Connectingvibes at IRIE! dance theatre | interview

Words by Maxine Flasher-Duzgunes.

“Here we don’t say competition, we compete together,” says dancer Adriana Pino about the upcoming Connectingvibes performance tour, organised by the BA (Hons) Diverse Dance Styles course at IRIE! dance theatre, the first diverse dance course of its kind. In their third year, students are part of this performance company which prepares them for a professional dance career. Last week we discussed their experiences as a cohort as they enter their last performance season at IRIE!

“These processes, it’s not just about dance, it’s also about how we are as a company, as human beings and how we are connecting to each other,” continues Adriana on what it was like to work with Artists-in-Residence Rhys Dennis and Waddah Sinada of FUBUNATION, a London-based company aimed at increasing visibility for dancers of colour. Their piece entitled Out of Many with music by Sam Nunez, seemed to organise the dancers’ bodies in such a way as to capture the sounds of collapsing heartbeats. The dancers emphasised the degree of minimalism present in FUBUNATION’s work, and how they use improvisational techniques to preserve the essence of a thought or feeling on the inside to then translate it outwards.

“That’s actually quite critical for a lot of artists,” adds one of the program’s team members and choreographers Nina Haworth-Hurd, “because sometimes an obvious narrative isn’t always necessary.” In a piece more abstract, “it’s very much about holding yourself and knowing your body,” says dancer Tianna Williams-Powell. Adriana even compared this way of working to the way FUBUNATION’s dance films are often shot in 360 degrees — how the internalisation of one thing can so easily become the externalisation of another.

“I feel like we operate like a company just because we’ve had experiences that have really strengthened our abilities as individuals,” says dancer Aisha Sanyang. Remaining in this mindset, Nina and Director of Accredited Training, Rosie Lehan collaboratively created the piece Small Acts of Bravery with the company, an exploration of the small things we have to be brave about in juxtaposition with the bigger things. “We took the theme of courage, because we thought that’s quite appropriate for them at this time,” says Rosie, referring to the devastating socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education and the arts that not until recently have begun their recovery.

“[The] creative industry is daunting,” says Beverley Glean, Artistic Director at IRIE! dance theatre, “[and] very precarious at the moment. [So] in a way, you would think they would be reticent or, fearful as to what they are going to encounter.” But in fact, it’s been quite the opposite for this company: those who are well versed in certain styles help others with picking up material, and with elements of embodiment and characterisations.

“It always feels like we work in collaboration,” says Aisha on their process for the pieces Moi and Vibes both by choreographer Leroy Dias Dos Santos. According to the dancers, Leroy — who also teaches them urban and contemporary techniques — adapts to how they learn while still presenting them with a challenge. For instance, Tianna noted the difficulty of the house rhythms in Vibes and that only half of the mental stimulation comes from the music and grooves…the other — perhaps more significant half — comes from watching and listening to each other’s bodies.

Image by Beth MacInnes.

What most distinguishes the programme at IRIE! from others is how consistently the dancers are exposed to fusions of styles, and further, to choreographers who blend techniques as part of their creative process. The dancers spoke about choreographer Rosie Wilson on her piece The Lecture which likely sampled the most styles out of any piece in the programme including jazz, street dance, African traditional dances and Caribbean folk dance. “She’s very holistic; how she trains and how she encourages us to think mentally when we’re taking [her] classes,” says Aisha. Her method of teaching is a spiritual one: she focuses a lot on the breath to contain so many physical fluctuations between styles. “She always sends us articles that have to do with a piece of music, like the song that we’re using now,” says dancer Laura Bodner. The track by Jurassic 5 samples teaching lessons, R&B tunes and radio recordings with an oscillating record player, reminding me of how beneficial it is as a performer to be aware of those audible changes as well as physical ones. It was like witnessing layers and layers of chalk scratching sentences and equations of varying subjects atop a blackboard.

And Wilson’s unique mode of choreographic storytelling is one technique that can be applied elsewhere, in teaching environments for example. It gives the dancers an idea of where they want to take their training to a place that might not necessarily be performative. 

“It’s giving them an understanding that dance doesn’t always have to take place in a proscenium arch,” says Beverley, whose piece Breeze Easy also works in fusion and with a variety of musical tracks. “It’s often just understanding that dance can happen in all sorts of spaces and with all sorts of people.” Part of the programme involves the dancers traveling to schools and not just performing the repertoire but teaching it. “[It was a] moment of connectedness for the company,” says Aisha.

With the pressures of preparing a performance season in addition to completing independent work — a film, dissertation, or choreographic project — the dancers found it contributed to growing attitudes of perfectionism. And with it they noticed at times they were not dancing together. Many artists go through this period, and with the pandemic it became an even greater impossibility…by some it was desired even more. “I think a new skill for us to practice now,” says Laura, “[is to] enjoy it because we’ve done all the hard work.” It’s a lesson for everyone who works in the arts — behind or in front of the scenes — that enjoying it is half of what makes a piece live inside of you and live inside those who bear witness to it.

Connectingvibes tours to: Roehampton University 18 May and IRIE! on 19 May.