When I sit down with Portland dancer and choreographer Nancy Ellis, I already know we have something in common. Though we’ve never met before, we went to the same small women’s college in western Massachusetts 16 years apart, and the first thing we talk about over coffee at Heart on East Burnside is our ballet classes.
“I take at BodyVox and the Portland Ballet,” says Ellis. “There’s this core group of people who come all the time, and it’s a really nice community to be part of, because they’re all older women, mostly, and I just feel like older women are where it’s at. I have the most to learn from them. I like the community of it and it does... speak to the work that I’m making.”
Ellis’ new dance performance, Nous, On Va Danser, opens this weekend at New Expressive Works on Southeast Belmont. She’s also back in school finishing prerequisites for a physical therapy program—she’s just come from a biology quiz—and she’s a single mom. She’s in the midst of a transitional phase of life for a dancer; after graduating from Smith College, she spent her 20s as a working dancer in New York, balancing a “survival job” in arts fundraising and marketing with performances and rehearsals, but found that her lifestyle didn’t jibe with starting a family.
“I’m dancing, I’m performing, and I’m traveling... and I’m sharing a room with another woman who’s married to someone thousands of miles away” is how she describes the life of an itinerant young dancer. As she got older, says Ellis, “I had less tolerance for the bullshit—like the pay and the hours and the schlepping. I just remember the last year—I had a miscarriage days before I performed for two or three weeks on concrete in the Brooklyn Lyceum.”
If you’re wondering, dancing on concrete is exactly as bad for you as it sounds, but it “became a theme” that Ellis was often tasked with performing on concrete. In winter. In New York.
“If I were 20 it might not have bothered me so much,” she says. “But at that point I was probably in my mid-30s... I’d just had a miscarriage and [had] to be, like, okay, the show must go on—and I had no idea then that you could actually not perform.”
So when her then-husband had to move to Portland for his career, she went with him. She got another fundraising job, this time with dance company White Bird. She had a baby. “But then I wasn’t dancing,” she says.
She wouldn’t start performing again until she debuted Nancy’s NANCY, an autobiographical dance piece of her own devising that incorporates elements of theater, and that Ellis has performed at Portland’s Risk/Reward Festival and On the Boards in Seattle. It’s a charming, tragicomic performance in which Ellis recounts her history as a dancer and a person—including the dancing on concrete anecdote.
In Ellis’ latest performance, Nancy’s NANCY will be paired with Mid-Me, an exploration of middle age, and Nous, On Va Danser, a new piece that’s strictly movement-based, and examines the ways that art can be an act of resistance amid setbacks both personal (Ellis’ marriage recently ended) and global (Ellis cites journalists’ responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris as one source of recent solace).
In finally crafting her work, Ellis found herself in the unique position of having grant money of her own for the first time, after raising funds for other artists for much of her career. This newfound financial support allowed her to seize another comparatively rare opportunity: “I realized that I was only working with women—my lighting designer, the woman who’s doing the video editing... the photographer, the marketing person,” she says.
She ran with it, even going so far as to only use music from women composers, including her friend and past collaborator, Stephanie Lavon Trotter. “It reminds me of Smith, when you arrive at school and you’re like, 'Wait! Everything here is done by women!’” says Ellis.
Dance is a field that notoriously prizes youth, and that, despite relying heavily on female labor (just look at any corps de ballet), tends to be dominated by male choreographers. So it’s rare and exciting to see a choreographer like Ellis take on a specifically female aging process through performance. This acknowledgment of middle age and of women’s experiences is important to Ellis, who sees older women as a key audience for her work. “My audience is really those older women,” she says—the women in her ballet class, her circle of friends who have helped her through the transitions of the past few years. “I feel like I care the most about what they think. I feel like I’ve learned the most from them over the years.... I would love for my audience to be broad and diverse... but I just know that in my head I’m not concerning myself with trying to make something that a straight white man can understand,” she says.
And why limit yourself in that way? I ask.
“We do every day,” she replies.