A Conversation with Louisa Talbot

Choreographer and dancer Louisa Talbot became a soloist in the Cape Dance Company at the age of 13, specialising in contemporary and classical dance. She became a member of Jazzart Dance Theatre and went on to freelance for Free Flight Dance Company and Bovim Ballet. In 2004, Louisa started her musical theatre career with the musical Show Boat. She began choreographing musicals for The Fugard Theatre in 2013 and went on to be nominated for a Best Choreography Naledi Theatre Award for The Rocky Horror Show. Other theatre choreography credits include Cabaret, Funny Girl and West Side Story which is currently running at Artscape in its return Cape Town season.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I think I’ve always been a creative person. I just love dance and I love moving to music. Thinking about it, I used to watch Juluka and Savuka when I was little. I used to love them and I just remember them moving to music and just absolutely loving it. I was also obsessed with George Balanchine when I started ballet. I was obsessed. And then, the movie Dirty Dancing. I just loved it.

You became a soloist for Cape Dance Company when you were 13. That’s quite young…

I think I was always a very determined person and I just really loved dance and I pushed myself. At 13, I become a soloist for The Cape Dance Company and then I stayed with the company for 21 years. 

What was it like to be so young and surrounded by so many older dancers?

I think it’s amazing. I think you learn a lot from the people who come before you and that’s very important. You look up to these people. We used to have Lorcia Cooper, who was above me and a couple of other people who I really respected and looked up to. They teach you a lot. I think things have changed these days and I think we really need to respect the people who have come before us and learn from them.

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

When did you decide to make that transition from dancer to choreographer?

I still do both. Obviously the choreography takes up a lot of my time. When I am choreographing a project, I don’t get to dance as much but I like to do both. I think it’s important to do both because it makes you a better choreographer being in the dance world and still performing, and it makes you a better dancer being a choreographer because you learn from both. I would say that my main switch was five years ago. I always did resident choreography, which is looking after somebody else’s choreography in the musical theatre genre. I used to always do my own choreography in pure dance. I’ve been in musical theatre for about 10 years now but six years of that was mainly looking after someone else’s choreography. I was still performing at that time. I was doing both. They used to call me the super swing because I would go on for both males and females. I used to do both and that kind of trained me. Then about five years ago, did I really shift into choreography when I started with The Fugard Theatre. My first musical that I choreographed was The Rocky Horror Show.

Is it difficult to balance being both a dancer and choreographer? I mean that in the sense of wanting to know if you feel like people tend to box you and think of you as one or the other?

Absolutely. I think I’m at a strange age where it frustrates me because I feel like you can dance forever. You are never too old to dance and you are never too old to move and I think that as an older performer you bring this maturity which some of the younger performers don’t actually have. I think you should never box anybody into something. I consider myself a “Creative” which is a creative person and a performer. It’s not one specific thing and I think that so many people have multiple talents. You should pursue all of those talents and you shouldn’t allow people to put you in a box. I think some people put me in a box now. A lot of people have said to me, “Oh, I see you have moved over to choreography.” And I’m like, “Actually I do both.” People can do both. That is the beauty of this industry because it’s encouraging people to create and be who they really are. 

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

Let’s chat about The Rocky Horror Show. That was your first solo musical theatre endeavour and it was very successful. What was that experience like? 

It was really scary. I felt like I was trained well by looking after other people’s choreography in these big musicals that they used to bring from overseas but nothing can prepare you for the first time you do it yourself. The funny thing is that I thought it would get easier after a while but it doesn’t because each musical is so different. Sometimes it comes easily and there will be numbers that you do that are just really hard. I’ll be up some nights at 3am and wake up going, “That’s what I want to do!” I’ll have to write it down and then I get into the room and I teach it to them and I’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, that’s all wrong.” It’s just such a process. I’ve never had a child before but, I would say, it’s the equivalent of giving birth to something. It’s amazing but it’s very challenging at the same time.

Where do you start when you are choreographing a piece?

I’ll read the script and we’ll have lengthy discussions between myself and Matthew [Wild] and Charl [Johan Lingenfelder]. I’m not sure how other musicals work but we work as a creative team. We cast together and we do everything together which is great because it’s all about the team. You can’t do your thing separately and think it’s going to happen. A musical is a collaboration of these things. That is my jumping platform and then obviously the music is so important. It’s getting the tracks, listening to the music, the story which is the most important thing actually because you need to drive the story. From there, what I usually do, is I start coming up with combinations that I feel might suit each piece of music and I use that as a jumping platform and then I try to start to conceptualize everything in my head, maybe have another meeting with the director and we will bounce ideas off of each other so that when I go into the room, I have a basis to work off. I’ll have some choreographic material which sometimes I use and sometimes I don’t. That is kind of how the process starts.

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

In regards to West Side Story, what was the process like in creating that piece and how do you feel it’s progressed during its three runs?

West Side Story was very tricky. When they initially approached me to do it, it was quite stressful because it is such a big dance musical. Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents conceptualised the musical originally and Jerome directed and choreographed it and it’s so well known for its choreography that I was terrified because I thought I’ve got to recreate this guy’s choreography [and] make it my own. I watched it once and then let it go. I tried to remain true to his original concept but really do my own thing because I feel like if it wasn’t from my heart then I would rather not do it. I spent nights thinking, “How am I actually going to do this?” But when I just let go and let it flow and thought about the actual story, then I sort of came up with the movement. For the Jets we went for football hooligans. We thought of that kind of thing. The Sharks were more slinky, kind of hispanic movement. I think it’s so important to go with a nondescript movement because you should never go with a specific style for anything. The story should drive the style. I think that’s so important in this story. Casting took forever because you want to cast the right people. I think through the three years of the three West Sides, you learn a little bit every single time from each production. You learn what worked and what didn’t work because nothing can be perfect the first time around. I got to fix some of the stuff that I didn’t like. It’s tricky because you have five weeks to get this massive thing together with 30 performers on that stage. Sometimes you can do a huge thing and look at it and you think, “We’ll it’s ok but I’d like to change this,” and you actually don’t have the time to change it because you are on a time crunch. In the third West Side Story, for Cape Town now, I got time to tweak the stuff that I felt could do with some tweaking.

You seem so passionate about dance but it’s also your full-time job. How do you ensure that you don’t get jaded by it?

I think it helps being passionate about the people. What keeps it fresh for me is the people. Each time new people come into a show, it keeps it fresh for me, just learning about other people’s stories and learning from other people in the show. I’m sure they’ve learned from my choreography but I can also learn from them. I love when I choreograph with the person and what works on their body and not just impose my own thoughts and feelings onto them. We all work as a team and I think that’s why we get the [results] that we get.

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

How do you find the choreographic world to be for women? Do you find it to be quite balanced or does it tend to be male dominated?

I think it’s quite balanced. I think the arts industry in general is balanced with male and female. What I’ve experienced, I think the arts sees no race, religion or gender and that’s why I love it. That’s why I feel at home in the arts.

What about your hopes for the rest of your career?

I would love to perform more. I’ve got so many projects coming up. We are doing Kinky Boots with The Fugard Theatre, so there is so much more choreographic work I’d like to do. I’d like to maybe do some more pure dance choreographic work, maybe some physical theatre. I was in London for three months about three months ago and I learned so much there. I saw almost every show there and I did a lot of dance work there. I did a choreographic and dance training course with Wayne McGregor which was great. I just feel like I want to tour a lot and learn, may it be in different countries, may it be learning from organisations here, and also dancing and performing more. I just want to do good work that matters. I think I’m getting to a stage in my life where, for me, it’s about doing stuff that matters and that maybe changes people’s lives in some way and that leaves a good footprint on this earth. I feel like that’s kind of what I want to do. 

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

Who did you have to look up to when you were thinking about pursuing a choreographic career?

When I was younger, training at Cape Dance Company, the first real choreographer I was exposed to was Adele Blank. She is such an inspiration. She was the first choreographer I was exposed to besides Debbie Turner, who was my initial teacher and who taught me dance. Barbara Holden, my ballet teacher who actually passed away recently. I choreographed a piece dedicated to her. She really inspired me. Christopher Kindo [who] also sadly passed away and was a great choreographer as well. Michele Reid choreographed a lot for me when I was at Cape Dance Company and she is a wonderful woman. I was very lucky because with Cape Dance Company, I was exposed to a lot of overseas choreographers. They used to bring in Christopher Huggins from overseas. He danced at Alvin Ailey and he is an incredible choreographer. More recently, Jose Agudo who is a British choreographer. I was very lucky to have a sort of mixing pot of South African choreographers and overseas choreographers to inspire me. 

What advice would you have, particularly for young women who are thinking of entering into this profession?

I think you always need to do something from the heart. You need to pay your dues and work hard. It’s not instant gratification. It does take years of work and I think that you should just have dedication, perseverance and sometimes, you gain more experience from the long way. Follow your heart. Never do something that you are not passionate about. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

Fiona Sutton, who passed away recently. I was always inspired by her because she does all this outreach work and it is really amazing. She trains these young children [from Zolani] and sends them to Cape Dance Company and then they go overseas to all these companies. Loads of my friends trained with her. I would also definitely say Adele Blank. There is one lady, she mentored me when I was in London, she isn’t South African but she really is an amazing woman. Her name is Kerry Nicholls. I would also have to say Debbie Turner. She has given me a lot. 


West Side Story is now running Artscape until April 22nd. For tickets, click here.

Special thanks to Allison Foat and Chanel Katz.

All photos were taken by Chanel Katz on March 14th 2018.

Sarafina Magazine and Chanel Katz maintain copyrights over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.

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