Interview with a Dancer - Aria Jacobs

Aria is a dancer and choreographer, currently working on a physical theatre piece fusing contemporary dance and spoken word. Stagnant Change explores the realms of black oppression and aims to make a positive change for future generations. Here is what she has to say about the devising process and her plans for the future of the piece.

What inspired you to create this performance piece?

I drew inspiration from history, learning of the Black Panther Movement in the USA and UK,  about lynchings and the civil rights movement. Also learning of the origins of black people and how we were not always enslaved. These accounts of black communities and oppression made a real impact on me as it felt personal, and I also did not understand how it was that we got to this point now in present day. Being a creative individual I felt the need to make this piece as a way of understanding myself, what is was like to be black in those times and to encourage people to stop this ignorant narrow mindedness that I feel today. I want to inspire people with this performance to make a positive change in their actions which in turn will grow to make change throughout the world. 

Why did you want to include spoken word?

There is something about hearing poetry that evokes feeling. I have always been keen to use spoken word and dance together and this piece was perfect for this as I believe the audience can really get involved in the movement of the words in relation to the dance. From an audience perspective, words are much easier to understand than dance, for this piece Stagnant Change I wanted to take the audience on a journey. Incorporating dance and spoken word in the same performance creates a vivid imagery that holds onto the audience's senses and will hopefully sit with them long after the performance is over. The poets I have are forever inspiring and surprising me, so the journey we have been on thus far is incredible, I am really excited for future opportunities with them and my dancers too.

Where do you see this project going - what are your future plans?

The piece itself is a work in progress, so future plans would be to get financial backing for it so I can develop it and push it further to become the performance I envision it to be - and have the impact I imagine it could have. I would like to tour this piece EVERYWHERE! In community centres, schools, theatres and even as a site specific - take the theatre to the audience. The true reason I created Stagnant Change was to make a positive difference, the only way I knew how - through a performance modality. I am a dancer so why not use my creativeness to evoke change and inspire young people.  I would like an educational outreach programme to stem from this to teach young people from all creeds about the REAL accounts of Black history; to learn about Ruth Ellis, W.E.B Du Bois, Althea Jones, Darcus Howe, Marcus Garvey and so on and so forth, so the same names are not always being circulated (Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks). 

Educating young people about this I believe will make a difference. It's as simple as showing in particular young black children that you are capable of creating something positive for yourself and society so we can begin to break down the racial stereotypes and statistics that give the impression that Black people are lesser than White or Asian counterparts. 

In the big picture of global racial equality, do you think Stagnant Change can really make a difference?

Yes. I have all the confidence in the world that this performance piece and the educational stem from this will inspire and help re-build communities to further make that difference. Stagnant Change is a start, a platform to build upon and I know elsewhere similar projects are taking place. The G.A.P (Getting Ahead Project) programme is already a summer school that teaches about black inventors, what good hair is and of Black histories and cultures globally with the use of art, dance, creative writing and music workshops. 

Stagnant Change going on a global scale I believe can re-define the current misrepresentations that are portrayed about black people - in particular in the media, we are only ever shown to be criminals, in gangs or with an exaggerated defiant attitude. It is my intention with Stagnant Change to evoke and change in the mindset of people, world wide, until something affects us directly we generally do not take action or notice such things which only further encourages the issue. Taking this performance into community centres and schools to deliver creative workshops we can start to ask why these racial stereotypes exist and how to stop them. Stagnant Change is not the sole solution but it is certainly a great place to start. 

Stagnant Change is being performed at the Zion Centre, Manchester on 8th September. Oh, and did I mention I am in it? :) Please come down and show your support for this passionate and inspiring performance.

Interview with a Dancer - Shelley Van Haden

This week I had the chance to catch up with an exciting and talented dancer who is busy touring the UK at the moment - Shelley Eva Haden. She is currently performing in Rosie Kay Dance Company’s 5 Soldiers, described as an intimate viewing of the human body in war and how it affects those that put their body on the frontline. The piece debuted last week in Birmingham and has received 5* from The Guardian’s Luke Jennings. Here’s what Northern graduate Shelley has to say about the whole experience… 

You recently wrote in the Guardian about your training exercise and experience in the army - how demanding was it physically? Do you think you could be a real soldier?

Training in the army (4th Battalion The Rifles) was one of the best experiences of my life, mainly because of the people and the extreme situations that pushed my comfort zones and capabilities like never before. The training mainly focused on combat and the approach of enemy and hostage situations. I personally found the training more demanding mentally other than physically as it challenged my ability to adapt to completely new ways of thinking. The exercise was the most physical part of the training, this involved managing our rifle and defending ourselves against platoons of infantry soldiers as they landed in from real life off spray aircraft. This was the most terrifying yet infusing experience and I dived in with 100% guts. Do I think I could be a soldier? I truly don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t think I ever will. My week of training was merely a taste of military life and I don’t think any of us really know the reality of a soldier’s life unless we have been there. 

Anyone who has seen any rep or photos of 5 Soldiers will know that you are the only female in the cast. (What an achievement!) What's it like being around so much testosterone all the time, how does it affect group dynamics when dancing together?

The cast of 5 Soldiers are amazing. I love the boys like my brothers and feel completely at one with them. Yes, of course I am aware that I am the single female of the company but I see this as positive rather than a negative as the female influence is so important in such a masculine, intensive work. The banter is hilarious and the chemistry we have as a cast is
very special, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Has working on this piece changed your opinion on military action? What do you think the audience will take away from it?

I have never had a strong opinion on military action, it’s a very big and complex topic that quite frankly scares me. I have however gained a much stronger understanding of the Army and I truly value and appreciate the life and work of a soldier. I don’t just think, I know that audiences are touched by the experience of 5 Soldiers. Civilians/People get an insight into a world that is hidden from society, a military land that people finally get to see and understand. People feel and witness emotion, passion, guts, and sweat. The show really works and I have every faith in its success to connect with all audiences. 

What do you have lined up after this UK tour?

Rosie Kay and 5 Soldiers has the potential to expand the tour internationally. Rosie is also working on a new piece which is due to tour in 2016. After the tour ends in June I have plans to continue performing, teaching and creating and can’t wait to continue doing what I love.

5 Soldiers is in London this week and on tour around the UK until 13th June – visit the website to find a venue near you and book a ticket:

Interview with Katie Ryan – Odissi Ensemble

When did you discover Odissi?

I was introduced to Odissi by Sanjeevini Dutta who ran an after-school club at my primary school in Bedford.  At that time Kadam were a community dance organisation based in Bedford - now they have moved to the Hat Factory in Luton and run community projects as well as promoting performances and publishing a South Asian dance and music magazine - Pulse.

What was it about the essence of the dance style that drew you towards it and made you want to be a part of the Ensemble?

Well, I was initially drawn to the opportunity to have some fun dancing with my sister and other school friends after school.  The fact that we performed in school assemblies and at school fairs and local events made it exciting and as a child I think I also enjoyed the narrative aspect of the the dance style - the use of character and story helped me engage as a child...and still does now.  We formed the Ensemble this year after working as a group on different projects and trying to set up a network of Odissi dancers in the UK.  As Odissi is a solo form and it is not so widely practiced in the UK, it can be a bit isolating working on your own and it's not so easy to access performance opportunities as a solo artist. Odissi Ensemble allows us to enjoy a group creative process, share ideas and fill a stage with a range of personalities and physicalities.

How did you relate to the culture embedded in Odissi? You don't stand out in the ensemble as coming from a different ethnic background, religion or country than the other dancers.  Where did you begin making that transition into such a differing culture?

I guess since I've been learning odissi from a young age and through this have got to know Indian culture quite well, it's not so hard to relate. The themes of the narratives are pretty universal - devotion, love, loss, struggle, celebration - so if you spend a bit of time understanding the stories, it isn't hard. Actually, although I am the only white British dancer in the group - we're all quite a mix: Canadian with Indian heritage, Canadian with Indian and British heritage and Malaysian with Indian heritage...and out of the five of us there is only one from a Hindu background. None of us are from Orissa, where the style originates, so it's part of the learning process to understand the context of the dance style you are training in.

Odissi is obviously very different from what a British dancer would conventionally train in - for example contemporary, ballet, jazz - how did you adapt to this Indian genre?

Starting at 6 meant there wasn't much adapting to do.  I also took ballet classes and enjoyed them a lot too. A-levels was the first time I was introduced to contemporary dance and after finishing at school I trained at London Contemporary Dance School on a course which included training in kathak - a style of South Asian classical dance I hadn't tried until then.  I think learning a variety of styles had been useful in giving me a perspective on each of them and it also gives me a sense of freedom to try new things.

The Odissi style is so intricate and detailed; how long did it take for you to adjust to the style and it become so natural to you? 

All dance styles are difficult to do well. But I think as a beginner, Odissi is a difficult style to learn because of the main stances requiring you to maintain bent knees with legs turned out and work from this position - which can make for sore legs when you're starting out! Also it is a challenge to co-ordinate the counter-point of precise footwork with lyrical movement of the arms and torso plus hand gestures and use of the eyes and face. Your teacher builds this up in layers and doesn't expect it all to come at once, gradually over time you build familiar patterns of movement and it starts to fall into place. I initially started with Sanjeevini when I was six and she taught us short compositions incorporating both folk, creative and classical movements, gradually building up to classical repertoire by the time I was about I'm 25 - but there's still masses to learn.

Having studied many different styles of dance, could you choose which you prefer?

Odissi is definitely my main style - the one I feel most at home in.  I enjoy contemporary a lot and my experience training in kathak with Gauri Sharma Tripathi definitely informed my over-all practice and knowledge. 

What are you planning for the next stages of your career? Would you like to perform in mainstream dance productions, or stay dedicated to promoting Odissi?

Odissi is what I want to concentrate on - I would love to see how Odissi Ensemble can develop and see what new paths working as a group could take us down.

Interview with Rosie Heafford – 2nd Hand Dance

A quick browse on your website illuminates the vast array of dance work you have created and been involved in - it is hard to believe you are still in your early twenties. How did you do it?!

Ha! In one sense I have been lucky - right place, right time - however even when I was training I worked hard to volunteer for different organisations and get as much experience as I could so I would build up contacts in the industry. My work with Serena Korda for instance came out of me working for UP Projects (initially as an intern and then evaluation coordinator) who produce and commission large-scale outdoor work. I was asked to help her realise 'Dustercise' an exercise class that complimented her commission for the Wellcome Trust and she's asked me to work on her other performance projects since. The choreography I've made in Surrey, came about because when I went back to live at home after my degree, there wasn't much work being made and Surrey Arts (the Councils Arts Department) had a commission which I applied for and succeeded. That commission, 'Share the Word', toured to schools, care homes and theatre settings which was a brilliant experience! Since then I've worked to make partnerships with the other dance organisations in Surrey such as Woking Dance Festival and the University of Surrey. I think there's a place in that part of the world to make things happen yourself! I'm still young and still trying different ways of working, and working with different groups including professional dancers and varied community and intergenerational groups. I'm doing a project at the Royal Albert Hall next year, which is a really exciting challenge. It's partly about finding the opportunities where you can make something happen, marrying that with appropriate funding as well as discovering the way you want to work - I've learnt a lot in the past year!

It is for this reason your entrepreneurial skills have gained recognition, as the winner of Epsom and Ewell's Young Entrepreneur of the Year. How important do you think it is for artists to have a "business head" as well as a creative one?

I'm not sure I would call it a 'business head' as I don't claim to know anything about business. However, it is important to be able to make things work if you don't work with a producer as many young artists don't have the opportunity to do. It can be really intimidating stepping into the 'business' world, however funding-wise this has helped me a lot as there are a lot of small funds for 'start-up' companies around. When I first set-up second hand dance I did attend 'business' seminars and a week of an 'introduction to creative entrepreneurialism' which not only helped with funding, but gave me the opportunity to envision my company and what I wanted to do with it. Business plans are useful and help you keep on course, even if they are scary. For me, my 'art' is about making connections between audience, performer, choreographer, place, music, costume and partners or other organisations; so I see the planning of a project as well as its choreography as the creative process, because the plan determines what the project can be, it all roles into one for me.

It is great that a dance company has been recognised in the Business Sector. Was it an ambition of yours to raise the profile of contemporary dance, and get it to be taken seriously - or did it just happen?

I have to admit, it just happened - I don't think the Business Sector really take dance seriously as generally it is difficult to make any profit. However, a definite aim of mine is to make connections with local businesses in my area of Epsom and Surrey to raise the profile of my work - I'm still trying to find a way in to that.

The work of Second Hand Dance is often in public spaces - what is it that inspires you about site specific work?

Hmm, this is a current question for me really as I'm not sure on the term 'site-specific'. Public spaces interest me because of the interactions that happen there and because they are not as scary as theatre spaces can be - or as enclosed. I think there is something wonderful in discovering something 'new' and relish the expressions of surprise on the publics’ face when they encounter dance in an unusual place. I'm also not keen on audiences sitting down in auditoriums as I feel like as soon as you sit down and turn the lights off, both your body and brain go to sleep! When sitting still you are not really able to experience the physicality of a performer in your own body because of the restricted space - not saying that at outside performances people move lots, but there feels like there is more of an ability for the body to process movement when you are not worried about disturbing the other bodies around you.

What current projects are you working on? What's next for Second Hand Dance?

Lots is the short answer! I've been working a lot on developing projects for next year. As I mentioned earlier, I'm choreographing a youth dance piece for the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Surrey Arts Youth Celebration (29th May). I'm working with Serena Kord in Bristol on a commission to create a new folk dance for the community of Barton Hill (12th May). I'll be working with visual artist Mary Branson on a commemorative project at the Magna Carta memorial in Runnymede next October. I'm also developing a performance of 'Dads Dancing' which we are hoping to apply for funding for and a series of collaborative projects that will tour galleries later next year! It’s a really exciting time. I'm currently showing Paper Solo, a collaboration with Josie Davis (Visual Artist) and Alexandrina Hemsley (Dancer), we've just performed at Chisenhale Dance Space as part of their 'Homemade' festival and it will go to The Lightbox in Woking for Woking Dance Festival's 'Winter Shorts' (17th December 2011). So do keep up to date with everything on or twitter @2_ndhanddance and on my website: