Acclaimed dancer and choreographer, Botis Seva, talks about growing up in Dagenham, how dance transformed his life and his latest artistic directorship with the National Youth Dance Company.
There’s a YouTube video from 2015 of a fresh-faced, sparkly-eyed Botis Seva. Totalling at just over three minutes, the film follows Seva around the now iconic heartlands of East London. We see him popping in Old Street, locking in Shoreditch and freestyling in Brick Lane. He lights up the East End with his magnetic moves; every twist, turn, ripple and isolation as edgy and effortless as a graffiti-tag. Each park, marketplace and pavement is another stage on which the young Seva bounces around. Beaming at the camera, he comes into his own, gliding and sliding like the street was his own cypher. In a moment of stillness, Seva turns to the camera and describes his style: ‘it’s a mixture of hip hop meets contemporary…it’s experimental, abstract, crazy; call it what you want, but it’s very – it’s weird, it’s me.’ He says this with pride, certain that this ‘weird’ idiosyncratic style is what makes him, as a dancer and choreographer, stand out from the crowd.
Fast forward to December 2018, and a slightly more composed, though no less passionate, Seva sits in front of me. He’s swapped postcodes for this interview; we’ve moved away from the street dancing east to the theatrically happening south-side of the river – to the National Theatre to be precise. I’m excited to be talking to him, not least to hear more about his ‘weird’, award-winning style.
Since the short promo video of 2015 Seva’s life has dramatically changed. His ‘crazy’ choreography has seen him and his crazily talented company, Far From The Norm, perform in prestigious venues all over the world. He’s won awards at international competitions, such as Germany’s Choreography 30 in Hannover and Copenhagen’s International Choreographic Competition. He has also created some daringly fulsome work for the likes of Scottish Dance Theatre, British Dance Edition, The Place and Sadler’s Wells. If, in 2015, Seva and his company were a crew with evident promise, in 2019, they are the company to follow and learn from. For the last few years they have radically challenged the dance establishment with their politically-charged work and wowed sell-out audiences with their innovative, immersive shows.
But Seva hasn’t forgotten East London. It’s where his passion for dance began and where he’s still based. It’s a place that will continue to shape his work, regardless of how far and wide commissions take him. Born and bred in Dagenham, his first love was Grime (he credits Grime artist Kano as a key influence when growing up). Initially Seva wanted to pursue music, but this soon changed when he began dancing in talent shows and at his local youth club. Despite peers mocking his love for the art, he started to take dancing seriously. Luckily for him there were several teachers who saw his potential and helped him take dance to the next level. Two individuals who were responsible for cultivating this passion were Sharlene Carter and Tony Adigun. It was Carter, a Dagenham-based choreographer, producer and teacher, who introduced Seva to classes in the area. Like Carter, Adigun used his experience as a choreographer to support and nurture young people in schools and community-based projects. During this formative time, under the guidance of Adigun and Carter, dance became more than a hobby, and certainly more than a diversion from the growing disillusionment he felt towards school. For Seva, dance became a ‘language’ through which he could articulate his frustration with systemic racism, social deprivation and structural oppression – issues that he still grapples with in his work today. ‘Dance came from an honest place’, reflects Seva. ‘That’s not to say that we had nothing, but we made the best of what we had at the time.’ As a language, dance was both therapeutic release and a creative, legitimate, necessary expression to hit back at socio-political constraints.
Seva’s mastering of this language didn’t go unnoticed by his teachers. Invited to attend open classes by Adigun, he then went on to teach his own sessions back in Dagenham. Whatever Seva had at the time, he invested back into the young people of East London, effectively giving to them what Carter and Adigun had given to him. It’s this pay-it-forward attitude; this visionary, determined spirit of helping others through the language of movement that shines in all he does today. And it’s partly this attitude that pushed him to create Far From The Norm. When Adigun invited Seva to join his youth company he realised that he didn’t just want to dance, he wanted to craft movement of his own with a group of likeminded individuals. ‘I wanted to make stuff like this as well,’ Seva recalls after working with Adigun. ‘Tony and Sharlene had fed my creativity, and I knew I had to create my own company.’
Dance may not be for everyone; it may not help everyone, but dance saved me, and if it can save me, it can save others…sometimes helping one person is enough.
Still, Seva acknowledges that his story could’ve been different. ‘I saw a lot in Dagenham. Some of my friends went down different paths, darker ones. Some went to prison, but I wanted a more positive path – I didn’t want to waste my mum’s time.’ Although he disliked school – ‘I was a bit rebellious and didn’t like how certain subjects were taught, especially history’ – it was dance that spurred him on and gave him a sense of identity. Aware of the lack of opportunities available to young people, particularly those who are disenfranchised, Seva struggled to see himself in the world. Like many young people today, he often asked himself ‘where do I fit in?’ Government and council cuts to youth projects, a lack of diversification and inclusion in every professional field, an education and social system that fails the most marginalised and vulnerable – all such issues mean that to Seva’s mind ‘we’re going round in circles’ and failing young people today. For Seva, structural transformation needs to occur; seismic shifts must happen throughout various industries, in particular that of dance. Then again, Seva’s ethos is going after the one; that is, he sees and uses dance as a practise that can empower and transform the life of at least one individual. ‘Dance may not be for everyone; it may not help everyone, but dance saved me, and if it can save me, it can save others…sometimes helping one person is enough.’
A piece that speaks to the one lone young person – or indeed all young people – is ‘BLKDOG’, Seva’s acclaimed work from Sadler’s Wells’ 20th anniversary event, Reckonings (see here for our review of it). Inspired by Sally Brampton’s book about depression, Shoot the Damn Dog (1990), as well as Black Mirror’s bleak dystopian episode ‘Metal Head’, ‘BLKDOG’ perfectly speaks to the predicament of young people today. On the surface it is an exploration of depression and the depressive forces at work inside and out of an individual. But if it underscores the psychological and socio-political pressures that the past and current generations have experienced, it also anchors the solution, the potential for healing, in the minds and bodies of all young people. ‘I feel like I’m speaking on behalf of young people who are angry…I don’t believe it’s just me,’ Seva says with conviction. ‘I’m saying it for them too.’
In ‘BLKDOG’, a work shrouded in the murk and mist of pent-up emotion, Seva and his dancers certainly speak into the angered yet aspiring heart of the young. Again, his ‘weird’, hard-wired hip hop-meets-contemporary movement boldly pronounces the inner rage and frustrated passion of the young. And I mean this metaphorically and literally. For Seva’s company, Far From The Norm, is made up of some of the most talented, pyrotechnically proficient and emotionally eloquent dancers that I, for one, have ever seen. Dancers Victoria Shulungu, Joshua Nash, Jordan Douglas, Shangomola Edunjobi, Ezra Owen, not to mention Seva’s long term creative collaborators, artist and producer Lee Griffiths and composer Torben Lars Sylvest: – all shine and lend their own felt, embodied experiences to the piece to produce a raw, honest portrait of a rage-against-the-machine generation. Their talent for telling emotionally driven stories through dance is testimony to understanding that today’s young are not hopelessly in crisis, but ever-desirous of speaking up about the nightmarish realities around them, as well as living out their dreams. Back in October 2018, watching Seva’s company perform was like a kick to the chest, a necessary wake-up call to confront such feelings in ourselves and the external factors fuelling them. Going after the one, pushing to save someone through dance was never more evident than at the end of ‘BLKDOG’, when Seva’s own recorded voice is heard. He reassures us ‘it’s ok’, ‘you’re ok’, ‘she’s ok’, ‘he’s ok,’ while one single dancer stands looking out to the audience.
Of course, Seva’s role as Guest Artistic Director of the National Youth Dance Company (NYDC) goes further in foregrounding the experiences of young people. If ‘BLKDOG’ was an efficacious expression of the hopes and fears of the young, then MADHEAD, a piece choreographed and conceived directly with NYDC dancers, sees the thoughts and feelings of today’s youth take centre stage. During the research and rehearsal phase of the piece, Seva was struck by how similar some of the issues were to those he had been working through as a teenager. ‘Past ideas are still relevant now. They touch on my own experiences, although unlike some of the young dancers I’m slightly more aware of the structures I was born into. During rehearsals I’ve noticed that the same issues are playing out, that a lot still hasn’t changed for young people. But there are also gradual shifts coming into play.’
I always wanted to do it, but I was surprised when they asked me. I was like; who, me?! I’m just some boy from Dagenham who loves dancing!
Then again, many of the dancers, whose ages range from 15-24, are simply enjoying the opportunity to work with Seva and his company. Seva, for his part, was surprised when asked to be the NYDC Guest Artistic Director. Many of those who held the position before are world renowned choreographers who he’s looked up to throughout his own career. Akram Kahn, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Jasmin Vardimon and Sharon Eyal are just a few of those to hold the position before him. Humbled and grateful to keep company with this impressive roster of choreographers, Seva’s immediate response was still one of shock: ‘I always wanted to do it, but I was surprised when they asked me. I was like; who, me?! I’m just some boy from Dagenham who loves dancing!’ I chuckle when he says this, not least because he certainly deserves to join that prestigious line up of artists. But also, his being the dance-loving boy from Dagenham is precisely why he’s perfect for the role. Aside from his considerable talent, Seva knows what it’s like to be passionate about dance to the extent where every aspect of life is filled with a dance-related class, event, meeting, competition and choreographed move. It takes the boy from Dagenham – the incredibly talented, hard-working dancer from a single parent background who once felt disconnected from comprehensive education to ‘get’ this equally gifted, diverse group of dancers. It takes the happy-go-lucky East End lad bopping around the heartlands of central London to inspire the next generation.
Seva’s background, his journey of enviable natural skill mixed with hard graft, is another reason why he’s the man for the job. NYDC hold Experience Workshops (sessions where students can learn about NYDC repertoire, ask questions about the company and find out how to join for the next cohort) all over the country and accept dancers with varied abilities, some of whom have little-to-no experience of formal training. Seva, who never attended a dance conservatoire and decided after a year that a degree wasn’t for him, proves that there are other ways into the dance world. NYDC opens the door for young people; it gives them an invaluable insight into how companies work as well as the means to find future career opportunities. Added to this is Seva’s own insistence on creating an environment where students feel safe to explore their abilities; a space where they feel supported, but energised. He may have a vision as a choreographer, but he’s not there to be this god-like authority in the room and control the dancers. This ethos extends to his work with Far From The Norm and other companies. ‘It’s not about ego, it’s about keeping it real, respecting each other and the work, and remaining humble’, Seva asserts. When working with NYDC, he knows it’s a reciprocal relationship of respect and learning. ‘I’m a permanent student; I’m just like the students, but with more experience,’ Seva insists. ‘I’m there to give back. It’s not about ego or getting carried away as an artist. This role is a challenge and a huge responsibility – and I didn’t get this kind of opportunity as a young person myself, but I want to do my best by them.’
What is more, Seva knows that if he wants to see change in the world, he has to be it first. He’s ambivalent about being a role model, especially a black role model – ‘I never was the “black dance man”, but people see and read into my work what they want to.’ At the same time, he’s aware that young people, especially young men and women of colour, need role models; they need to see someone who looks like them get through the door and onto national and international stages. ‘I’m a dancer, an art maker first and foremost with a message to deliver, but I do recognise the need for black role models in the dance world, as there just aren’t enough.’ Aside from Adigun, Ivan Blackstock, Jonzi D, Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante and Vicki Igbokwe are some of the other dance names that give hope to young people; who, like Seva, send a message that ‘you belong here; you have a right to be here’. I suggest that Seva’s attitude to a lack of diversity and inclusion in dance is in line with what the artist Sonia Boyce has said in the past about institutional racism in the art world: that we need to continue to discuss such inequalities and push for change, but not to the detriment of looking at, appreciating and learning from the art made by artists of colour today. The focus must go back to the art, because that’s where change lies too. Seva agrees with this, but adds that change will only happen if individuals, as well as institutions, take greater risks, whether that be in choices of repertoire or who is commissioned and invited to perform. For isn’t dance supposed to take us of our comfort zones, to help us aspire for more? Shouldn’t it, to an extent, try to imagine on stage the changes we want to see in the wider world? Thinking back on Seva’s incredible story, it’s apparent who we must look to for an example of change and hope. It’s the boy from Dagenham and others like him, the ones who dare to dream and risk and dance their way around the East End and all the way out of it, that we should be looking to, spotlighting and applauding. After all, as Seva says, it starts with the one.
Botis Seva and National Youth Dance Company’s MADHEAD will be performed around the country from the 20th April to 19th July. Click on the link for further information about the production at each venue: Dance East (Ipswich) 20th April, The House (Plymouth) 23 June, Dance City (Newcastle) 29 June, Saffron Hall (Essex), Brighton Dome (Brighton) 15 July, Patrick Centre (Birmingham) 17 July, Sadler’s Wells (London) 19 July (tickets go on sale for this venue on 15th April).
Lucy Writers would like to thank Botis Seva, Chelsea Robinson and Alicia Powell for making this interview happen.