Partnering with Royal Ballet dancer Zelos Tsang-Thompson, Elliott Gonzo and Philly Felton dance short Tundra expresses the extreme mental and physical effort required to excel at the highest levels – a pressure which is particularly prevalent within the arduous Japanese work ethic. DN spoke to Elliott to discover how this experimental rumination, not only on the world of dance but also the sacrifices and diligence needed to truly thrive in our chosen careers, came into being.
Where did the idea for Tundra come from?
The title of the film is Tundra meaning a large barren frozen area of land, where the harsh subzero temperatures make it impossible to grow trees or vegetation. Tundra was the word Zelos Tsang-Thompson, the Royal Ballet dancer in the film, used to describe the ballet industry. He told me how cold and heartless it can be and if you ever show signs of weakness you will be dropped. Your superiors wouldn’t bat an eyelid, someone else will be there waiting to take your place. He believed that his Japanese heritage, mainly the hardcore work ethic, helped him to push himself and eventually got him to where he is now in his career.
A well-known Japanese saying is: “Repeated failures lead to success.” But this extreme work ethic can also have a detrimental effect – mentally and physically – on the workers themselves, which we have chosen to represent through the sweat, bruises and scars on Zelos’ body. The overlaid poem by Philly Felton explores the idea of not understanding your own worth and mirrors the dancer as he works himself into a frenzy of practice.
How did you come to partner with Zelos Tsang-Thompson on this project and did he have any reservations or strong opinions about the film and the dance piece he’d perform for it?
Zelos Tsang-Thompson was living with me for a couple of months while he was getting settled into London, we discussed the collaboration of the project the first day we met so he was heavily involved in the objective and process of the film from the very beginning. I learnt a lot about classical ballet while rehearsing the dance for the film, through this I realised ballet is very regimental as a practice. I originally wanted him to improvise his movement using the music we had made as a building block, but the prospect of this was very daunting for Zelos due to the militant attitude of ballet.
As individuals, living in this modern day society we put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to succeed within our chosen careers.
Zelos suggested using a set dance routine he knew off by heart instead, this made him feel more confident and we could move along more comfortably while filming. We also had piano music playing in the background to create a classical ballet atmosphere. Then in the edit, I cut the dance movements around the music we had made for the piece.
Could you take us through your process and considerations when shooting the dance performance?
The space was an important part of the aesthetic, we felt it was important for it to be both large enough for Zelos to dance and exude a feeling of isolation. We booked the space for the day, starting early in the morning we decided to practice the same routine all day, pushing Zelos into exhaustion. We waited till golden hour to shoot the piece – using a Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K paired with Vintage Zeiss Contax Primes. The studio had huge windows facing the sunset, creating amazing harsh shadows and giving the film its moody, melancholy feel.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
I would like people to take away the same emotional response I had making this film. As individuals, living in this modern day society we put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to succeed within our chosen careers. Zelos resonated with me as he has devoted his life to ballet dancing as I have to filmmaking.
Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
Yes, I’m working on a project at the moment called Pure Gold and also finishing off a short film named Yeast that I’ve been working on for almost 4 years. Pure Gold is a film reinterpretation of the old testament played out in an urban contemporary world with hints of Neo-Surrealism. This project is in very early stages so I can’t really go deep into it yet. Yeast is a dark fantasy comedy about a deranged Baker addicted to smoking yeast, who one day decides to build a bread inspired Frankenstein monster. Yeast will be finished in the coming month.
Tundra is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.