Stellar Quine of the Month: Sophie Stephenson

How would you describe your current work and what do you like best about it?

Currently, I am working with Stellar Quines as choreographer on the production of THREADS – a play by Sylvia Dow which combines songs, steps and stories to weave together a multi-stranded history of knitting in the borders, from 19th Century millworkers to modern day knitting clubs.

It has been great to be surrounded by such a fantastic bunch of women and working with director Muriel Romanes has been an especially fascinating and inspiring experience as she has been full of ideas for incorporating foot rhythms into the piece. I am a step dancer and Muriel was keen to get me onboard to teach the cast steps, which could serve a practical function within the play – to create mechanical work rhythms of the mill. What has been interesting about the project is that it has encouraged me to think of dance and movement as sound. It has required me to distill my knowledge of jig, reel and strathspey steps into individual sounds, outwith the context of formal rhythmical structures, and then to piece together and layer these fragments to create interesting percussive effects. I have also been able to adopt techniques from other dance styles including Québecois, Irish Sean Nós and Appalachian flatfooting/clogging along with seated foot rhythms and body percussion.

What was your first ever job?

I grew up in the Highlands where my parents have a small hotel so I can hardly remember a time when I wasn’t working or involved in some way in the family business. The hotel also provided many opportunities to meet people from different countries and to share with them our Scottish culture and hospitality.

Has there been a particular person or an opportunity that you feel has made the most difference to your career?

There have been many people and opportunities that have supported me in my career but I think in particular it was my parents who encouraged me with music, dance and performance from a young age. They made an effort to take me to music and dance classes and it has been these activities, which I pursued outside of formal education, which have been most formative in my career path. Exposure to Gaelic culture through fèisean (traditional music tuition camps) from a young age was also extremely important and after I graduated from the University of Edinburgh I went to live in Uist in the Outer Hebrides to study traditional music and then the following year I moved to the Isle of Skye where I did an intensive Gaelic immersion course and now a lot of the work I do is connected with the language.

What has been your favourite theatre production or concert?

Last year I went to see Québecois group ‘De Temps Antan’ at Celtic Connections and I thought to myself ‘This music is good for the soul’. I was lucky enough to get to see them perform again in 2014 at the Celtic Colours festival in Canada and then, this year, at Celtic Connections I saw another band from Quebec called ‘Le Vent Du Nord’ which special guests including Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, Scots singer Emily Smith and box player Sharon Shanon from Ireland. There is an almost spiritual quality about the resounding drones created by the jew’s harp, hurdy-gurdy, fiddle and accordion in Québecois music which, combined with the driving rhythms of the foot percussion and chant like song melodies, resonate with an inner groove.

What do you like the best about working within the arts?

What I enjoy most about working in the arts is working with and meeting so many different people along the way. As a dance tutor and performer I have worked in communities across Scotland, with a wide variety of different groups. It has also been great to have the opportunity to travel and I have been lucky enough to make two trips across to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Islands – places with which we share so much of our culture through a history of emigration from Scotland to the east coast of Canada.

What is the best advice you have received or would give about becoming a choreographer/dance teacher?

The best advice I was given was to give something back. The trad music and dance scene has very much grown out of grass-root initiatives made possible by the hard work of individuals and communities. If you can offer something back to that community by sharing the tradition and offering a free workshop or volunteering at a festival or on a committee then this is a good way of establishing professional contacts, which could bring future opportunities.

Who would your Stellar Quine of the month be and why?

My Stellar Quine of the month would be the great singer and tradition bearer Sheila Stewart. I was exposed to her songs through the music of Martyn Bennett. Sadly Sheila passed away last December but her voice is forever with us in the many recordings made of her and the legacy she left behind by bringing the oral traditions of the travelling people to a wider audience. What was also great about Sheila was how supportive she was of Martyn’s music and the idea of bringing the old to the new by mixing old Scots ballads with modern dance beats. There is something real and raw about the tone of her voice that still sends goosebumps across my skin and it is as if, through the songs, she was channeling the sentiments and emotions of the many generations through which the traditions passed. In this way she was a vessel for the songs and a mouthpiece for lore of the travelling people.

I would also pick my two friends, band mates in `Huradal’ and companions on a creative journey exploring Gaelic song, music and dance – Eilidh Munro and Màiri Britton. We all studied at the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh and we share a passion not only for the songs and steps, but the importance of the tradition bearers and communities from which they came.


SQ of the Month