It’s Thursday. More than half of January has passed. That’s such a relief, I think to myself. I’m on my way to meet Elise Nuding for the first time. We will have a conversation about her thoughts and her work.
It’s early, but not too early in the morning as I’m on my way to Eklandagatan 86, the temporary building which is being used for HSM (Högskolan för Scen och Musik/The Academy of Music and Drama) during the big rebuilding project. The place is a bit chaotic, and it feels like I’m not the only one who doesn’t know where to go. I decide to let go of my increasingly intense coffee craving, and focus on finding… which room was it? Oh yeah, there it is in a SMS from Elise; room 2407.
As I have arrived here a little bit early, I sit down on an empty, oversized sofa that seems oddly misplaced in the corridor-like room outside the other, numbered rooms. After a while, Elise enters, just on time, with quick paced steps and an energetic rhythm to her words. She explains that she hasn’t been in this building very much as she only teaches here once a week. The online booking system informed her that 2407 is supposed to be a “white box”, maybe some sort of a dance studio. She opens the door, and we enter. Looking around, we start to laugh simultaneously, as this room is just a boringly lit meeting room with a large table in the middle of it.
I don’t really mind, but Elise is on a quest, she wants to find a better place to at least sit and have a coffee. I follow her rapid footsteps to the teachers’ meeting room, that to my great relief has a coffee machine. There are a few other people there shuffling about, making coffee, chatting, and laughing quite loudly, but their sounds quickly become inaudible to me as soon as Elise starts talking about her work.
Prior to our conversation I have been reading some random excerpts of her writing online, and as soon as she starts talking, I get a similar sense to when I was reading her work, that she is really deep into words and language. She seems to sketch out concepts in the air around her when she speaks.
This description is not literal but it’s still real: Elise picks up a word, she holds it up between her fingers, dusts it off, then looks at it from all angles and observes what it has done before and what it can do now.
I don’t think I have met a choreographer before who is also an archaeologist, but here I have one, right in front of me. It suddenly flashes through my head that it used to be my dream when I was little, to become an archaeologist. I used to go somewhere in the neighborhood and just start digging, thinking that sooner or later I’d find something exciting, like dinosaur bones. The dream of archaeology was put aside in my own life and replaced with dance. But here I suddenly find myself sitting across from a person who knows both fields.
Elise starts talking about materials. She seamlessly ties different subjects together. She describes the action of bringing material things onto the stage and creating a meeting between these things and a moving body.
-We usually prioritize looking at the moving human body over the non–moving on stage. She picks up her coffee cup and says -although, really, well, this is moving too, just very very very very very slowly.
I smile and nod as I imagine a sped-up video of the process of this material, seeing the coffee cup that she is holding travel through time and space, from a clay state to a ceramic material that has a cup shape and that is being used for coffee drinkers in an art school and at some point in the future -no one knows when- perhaps by the hand of a clumsy individual like myself, falling to the ground, shattering into shards, again a material of non-cup-like state…
I snap myself out of this story of the cup that I feel Elise has suggested…
Elise talks about how we, when bringing a thing onto the stage, also bring a whole cognitive, linguistic, associative tangle with it. She talks about her work with Sounding lines, lines used to measure the depth of water, which have not only the very physical, associative quality of the material which includes tangling, untangling, lines, and knots, but also holds a metaphorical space which the word itself opens up.
I notice that she makes a distinction between the word thing and the word object, and I ask her about it. It’s something Elise is interested in and has written an article about. I will read it later, but she agrees to explain it briefly.
–As soon as you use the word object, you’re also talking about the subject that’s not there. It’s about relationality, we talk about “objective perspective”. Things are more about presence and gatherings of specific materialities, following a specific line of thinking found in material culture studies and post-processual archaeology.
As our conversation returns to archaeology, Elise tells me that traditionally, archaeology fieldwork has focused on digging up objects, or artifacts. And my impression is that she also does that with words…
-I like etymology a lot, she says, because you can take a word and then you start to unfold all these other layers of things that come with it.
She shows me a swift movement with her hands, and again the imagery starts playing out in my mind, an endless unfolding of things, it’s simultaneously material and metaphorical.
-Like a kaleidoscopic unfolding of language.
I rewind the jumbled images in my mind to Elise holding one word between her fingers, and I ask her if she really sees the word as an actual thing?
–I think I do. Yes, it FEELS like that.
She tells me that the focus that has become dominant for her during the last few years is really the relationship between language and the moving body. The act of writing is something important to her,
–The act of inscribing, the way that language can be this place of a deep, poetic bodily experience that unfolds- rather than this place that often feels like it takes over from the dance, right? Where it risks erasing the live body. We need to keep an eye on that balance. When does the written word end up standing in for the performance practice and ends up becoming valued more highly?
Elise continues describing how there is a difference between the live performance as something that perhaps only stays in our bodies and in our memories, while a book can be picked up and read at any point… there’s a big difference there in relation to temporality and longevity. I ask her to tell me a bit about how she uses language in her work.
-Well, for example, in my work Sounding lines from 2018, I worked with two sounding lines —long strings with metal weights on the ends. The verb “to sound” in English means to measure depth as well as to make sound.
In connection with this piece, she developed a practice called “riffing” where speaking and moving was used as materials, as well as the dialogue between words, movement, and memory.
-I’m interested in the meaning that emerges in the kind of space between sense and nonsense. I was trying to create a score, a practice, where I was really hearing and experiencing the language -and the different meanings contained in that language- in real time.
I ask her about how she sees the difference between understanding and experiencing.
-What happens to us when we don’t understand a language? When we just hear it differently, we hear sound, we hear texture…Meaning always emerges. We make meaning, and if there are 50 audience members, I’m sure that they all hear it in 50 different ways.
The work Elise is in the process of developing as we speak deals with the act of writing and writing letters. It involves different modes of addressing. She tells me that rather than seeing her art as communication as such, she’s interested in experience, in communicating experience. She says that if she has a wish, it would be to offer something that can be experienced similarly to how one might experience different textures. Sound and movement are not separate things. –
Sound is movement. But it’s also texture, right?
[In the background I can suddenly hear the loud footsteps of someone walking up a staircase; I think I can almost feel the grooves of the soles in my eardrums, the vibrations made from the friction and impact of that person’s shoes hitting the steps]
– I’m interested in creating a space where the audience is allowed to have an experience. Experience is of course not universal, but at the same time I hope that the things I do on stage; performing, being present, experiencing, paying attention, responding, and relating; can also be a space of experience for someone else.
-We are sharing the experience of having an experience.
Our conversation moves over to writing and asking questions. For Elise, writing is an attempt to understand, to get to grips with something for herself.
–On the topic on asking questions, I love dancing with questions. To pose a question is to step away from the idea that questions are something that needs to be answered. Deborah Hay is a master of that. Her formulation “What if…” is just brilliant, a formulation that I use often. It’s so powerful. It’s like just by saying “What if…”, you make it possible that it could be so.
I tell Elise that I appreciate the description of her practice that I read earlier on the Göteborgs Universitet website: “Her artistic practice lies at the intersection and slippage between choreography, performance, improvisation and writing”.
I got attached to the word “slippage”, as it opens up the imagination to a physical action. Elise agrees:
-Yes, the imagination, not as something cognitive or theoretical in your mind, but as something extremely sensory.
As I exit Eklandagatan, I can feel that this has been a conversation outside of the ordinary. In fact, I think that what I’ve experienced this morning has been less of a conversation, and more of an experience of letting Elise guide me through her web of thoughts and ideas. I think maybe she lent me her kaleidoscope for a moment, and through it I could see her dancing with words.
Foto: Ingeborg Zackariassen