Spotlight Session: Ellen Sickenberger/DEPTH Dance
Updated: Dec 27, 2019
What are the Spotlight Sessions?
I was the child who asked “why” 150 times in a row, to the dismay and occasional annoyance of the adults around me. That curiosity and need for discovery grew with me and became a guide on my artistic path. Determination, inquisitiveness, and the drive to connect with others led me to write, dance, choreograph, produce, and educate.
I started my company, Six Degrees Dance, with the mission of creating community. Embodying the theory that all people are connected through a social network of 6 or fewer degrees, we collaborate in an environment where the exchange of ideas is the building block for innovation and growth. We approach dance making with the belief that the contribution of the individual benefits the group, and results in a body of work reflective of the sum of its parts.
To that end, we have developed several initiatives that connect artists with audiences and with each other, maintaining the idea of six degrees of separation as the foundation for those connections. Our annual showcase brings together national and international choreographers, most of whom have never met. Our Choreographic Commission series allows the dancers of Six Degrees to work with a variety of choreographers in different styles. In The Spotlight Sessions, I will present a different artist each cycle, and through interviews, short feature articles, previews, and capsule reviews, offer a behind the scenes look into their work and their process. I hope you enjoy getting to know these unique, talented individuals as much as I have, and continue to follow them on their creative paths.
including Freddie Moore/Jiwon Lee, Janice Rosario, Bryn Cohn, Yoshito Sakuraba, Danté Brown, Ashley McQueen, and Hollye Bynum. She has trained with David Parsons, John Magnus, Helen Pickett, Jennifer Archibald, River North Dance Chicago, Kidd Pivot, David Dorfman, and performed a piece by Luke Murphy as part of the b12 festival in Berlin last year. Ellen currently performs with URBAN / TRIBE (Mathew James) and Susie McHugh+Dancers, and she is a touring cast member of Nadine Bommer's "INVISI'ball". Ellen has taught Guest Artist/Master Classes in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Washington D.C., North Carolina, Austin, and New York City, including classes at Gibney Dance and Mark Morris Dance Center. Ellen is the Artistic Director of DEPTH Dance.
Founded in 2017, Depth Dance is a project-based contemporary dance company featuring choreography by Ellen Sickenberger. The company has presented work in NYC venues including Salvatore Capezio Theater, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, Hudson Guild Theater, Dixon Place, Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater, and Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and nationally in Austin, Atlanta, DC, and Boston. The company's first dance film “Fates”, in collaboration with cinematographer Brian J. Hollars, has been screened at four national festivals and was awarded Audience Favorite at the Austin Dance Film Festival. Ellen's work has been described as "hauntingly beautiful" and "captivatingly chilling" [BWW Reviews]. Her choreography uses athletic, theatrical, and anthropomorphous movement to create a social commentary. The company emphasizes humanism and explores depth psychology, the study of unconscious mental processes and motives. DEPTH Dance relates to its audience by promoting togetherness through the display of universal flaws.
1. How did your artistic journey begin?
Like many dancers in this city, I basically came out of the womb grooving. I started taking official classes at the age of 2. From ages 5 to 13, gymnastics was my main goal. After having to quit that due to permanent damage in my wrists, I became a lot more involved with dance. I was on my high school dance team and was taking all styles of classes at my studio in Northern VA. I went on to gain my BFA in Dance Performance from East Carolina University (with a minor in Psychology.) This is where I felt I really became an artist; I started to see dance in everything and it became more than just an outlet, it became my language and how I understood the world, how to cope, how to grow. I owe a large portion of my passion to the incredibly inspiring teachers I studied under in school, especially John Dixon. His passion was contagious, and he was unbelievably deep in his connection to dance and to the world around him (in addition to being an insanely skilled dance-maker and composition teacher.) As far as my professional dance career, I have to give a shout-out to Nadine Bommer, who completely changed the way I thought of movement and lead me to a place of truly existing and manifesting each passing moment.
2.What is your drive as an artist? What is it that you hope to express/contribute to the world through dance?
Psychology and the human condition are major backbones of all my work, especially the question that sits at the core of Buddhism: why do we suffer? Humanism is what drives me, specifically our collective flaws and downfalls. To me, being an artist means that you have the capability to express something profound that cannot be put in to words. Art serves a purpose, delivers a sacred message, one that can only be felt and encompassed by many different thoughts and ideas. I am driven by the ugly side of human nature, by our dark and dusty corners, the parts we don’t necessarily want others to see. These dark corners are what unify us. Every individual’s corners are different, but we all have them. I aim to promote togetherness in my work by displaying these flaws and dark edges, patterns we all get stuck in, hardships we go through, the insecurities and vulnerability we have. I truly believe in our strength as a people and I believe we can better the world by first admitting our own shortcomings. With my art, I aim to pose current structural issues in a new light. In addition to sharing dark corners, we also all have human bodies! Whether or not we consider ourselves dancers, our brains can understand visceral movement and our bodies can understand what it means when another body moves in a certain way. I think of dance as advanced body language (while still displaying our practiced athleticism and technical understanding.) The energy of movement is clear, whether you can put it in to words or not. What I hope to bring to the world through dance is F R E E M O V E M E N T. Society puts an emphasis on using our brains, and we frequently neglect our bodies. We were meant to do so much more with our vessel than simply walk, sit, stand, and run. To dance is to evolve the body, to further it’s range in a smart and efficient way, to see what’s past our mind’s eye. The body knows no limits without the constraints of the mind. Nothing makes me happier than to see someone flailing around but clearly so deeply in love with the feeling of flailing. I want to bring this nature of free movement to regular adults and dancers alike. In my classes, I aim to get rid of all the judgment we create for ourselves and for others. I strive to get rid of labels on what movement is, what dance is. I aim to drive people to a place of total inhibition where there are no rules and no limits on what you should and shouldn’t do. I’ve been to this place of total inhibition and it is magical. In an ideal world, everyone would get to experience this. The beauty of it, too, is that there’s no limit on how deeply you can go into this land of free movement and expression. Letting your body talk is one of the most powerful waves of energy you can send out into the universe.
3. What has been your biggest challenge and your proudest moment?
This was a hard question to answer, because it was hard to detach the word proud from success. Then it became a question of how I quantify success. I’m most proud when I feel like I’ve reached someone, whether through my work or in my class. Even if only one person comes up to me after class or after a show to let me know how much I’ve influenced them, that makes me proud. It’s those moments that keep me going as an artist, and make me feel affirmed on my artistic journey. There were a few instances after presenting work where I was told things like “I feel changed after the piece”, and “seeing that made me want to be a better person.” There were also a few instances after class where dancers have expressed gratitude for allowing them to exist in a place with truly no judgment, where they can rediscover dance as a therapy rather than a competition and where movement is about what’s within rather than the outward physical result or shape. After my master class in Austin, one dancer said she couldn’t thank me enough for putting an emphasis on self love and acceptance because so frequently are we hard on ourselves in this competitive field. The response from this class in particular hit hard for me since I was teaching in a city where I did not know anyone and wasn’t familiar with the dance scene. It felt incredible to be able to reach movers who didn’t even know me or my teaching style. At the end of that class, I had everyone in a power pose with legs wide, arms stretched, palms facing up and eyes closed. I saw a loving grin on almost every face, a grin of accepting oneself, of gratitude and release from maybe just a few of the things that no longer served them. I watched a handful of pressures just float away and I felt as though my job was done right.
I also struggle to detach my biggest challenge from “failure” and what failure really means. There are constant and drastic ups and downs in this field and in this life. When it comes to my performance career, there have been a handful of instances where I was given the opportunity to work with a company that I had dreamed of performing with only to later discover how unfulfilling the process was. However, I see every single experience as valuable. I learned what worked for me and what didn’t, what part of the process I liked and didn’t like in order to curate my own offerings to the community. It would be easy to say my most challenging moments were when I wasn’t getting work or I didn’t feel heard artistically, wasn’t utilized fully. But that is just the name of the game. You can’t have the ups without the downs. There are always going to be people who don’t think my art is needed in this world, and that is ok. My most challenging moment came a few years ago when life threw me a crazy curve ball. Instead of being able to channel this into my work, I shut down and lost all creative motivation. The scariest part of that for me was being in a place where I thought even my art form couldn’t serve me. However, I came through it stronger and had plenty to say once I was back on my feet! Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is real, my friends! Safe space first, THEN dance.
4. Describe your creative process. (perhaps in 10 words or less)
5. What do you do when you are not creating? What activities or things inspire you to fill your creative well?
I write a lot of poetry. I don’t consider myself a poet, but it’s another form of expression that heavily moves me and functions as a way for me to get out what’s in my head. I also have an inspiration source book. In it I doodle, draw pictures, write, collage, insert articles, jot down thoughts that I can pull from. It’s a way to get the wheels turning. Otherwise, observing humans never fails to fill my creative well, and there’s plenty of that to go around in NYC. People are so funny about doors! There are so many different types and they all work in different ways, though the result is the same. No one wants to not be able to use a door correctly. It’s little patterns and details like that that constantly inspire me. Bar-tending makes for a wonderful two-birds-one-stone situation. It helps me pay my bills and my collaborators, while serving as the perfect platform to observe, interact, collect data, and notate patterns. Last but not least, I’ve recently started spending a lot of time meditating. It’s crazy what you’ll find on the other side of being still and thinking of nothing but your breath and the chakras that connect you to this world. A favorite meditation of mine is inhaling love (self love, love for others, love for life) and exhaling gratitude. When you actually physically feel these two things in your body, focusing on what love or gratitude feels like, it can instantly change your whole day. You take a shower to wash yesterday’s dirt off and meditation is like taking a shower for your mind. It’s just as necessary, if not more so.
6. What is next for you?
I always say it’s pointless to try to predict the future, yet human beings doing it SO OFTEN. I try my best to just live passionately in every moment and follow my intuition. I know it’s cheesy, but I truly believe that if I just keep following what feels right to my heart and soul, a pathway will form for me. I don’t know what’s in store for the future, but I can tell you one thing for sure: Dance will forever be my language, my outlet, and my way of connecting to the world around me. I know that I will continue to make dance in one way or another. In an ideal world, my company and my work will blast off and we will tour internationally and have funding for days. For now, I plan on furthering my craft in my creative process with my dancers and sharing my work with as many people as possible, potentially presenting an evening’s length show in the near future. I will continue to share my practice with my community through open, donation-based classes. I will also continue to dive deeper into the world of movement, discovering more about myself and the world around me while I find ways to best help and heal others through what I consider to be my special power.
Behind the Scenes look at “These Tunnels Breathe”
Choreography: Ellen Sickenberger in collaboration with the dancers
Dancers: Margaret Jones, Lisa Kobdish, Graziella Murdoca, Ellen Sickenberger
I may be partial, but dance has an innate way of connecting people that is both intimate and individual. Dance is a language, a language that is universal in its most basic form- the movement of body parts that we all share. Because we have bodies, our brains can understand movement and gesture when seen on another. I walked into DEPTH Dance’s rehearsal a stranger, and I walked out feeling like an acquaintance.
Ellen and her dancers, Margaret Jones and Graziella Murdoca, (Lisa Kobdish was not there that day) create an atmosphere of joviality and camaraderie that act as catalysts to the focused discipline of their process. As they improvise and explore, generating possibilities in group partnering like simultaneously creating and assembling a puzzle, bodies collide and rebound with juicy weightiness and trust. Elastic, breathy phrase-work eventuates in soft submission as the dancers give in to, and arise from, the floor.
Both the choreography and the mood in the room are marked by non resistance and communion. Gone is the outdated paradigm of the choreographer giving steps and the dancers replicating them. In this contemporary climate, Ellen clearly respects her dancers’ instincts and skills. The process is highly collaborative and they discover solutions by moving together. Ellen’s use of rich imagery adds depth and nuance as she advises her dancers to
keep gestures genuine. As Graziella and Margaret reach into space she tells them: “Let the visual inform what your body is doing. I want to stay true to the image rather than the physicality. Feel silk slip through your fingers, feel something slipping away from you.” As they develop an off-balance turn, she suggests “it’s like there is a big gust of wind and you are a heavy piece of material.” New shades of ground-ness emerge and the small studio is alive with vitality and inspiration. After movement subsides, the proceeding conversations are peppered with “I feel like...” and “Maybe we could try...” so that when the trio finally moves together again, it is a seamless melding of 3 individual personalities working in congruence. True to its name, DEPTH dance works to uncover the expanse of movements potential in a way that could only come from working together with sensitivity and consideration.
Want to experience Ellen’s unique movement style and judgment free approach to movement? Upcoming, donation-based classes take place at Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation/Chez Bushwick on July 28th 11am-1pm; August 4th 10am-12-pm; and August 25 12pm-2pm
Check out Ellen’s first degree of separation in next months Spotlight Session!