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The Real Billy Elliot

Bess Twiston Davies went to meet Eliot G Smith the young and talented dancer about how his Catholic faith has had an impact on his art.

When I dance I’m in heaven’ says the man they call ‘the real Billy Elliot.’ ‘It is a gift from God,’ says Eliot G Smith, ‘it drives me.’

Just like the hero of Lee Hall’s movie, Eliot G Smith, 22, a rising star in contemporary dance, was born and bred in the North East. As I write, however, he’s adjusting to life in the Big Apple, at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. That’s the prestigious New York school which trained Madonna and Eliot’s the first Brit to train there in a decade. Two years ago won a half-scholarship (the highest award given) to the school.

This, however is just the latest in a dazzling string of achievements for Eliot. An Olympic Ambassador for the North East, Eliot was 11 when he had his first dance class at Dance City studios in Newcastle. By 13, he had been recruited for a Newcastle youth dance company. At 16, he had founded his own 8-member dance troupe – which he took on tour. Later, he became a company dancer for the Northern Youth Dance Company and trained at the London School of Contemporary Dance.

Aged 20, Eliot saw his first major choreography premiere inside Westminster Cathedral, and set to music by James MacMillan and Steve Reich. It’s called Missa, the Latin word for Mass, and has been described as a ‘an abstract parable’ of the Catholic liturgy.

A vibrant, joyous faith underpins Eliot’s work: ‘Dance is about connecting heaven and earth,’ Eliot says. ‘If I am wandering through Newcastle or London I’ll often nip into a Church. People say Church is about heaven – it allows me to feel earthed.’ The son of a non-believing watch-maker/jeweller, and a Catholic mother who works in the family jewellery shop, Eliot says ‘my work isn’t because of my religion, but it is about it.’

The idea for Missa arose after he found a flyer on his chair at Mass in Westminster Cathedral, asking for help covering the Cathedral’s £3,000 a day running costs. ‘I thought if I had the money I’d give it, but I don’t,’ says Eliot. Nonetheless, he felt ‘a real calling to help.’So he wrote to Canon Christopher Tuckwell, the Cathedral’s adminstrator, and the upshot was Missa. ‘I’d always dreamed of performing in the Cathedral,’ Eliot says. ‘It’s a living house of prayer. All cathedrals and churches have the luxury of atmosphere.’

The premiere of Missa took place at the Cathedral in February 2011. It was the first dance to ever be performed there, and was performed in the aisles and lower sanctuary by Eliot, and six fellow students at the London School of Contemporary Dance. What viewers saw was ‘a deeply insightful and moving interpretation of the Mass,’ says Canon Tuckwell. He adds ‘Eliot’s thought-provoking dance clearly expressed the intense devotion of his faith.’ ‘Missa is a ‘parable of the Mass’,’ says Father Dominic White OP, one of the 200 spectators. He says Missa highlights the mystery of the liturgy: ‘Contemporary dance is abstract. What Eliot did with the structure and the gestures of the Mass was just incredible. He took us to a world beyond words – a vision of heaven.’

Impressed by Eliot, White, an organist who has also choreographed a multi-media dance work titled Cosmos, asked to meet him. At the time White was based in Paris. Later, he was posted to Newcastle, as a university chaplain and became patron of the Eliot G Smith Company, founded in 2012.

‘We’re a family,’ explains Eliot. ‘Father Dominic is very much part of that.’ ‘Already people are noticing Eliot’s strong community approach,’ says Father White citing Eliot’s care for the welfare of his dancers. In November, White appeared in the second performance of Missa, held at St Dominic’s Priory, Newcastle. He was the priest in the part showing the Eucharistic Prayers.

Although Eliot never seeks believers as dancers, performing his work can, he claims, open up Catholic spirituality to those of no creed. ‘Dancing in Missa enabled me to meet some amazing people led so positively by their faith alone’ explains Natasha Wade, one of the seven dancers in the Newcastle version of Missa. ‘The movement was enhanced further and driven by the beauty of St Dominic’s architecture. It also opened up a different side to my dancing, connecting the movement to my inner strength.’

She refers to Eliot’s teaching style–he is a fan of Martha Graham, the American pioneer of contemporary dance, who developed fluid moves, inspired by the natural rhythym of the body. At the time– earlyish in the 20th century – this was a radical break from the disciplined, decorative moves of ballet. Graham’s style developed through her choreography. Dance, she said, was a ‘chart of the graph of the heart.’

Once her technique was widely taught in contemporary dance schools in the UK. That, says Smith, is no longer the case. Having had occasional if infrequent classes from Graham-trained teachers, he is hungry for more. Graham classes make him feel ‘revived and pure, the same way as going to Church you can go in sad and you come out feeling refreshed – and happy’, he explains.

He turns to his phone to show me a quote from Martha Graham he’s posted on Facebook ‘Great dancers are great not because of their technique but because of their passion.’ Posted earlier that day, there are 28 likes already. ‘People want this’ says Eliot.Graham’s deeply intuitive vision of dance chimes with his. Dance ‘is about love, life, heaven, the soul,’ says Eliot, in an echo of Pope John Paul II’s teaching that a human fully alive integrates the physical and the spiritual –the body and the soul.

After the premiere of Missa, Eliot met the renowned British choreographer Rob Cohan CBE, a former colleague of Martha Graham’s, and once artistic director at The Place dance studio in London. Cohan suggested Eliot fly to New York and audition at the Martha Graham School.

Since then, Eliot has continued his busy schedule – teaching, dancing, and devising more choreography. Of God’s and Men is a solo, a personal narrative about growing through pain, modelled on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. The title came from a French film about Catholic monks murdered in Algeria.

In 2012, Eliot and two others danced for the charity Aid to the Church in Need in the piazza in front of Westminster Cathedral. This dance piece ‘Persecuted and Forgotten’ was created by Eliot in response to ACN’s report with the same title about persecuted Christians in the Third World. He had the idea when an ACN rep gave a talk in his home parish, after Mass. ‘That was my second calling,’ says Eliot, who went to speak to the rep after Mass.

In the long-term, post-Graham, Eliot has big plans to open ‘a house of dance, the same as a house of God. That’s the vision– let people walk in off the streets and watch rehearsal. That’s what you can do in Church. That’s what you can do in dance.’

The experience will uplift and revive the viewer, Eliot explains: ‘Life is hard,’ he says, ‘Jesus never said it would be easy. But I want the audience to leave with a sense of love, faith and hope.’

To find out more information about Eliot Smith or his UK dance company please visit: www.eliotsmithcompany.com