Eliza Cooper is a performer, director and multidisciplinary artist who has pursued her passion for dance since her early childhood. Growing up in the Bay of Canada in the land of the Wangal peoples, Cooper is a graduate of Newtown High School of the Performing Arts (2015), Sydney Dance Company Pre-Pro Year (2016) and the MASA program of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (2017) and holds a Higher Diploma in Dance.
Currently working as a freelance dancer and choreographer, Cooper has performed with leading companies including Dance Makers Collective, Opera Australia, Catapult Dance Company and Compañía Pepa Molina.
Coming from a family of musicians and artists, Cooper was born with a deeply collaborative passion for the arts, expanding her dance practice through directing and choreography.
She has worked with other choreographers and performance artists including Nick Cave, Justene Williams, Offers (Missy Gilbert) and Mitchell Christie.
More recently, Cooper’s second feature film celebrating the dark and theatrical world of bats, bat lake premiered at Riverside Theaters Parramatta as part of FORM Dance Projects’ “Dance Bits” series. Sometimes a craftsman at heart, Cooper crafted the costumes for this original dance work, composed by Mason Peronchik.
When she was placed in the directing and choreographing role, Cooper explained her process as “very cognitive” and stressed the importance of good communication to share her vision with the team.
Cooper has spoken of the energy that propels her into an art form she considers “the ultimate challenge for mind and body.”
How would you describe what you do?
I would describe it as a mix of many things! I am first and foremost a dance maker encompassing performance, choreography, staging, production and costume design. I would describe my work as an exploration of shared human and animal experiences. My main interests are ancestral movement, animal movement, embodiment practices, character play and improvisational performance. I like to explore both the exceptionality and the banality of life on Earth.
How did you start your career?
I started as a small child! Absolutely! I come from a family of creatives and artists. My mother and my grandmother are both pianists and piano teachers by trade. My great-aunt was the prolific English ceramicist Susie Cooper OBE and my uncle, Martyn Thompson, is a leading multidisciplinary artist, designer and photographer.
I’ve always been interested in choreography, I don’t really remember when it started. In my childhood, I painted every day and dressed up as Peter Pan, cowboys, fairies and mermaids. My parents constantly exposed me to the public arts – I remember seeing the lost kings, a fantastic outdoor circus and aerial work as part of the Sydney Festival. It was fascinating and transported me to another planet. I remember my grandfather gave us tickets to see Bangarra Dance Theater once, that’s another vivid memory. When I was nine, my dad and I co-exhibited at our local gallery cafe, Angela Jane’s Coffee Food Art, and sold about 15 paintings. We like to collaborate; he is a co-producer on my upcoming work bat lake!
I received a scholarship to attend McDonald College in upper elementary school and then attended Newtown High School of the Performing Arts, where I graduated in 2015. These opportunities have truly transformed my practice, I was lucky to have fantastic teachers. In 2016 I completed the Sydney Dance Company pre-professional year program and in 2017 the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company MASA program. During these intensive periods, I learned a mountain of professional dance making. I didn’t realize how diverse dance making practices were until I went to school full time. I have been exposed to hundreds of artists, each with their own way of working.
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What does an average day or week look like?
There is no typical week it seems, I work with different people on different projects every month!
Some weeks I dance. During these times, I like to constantly focus on my body. Movement, in a dance context, is specific and complex, so it requires a lot of mental focus. To give my mind a break, I love running, swimming and practicing yoga. I find these forms relaxing due to their repetitive nature.
Some weeks I direct and choreograph. During these moments, I feel surprisingly distant from my body. My approach to choreography is very cognitive, I’m usually sitting still, imagining things. When I work with performers in the studio, it’s my job to be a good communicator. I find ways to explain what I envision, sometimes physically but also through drawings, videos, music and words.
I try to create a playful atmosphere in the room that promotes collaboration. We are constantly laughing, trying things out, testing the waters. Good directors are sensitive to their collaborators, so I try to be sensitive to what the minds and bodies of my collaborators feel every day. During these periods, I generally do intensive research on my subject, in the case of bat lake – bats!
Some weeks I design and make costumes and props for my works. I am often sewing, looking for fabrics or second-hand clothes, building, adjusting or sculpting! I always liked to use my hands, I feel more comfortable in this part of the process, it reminds me of my childhood.
What is the most common misconception about being a dancer/choreographer??
I’m a freelance dancer and choreographer, so I spend most of my time behind my computer applying for scholarships, residencies, and job opportunities! It’s endless!
There’s nothing better than the feeling of having a long-term project booked, or series or short projects that line up. It’s a huge relief and a privilege to be able to work intensely on my craft, so I’m working my best to achieve such opportunities.
I think a common misconception about dance is that it is less intellectual or complex than other art forms or academic pursuits. This idea has perplexed me all my life, because dancing is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It involves everything, it is the ultimate challenge of mind and body.
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If you were interviewing someone for your role, what skills and qualities would you be looking for?
Adaptability, open-mindedness, perseverance, imagination, entrepreneurship, rigor, passion and above all GRIT! It’s a difficult journey, with a lot of rejection and disappointment. You have to push yourself forward, there’s a mountain of work to do so it’s a full-time commitment.
The skills you need depend a lot on the nature of your practice. As a performer, I think improvisation is the most important skill. Improvisation is constantly used in creative processes and saves you from being on stage when things don’t go as planned. I love improvised performances, it’s exhilarating.
As a director, problem solving should be the main skill. You need to seriously think about how you can turn your vision into reality. Where do I start? Who are these people? How do we do this thing?
What’s the best thing happening in your field right now?
Interdisciplinary practice! I saw amazing interdisciplinary performances where the shapes blend together so harmoniously that I felt a full body experience that excited all of my senses.
I loved the work of Raghav Handa Of them with tabla player Maharshi Raval. There was a fantastic mix of wit, humor and virtuosity, fantastic dancing, acting and music. It was very playful and fiery, uplifting work that was very engaging.
I loved the work of Solomon Thomas The Miller, an experimental work combining prostheses, puppets, music and text. It was so weird and wonderful, truly offering the unexpected and the unconventional.
I like interdisciplinary artists who encompass everything in their vision – full-bodied artists – like David Lynch, Bjork, Kazuo Ohno and Grace Jones – they are my heroes.