Our arts contributor, Yosola Olorunshola, interviews Vicki Igbokwe, creative director, choreographer and founder of Uchenna Dance on the eve of her latest production, Hansel and Gretel, at The Place.
Vicki Igbokwe is a creative director, choreographer and the founder of Uchenna Dance, an explorative dance company that aims to empower, educate and entertain through movement. Her creative vision has brought the New York club scene to the stage in the immersive Our Mighty Groove, and woven black women’s hair journeys into a complex and joyful spectacle in The Head Wrap Diaries. Defined by her signatory blend of club styles, House, Waacking and Vogue, fused with African and contemporary dance, every performance is an invitation – to discover a new experience and connect more deeply with your own truth. In the run-up to Uchenna Dance’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, we caught up with Vicki to learn more about her creative process.
Can you tell me a bit about how Uchenna Dance came to life 10 years ago?
Being a dancer wasn’t my first love, I always wanted to be a choreographer. When my friends at uni were talking about becoming performers, being on stage, being in music videos, I knew I wanted to be the director – the choreographer, the one pulling the team together with the vision.
I read that you had a bit of a game-changing trip to New York around this time? What happened?
I got baptised on the dancefloor. That’s what happened. Even though it wasn’t my first love, I still had a performing career. When I realised I wanted to set up Uchenna Dance, I knew the styles I performed as a dancer were not the styles I wanted to use to create my own work.
I got funding to go to New York through the Association of Dance in the African Diaspora, which is now part of One Dance UK. They focus on black and minority ethnic artists. While I was there I went to a club called Sin Sin. The night was called Soulgasm. I walked into the club and instantly got stage fright because everyone in there was actually amazing. Every time anyone came up to me, I would say this really cringeworthy line, ‘Oh no no no, I’m from London,’ as though that just devalued me as a dancer.
I realised that if you make someone feel really good about themselves, they’re going to give you their best regardless. And that was a real turning point for me as a person, as a woman, and as an artist.That’s still the ethos behind Uchenna Dance.
How long did that last?
After about the third hour of standing with my back against the wall, I noticed this guy wearing a balloon crown on his head He looked at me as if to say, ‘Come with me,’ and led me into the cypher [the circle on a dancefloor where dancers show their moves]. I tried to remember the moves I had learned in a house class, it was so cringe. I was literally looping the same four steps. But the dancers made me feel so good. And when I say dancers, they weren’t all professional dancers. It was just full of people who loved the music and could boogie – of all ages. I felt like Janet Jackson in the cypher, and I literally danced the rest of the night. I was one of the last to leave the club.
After that, I realised that if you make someone feel really good about themselves, they’re going to give you their best regardless. And that was a real turning point for me as a person, as a woman, and as an artist.
That’s still the ethos behind Uchenna Dance. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to reduce it to three words – empower, entertain, educate – but that’s the story really, the feeling that I had been born again on the dancefloor.
That really comes through in your work. Dance on stage can sometimes be quite distant, but The Head Wrap Diaries was so expressive. Even though I knew I was watching a performance, it felt like the audience was part of the celebration. So when you’re devising a show, do you always start with an experience?
Weirdly, I tend to start with a title. ‘The Head Wrap Diaries’ popped into my head one day when I woke up. It was an extension of my experience. I’d been watching Black Girls Rock and seen all these beautiful black women with all kinds of hair, different skin tones and sizes. I had just braided my hair but decided to cut them all off. Afterwards I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know my own hair.’ So I started to do some research and realised I was not the only one.
I started to cover my hair with a piece of fabric every time I had a bad hair day. But after a while, I wasn’t just wearing them to fix a bad hair day but to finish the outfit. It went from just being about hiding a bad hair day – which every now and then it still is – to being about adorning my hair, wearing this crown, feeling regal.
At what point do you bring in the performers, your dancers, to build on the idea?
Right at the beginning. On our first day of research and development (R&D), I think we only danced for about an hour maybe. We just spent the whole day sitting with flip charts, filling them with ideas about women with a complex relationship to their hair – black women, women dealing with health issues, cancer, alopecia. Then we asked why people wear head wraps: because of fashion? Religion? We realised we couldn’t tell everyone’s story because there would be no story. One major thing we had in common was that we were all black women.
From then, it was a balance between suggesting ideas myself, and then creating tasks for the performers to go away and think about. I’m much more interested in seeing what they can bring. I think it’s richer this way and gives them real ownership, because there will always be a point when I have to let the show go. As much as I might want to go in and tweak and all the rest of it, when they are performing, it’s theirs. I’ve handed the baton over to share with the audiences that we work with.
Each dancer brought so much personality to the stage during The Head Wrap Diaries. It didn’t feel like you were watching ‘characters.’ What do you think dance can communicate that potentially other art forms can’t?
It’s such a physical art form. It’s emotive. Dance is medicine for me. It’s so infectious. When you see someone grooving, you want to get into it. There’s something really freeing about it if you’re in the right space. Going back to that trip to New York, the moment I was invited in, it was on. I was living my best life. And I think that’s something that dance absolutely has the ability to do – to bring you in.
I was speaking at a panel last week in front of an audience of architects and engineers. The focus was on making theatre spaces. Whenever I give talks like this, I always make it a habit to get delegates up and moving – even if it’s just a minute – to break the ice and for me to feel like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a right to be here’ with all these people in suits. You see all these people trying to resist and you just say, ‘Come on, just two-step for me now,’ and then you see something start to happen. ‘You were looking at me like you wanted to beat me up, and now you’re smiling’. So far, every time I’ve done that, even in a room where it’s not arts people, something happens. I always see at least 50% if not more, transformation.
On that note, what inspired your next show, Hansel and Gretel? Who are you excited to bring in?
I was commissioned by The Place to do a family show. After researching lots of different stories I settled on Hansel and Gretel because it was a story I loved as a child. When people hear Hansel and Gretel they often say, ‘Oh that’s really dark!’ Yes it is, but I really want to create something that celebrates young people. Their tenacity, resourcefulness, the fact that these kids go through things most adults wouldn’t be able to handle and still find a way to get back home, to stick together and overcome the adults that pretend to be Good Samaritans. I want it to be something that’s quite modern, that really celebrates the young people in their resourcefulness – being able to get themselves out of crazy situations and stick together. That’s the essence I’m going for.
Dance is medicine for me. It’s so infectious. When you see someone grooving, you want to get into it…Dance absolutely has the ability to bring you in.
It sounds like you’re really open about the audience for dance, and the role dance can play in everyone’s life.
I don’t feel you need to have a PhD to understand my work. In the early days, I really tried to make work that would be intellectually stimulating – you think this is what’s going to win awards – but then you end up making work for the wrong people. You start making work for venues and programmers instead of making it for people. And now, it took me a while but I’m comfortable saying my work is for people, my work is accessible. That’s not a good word in dance, but why shouldn’t it be? I want people to come and connect to the subject matter on a human level and get all their creative senses sparked off.
Hansel and Gretel by Uchenna Dance and The Place runs between 15-24 December 2018. Tickets are available here.