Creating Counting Blessings
“We’ve all put stuff into the cauldron, and the outcome’s this potion. It’s true alchemy.”
-Nicholas Olsen on Counting Blessings
These words fully sum up the collaborative process behind Counting Blessings, a new dance film about gratitude during the age of COVID-19, which will be released October 30 2020. Hopefully you have checked out the interviews we published with the dancers, because now we are spilling all the behind-the-scenes deets from choreographer Rachel Levitt, composer Nicholas Olsen and director Jordan McEwen.
Interview with Rachel Levitt by Nicole Decsey
This is not Rachel Levitt’s first rodeo. Going into the process for Counting Blessings Rachel had already completed the dance film Dancing in a Time of Quarantine for Convergence Theatre’s COVID Commissions. From this project Rachel drew inspiration for her next round of works, Counting Blessings being one of many.
“I remember having certain choreography ready for Dancing in a Time of Quarantine, but then there was some stuff where I knew I could only come in with ideas. I couldn’t define it because I wasn’t physically in the space and I didn’t know what was possible. In the end, some of my favourite sections in that piece were those moments where I was playing and seeing what we could come up with on the spot and just using my intuition.”
And Rachel was able to take that experience to the next level with Counting Blessings!
Working with four dancers in four very different spaces, Rachel adapted her choreography to create movement that resonated deeply with each dancer’s surroundings. Choreographing dance remotely in different homes is much different from choreographing in a square box rehearsal space. “What I did going into Counting Blessings was I had a section that everyone essentially learned in some form. And then I would do my best to see how many different ways it could be adapted so it was unique to the space and the dancer’s movement.”
“A lot of exciting ideas come from that freedom of being able to play with everything” she continues. And this “in the moment” process of playing with the set choreography, adapting to the space, and using her intuition allowed Rachel to create something that could never be done in a studio.
But her job wasn’t finished after the choreography. She had the privilege of working with a musician [Nicholas Olsen] and a director/editor [Jordan McEwen] . On her process working with these two artists Rachel said, “while editing gave me freedom from solo work, a lot of the things Jordan chose to do weren’t things I would ever have thought of.”
Working in collaboration with these artists Rachel was able to see her work through the eyes of others and bounce her ideas off those of her collaborators. The final product was a beautiful depiction of gratitude, blessings, and the lack thereof. It was a mixture of darkness and light, because Rachel’s own view of gratitude is that, “instead of getting so caught up in us, it is about acknowledging that there is so much good while not disregarding those disadvantageous too. Because that’s the biggest thing. People like to say privileged people are one way and disadvantaged people are another way, when I truly believe we are all just a big mixture of both.”
Interview with Nicholas Olsen by Rachel Levitt
From your perspective, what is this piece about?
Counting Blessings is a collaborative project across continents. It’s a way for different artists, makers, dancers, creators, to explore one small section of our lockdown experience.
What’s been particularly great about it is that we’ve been able to come up with this synthesis of different ideas and thoughts from throughout the project. I remember we had conversations at the very beginning about negative connotations of lockdown and coronavirus, but also things that we’ve been able to reflect on that perhaps we wouldn’t necessarily have time to do before. And so it’s kind of all encompassed into this one piece…which makes it sound awfully grandiose of course, but I think the idea is very much one of reflection on our lockdown experience.
What feelings and stories did you create with the music?
It’s quite interesting isn’t it, because obviously the dancers are all individuals in their own right and recorded separately. You might not hear this when you listen to it, but I was quite keen for that to also be the case for the musicians.
And so the musicians, the pianist and the violinist, recorded separately and in different areas and different homes, and obviously that’s all part of this coronavirus lockdown. So, what every story is, is one of individuality and that individual artist whose able to take their own craft, record it and then come together and create an ensemble piece.
What parts of the movement did you use to influence the music?
Watch the below video to find out!
Why use piano and violin?
The repertoire that exists in the violin and piano world is so full and it’s so rich, and often it’s so full of emotion and romanticism. My partner [Heather Storer] is a violinist and she works a lot with a pianist [Edward Cohen], so they were the perfect combination to work with on this project.
What did you enjoy about the process? What didn’t you enjoy?
The process for me started much earlier than I thought it would. I remember we all met at the very beginning, director, choreographer and composer, and that felt like a really important step for me. To be able to be in the [Zoom] room while we were getting the initial thoughts on paper, so that I wasn’t kind of met with a piece that had already been choreographed and me not knowing the inception to it. So that was a real fascination.
And I remember just having different ideas of titles written on little bits of post it notes and little ideas, and there was one that was just a line that ran through the page which to me was this idea of separation but equally working towards something together. It’s that idea of lines that never quite meet, and it felt like that in the project. We were three artists who couldn’t quite meet, but we were getting close to the lines together. So that was something I really did enjoy, because it felt like we were all converging on a point, even if we weren’t ever able to physically meet.
The downside is obviously that we weren’t able to be in a room together and get that final bit of meeting, and that final bit of connection there at the very end…but obviously, hopefully we can do that at some point.
Interview with Jordan McEwen by Rachel Levitt
How was the process of creating this film different from other quarantine projects you’ve done?
The first project I did in quarantine was a really rough animation that I drew up. And that was when nobody was really able to see anybody and I wanted to get something onto our channel [Nebulatté]. And then everything else has been more or less the same, Nebulatté is very used to working with a small crew, but obviously we had to work with even a smaller crew so we had to come up with ideas that don’t involve audio or something with only one actor in it. And then of course we did something a lot of people did, including in this project, where we used webcams and making something and writing something around that.
When it came to this project, the thing that was really different…I didn’t have a whole lot of experience directing dance videos to begin with, and then having the whole extra element added on where we don’t even have a cinematographer. Thankfully we managed to get dancers who were willing to step up to the task of getting cameras set up, and Nicole had her lights and everything before we even came on so that was really nice, but it was definitely different from what I’m used to.
Tell us about how you directed the dancers to get the best lighting for the piece.
Coming onto it, one thing was clear is that there was going to be many limitations in almost every aspect, technically at least. Because we didn’t have ideal cameras, we didn’t have ideal lights, we didn’t have the ideal crew even because it would be nice to have multiple people on set and everything.
Coming on with that thought and not knowing what lights would available…
What was different between editing it together with a non-dance mind vs when Rachel came in with a choreographer point of view?
The one thing that really stands out for me is if you’re cutting a regular film, like an action film or anything really, a big thing is cutting on the action.
My first couple cuts I was very stubborn about doing that in many of the dances but what Rachel brought up, which totally makes sense to me, she wanted to see the full movement of the dance finish before we cut to something else, or likewise didn’t want to cut into a dance that was already in progress. Where I just had it in my head that I wanted to see the movement start, cut, and then see it finish somewhere else. And that’s a very different thing. And I totally get it from her perspective and it completely makes sense, but it wasn’t intuitive.
And of course we got some funny moments to share...
Counting Blessings is released via Grey Area Collective's Art in Isolation on October 30 2020.