company well, and everyone takes that very seriously, so the work ethic has been very high in rehearsals. They also understand that I have a dance family on O’ahu and that I have high standards for the work that I will present in that environment. Mostly everyone’s really grateful and excited for this experience, and rehearsals have been really joyful and productive.
You mentioned that the work was developed in collaboration with the dancers, how important was this decision to framing Mother, Sister and Daughter?
The way I work right now is to rely heavily on the creativity of my dancers, many of whom are choreographers in their own right. Although I began working this way out of necessity due to health issues that have limited my mobility, I think that this process actually creates better, more interesting work than I created when I was more able-bodied, and it honors the individuals who are part of the work. The dancers mostly appreciate working this way, they have ownership and receive the credit for their contributions.
In different societies there are many gender roles that clearly define what we do as male and female – in dance, do you feel there is such a thing or can dance be non-gender specific?
I haven’t set out to make gender-specific work, or to make any kind of feminist statement with my dances, it just comes from a very personal place which happens to be a predominantly female life experience. I don’t think anything really can ever be non-gender specific, because we all encompass gender in some way, so what we create is bound to reflect who we are regardless of how conscious our artistic choices are. But to answer the question I’ll just say that in my “modern” (or “contemporary”) world of dance, the environment is predominantly female. There seem to be other forms – urban dance forms, for example – where male dancers seem to predominate. I haven’t had any men audition for my company. If I did have men in the company, that would certainly change the work, because men and women move and relate to one another differently.
What inspires you when it comes to creating dance stories for you and your community?
My dancers inspire me quite a bit. I really want to make work that is interesting for them to do, that they can feel engaged in and be challenged by. I want to experience all that dance is through my work, and I want that for them.
If you were given an opportunity to name your sister, what name would it be and why?
I have three sisters named Amy, Melissa, and Tara, and no brothers. I am the second oldest. I think my mom started out naming us after the Little Women, but she changed her mind after she had me. She said she didn’t like nicknames, which is why my name is Beth and not Elizabeth. I think that has caused more confusion than having a nickname, since everyone assumes my name is Elizabeth. My sister Melissa came along, and my mom said she just really loved that name, Melissa, and we had a neighbor named Margaret and she didn’t anymore want to name her daughter Meg. Don’t ask me how she actually knew that she would have four daughters! Despite her dislike of nicknames, we never called my sister Melissa, only Missy. I wanted my youngest sister Tara to be named Karen, because I just loved that name. I wrote it on everything and said it over and over, dreamily. It sounded so beautiful to me. One day my mom came up with the name Tara, I have no idea where it came from, but we all loved it. I think if I was really given the opportunity to name my sisters, I would probably mess it up, just like I messed up this whole question and did a terrible job answering it!
Are you ready for Christmas and the coming new year, and what are you hopeful for?
Oops, Christmas is over! I guess I’m a little late on answering this. I hope I can be more organized and get things done on time.
O’ahu Fringe wishes Beth McKee Elliott and her dancers a safe journey to Hawai’i and all the very best for their season at Fringe 2015. Tickets to their show will be available in January 2015 at www.oahufringe.com. To learn more about Beth and her work, please visit Mother, Sister, Daughter.