MADHEAD is the latest phenomenal dance production to come from Olivier Award-winning choreographer, Botis Seva, in collaboration with dancers from the National Youth Dance Company. Here, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou discusses its themes of generational (dis-)connection, inner conflict and the power of young people.
The boy stands, stares at the camera, a black and white version of himself. His dark gym top indistinguishable but for a single Nike tick. He hovers near the far end of a hall, the doors behind him of no consequence, as he continues to hold our gaze. The frame flicks; another still, another boy, though this one is ten years older, taller, less dwarfed by the emptiness of the room. The smaller boy morphs into the taller one; the taller boy shrinks into the smaller one. For a brief second they are one and the same, despite their difference in age. Shadows of their former / future selves; the inner child to the outer man.
This is how Ben Williams’ brilliant short film begins. Essentially an introduction to this year’s National Youth Dance Company (NYDC) cohort and their phenomenal production, MADHEAD, choreographed by Botis Seva, Williams’ film immediately gestures to one of the key themes of the piece: generational connection and communication. Our boy, Sekou Diaby from London, is just 17; our man, Botis Seva, also from London, is just shy of 28. Ten years is enough to place an irremovable wedge between them; it is enough time to allow experience to estrange one from the other, to sever the child from the adult, to turn the boy against the man and vice versa. But that’s not how Diaby and Seva play it – or how Williams’ sees it. For it is Diaby’s voice we first hear, played over the shot of the choreographer; and it is Seva who respectfully and thoughtfully listens. Once they’re seated, Seva turns towards the dancer, giving him his full attention. Diaby’s voice, as his break dancing will show later in the film, is quietly confident, vulnerable but laced with pride to be working with Seva. Shoulder to shoulder they sit, an equal exchange between two generations, one that honours their differences as much as their similarities.
‘I remember that thing you said about oranges and then bananas or something,’ Diaby says to Seva. They both look at each other, cheeky grins spread over their faces. Seva waits for him to finish. ‘Everyone wanted you to make bananas, but you made oranges. And no one wanted oranges, but you just kept on making oranges. And now everyone wants oranges. So, I respect that a lot.’ Seva smiles, knowingly. His analogy speaks of the difficulties creatives still face today: institutional biases and barriers, the perseverance required to continue making art, the loneliness and pain of not being understood or encouraged when attempting to realise one’s artistic vision. But for Diaby, the analogy typifies Seva’s integrity and commitment to his craft. It presents a portrait of another young man who has struggled and strived and succeeded by forging his own way in the dance world. Seva’s analogy – or rather his entire story – says you can do this too.
Diaby is not the only one who ‘respects’ it though. Several other dancers from NYDC feel the same towards Seva and his assistants, the formidable Far From The Norm (FFTN) artists Jordan Douglas, Joshua Nash, Ezra Owen and Victoria Shulungu. Dancer James Hall felt ‘empowered’ and ‘inspired’ by watching and working with Far From The Norm; equally Selako Jade Ackuaku felt more ‘aggressive’ and ‘confident’ in herself, that she could do anything should she ‘put enough attack in it’. These words, spoken by many of the dancers when seated next to a Far From The Norm member, are not obligatory praise or the verbal equivalent of an evaluation form handed in to company directors. They are considered, honest, even heart-felt responses, indicative of the demanding but evidently empowering process the dancers have experienced whilst working with Seva and his company.
But this sense of inspiration hasn’t been all one-sided. Seva and the Far From The Norm artists have also reaped from the partnership. Jordan Douglas, a core member of FFTN since 2014, describes feeling energised when working with the NYDC dancers. For him, this cohort has ‘reinvigorated a youthful feeling and a hunger’ to dance. Victoria Shulungu, another original FFTN artist, similarly observes the working relationship between the dancers to be one of reciprocity; of mutual respect and engagement: ‘we learn something new from each other,’ she proudly asserts. Each dancer will interpret movement differently, but for Shulungu this isn’t cause for concern but actually where the rich potential of dance opens up and ideas begin to ‘spark’.
The power and joy of collaboration is right at the heart of Far From The Norm and Seva’s practise. When watching a rehearsal and development session for his Olivier Award-winning piece, BLKDOG, commissioned by Sadler’s Wells last year for their twentieth anniversary, it is evident how much Seva literally gets into the work with his company. He is there, in the midst of the group, not so much dictating but immersing himself in their movement, in their understanding of his gestures and motifs, and looking for ‘the gold’ as he puts it. Meanwhile the dancers respond to the sounds and beats he calls out (not so much a count); they’re responsive to a rhythm that makes sense to them all. The FFTN dancers chat and whisper to each other, and laugh at themselves when trying to get a move or if they miss a cue: consummate professionals they also know how to have a good time. ‘This is not just dance for us,’ Shulungu eloquently explains during the Q&A, ‘we’re family; we’re not trying to impress the choreographer or upstage anyone. We enjoy being with each other.’
This is exactly what comes to the fore in Williams’ video of NYDC and Seva’s production of MADHEAD. This notion of ‘family’ – of belonging to each other and therefore supporting, nurturing and learning from one another during the year-long rehearsal process – has resulted in a piece as rich for its choreographic detail and gravitas as its honouring of the youth and energy of NYDC’s dance talent. We see it when Seva is weaving in and out of the dancers, participating in, as well as forming, their focused formation. We also see it when the dancers are laughing around, doing trust exercises: falling into their partners’ arms and then clambering onto each other’s backs, the exuberance of teen life is beautifully and unrestrainedly on show. If there’s anything that Seva and his company have taught the NYDC dancers, it’s that a professional company is also another kind of home, another kind of space to co-create, to harness the potential of the collective not just the individual; it’s a safe locus from which to explore, experiment, be daring but also to celebrate what each member brings to the table – and they bring so much (NYDC dancers, aged 16-24, come from all around the UK and have trained in a broad range of dance disciplines). As Seva says towards the end of Williams’ film, the dancers give him ‘a lot’: ‘watching the young dancers, they just want to push and do everything…that for me is humbling, because it makes me feel like I have to work extra hard…’
MADHEAD not only speaks into (inter-)generational relationships, but celebrates this mix of youthful desire and discipline. Sections where part of the ensemble unite into an army-like formation and energy is contained and channelled through tight, concentrated gestures are interspersed with more explosive, rip-roaring movement that sees dancers bounding around the stage and literally falling off its edge – a visceral and violent backlash against the more regimented mind-set and moves. Nevertheless, MADHEAD finds its impetus in a place of sharp regimentation, of sophisticated focused manoeuvres almost bolted down to the floor. A battalion of dancers are stationed stage left, imperceptible in darkness and khaki green uniforms, crouching low to the ground. A solitary figure dressed in navy appears and touches one of the inert dancers, triggering a spring and setting all in motion. Less toy soldiers than a highly sensitized squad preparing for mortal combat, the green-clad figures move as one, a tight hermetically-sealed unit scaling the stage, impervious to the audience. Crawling and sliding across the floor, their weight is always pulled downwards, whilst their upper body attempts to reach up.
This miring of the lower-half of the body in the ground is reminiscent of BLKDOG, where figures lay recumbent in the stage space, anchored by the heaviness of their own forms, moored in the murky after-light of depression. But in MADHEAD, it isn’t so much depression that holds the figures down, but the demands of the drill itself. Propelled forward – and Torben Lars Sylvest’s epic score re-enacts this with the sound of an actual propeller mid take-off – the dancers veer upwards, performing micro-rebellious actions to break out from the confining configuration. When the dancers are finally on their feet, movement is still delivered with bent knees, gesturing to the depth from which they’ve forcefully risen up.
If this sounds like a dystopic vision, one where the body is trained into near-defeating submission, then rest assured MADHEAD is shot through with searing hope. That’s not to dilute Seva’s vision – which, aside from his own experiences, is one influenced by programmes like Black Mirror. Yet for me hope steals in like the shining underside of a dark storm cloud; a promise of relief after the thunderous tumult. Hope is there as the figures rear up and fragment into a criss-crossing of meticulously and cleanly delivered gestures, subtle twists and turns of the head, hands and upper torso. At one point the dancers saunter across the stage, their upper bodies open, the movement led by the hips, capturing the boasting swag and bounce of a general. Hope is there in the guttural grunts and beatings of the chest to relieve tension, to call out, to rightfully rage or rile up from frustration. Hope is there, because the concentration, professionalism and embodiment of tense emotions, all of which these young dancers assume on stage, is a staggering sight.
Despite both the closed collectivism and impressive boxed-in individualism (literalised by Adam Carré’s atmospheric lighting) evinced in the section, this is the point Seva is making. The commitment shown by these dancers to such rigorous and intense movement is a kind of hope and most definitely a form of power. But in relation to the reality of the piece, no drill, no imposed order or expectation of conformity will ever kill the desire to rise up, break out and rewrite the language of warfare in a bid to signal peace. Dubbed ‘Warhead’ during the rehearsal process, this section could easily represent an enforced mental state of repression, but equally it brings to mind an era of trench warfare – a different kind of slaughter of the innocents – or freedom fighting, gorilla operations and strategic cold war attack. We should be loath to pin a specific political event onto ‘Warhead’ or, indeed, the entirety of MADHEAD, but the warring or war-ready state that Seva is preoccupied with is one that takes root in the mind.
Watching this first section, Seva’s words echo throughout. He’s right: young people are hungry to push themselves beyond what they already know and have been taught to do (the NYDC participated in a boot camp to build up their stamina for this performance). They have the ability to continually push against social expectations and regulations; they are always restlessly seeking what’s beyond the line of acceptability and permissibility, verging into untrodden territory to create new worlds away from the mess of the old one and the mistakes of generations past. As Seva states to the camera in Williams’ film, ‘they are the future’.
But there’s a twist to this logic and understanding of generational interaction in the piece. To my eye, with each successive section comes an evolution, a crossing over where one generation shifts and slides into the next but with a nod to its predecessors. The bridge between ‘Warhead’ and the second section, ‘Oldhead’, is a subsection where sticks are employed both as rifles and walking aids, thus blurring the intergenerational gap. One minute the figures take aim at an invisible target, using the sticks like a sniper’s rifle, popping with Sylvest’s knife-clashing, trigger-flicking textured soundscape; the next they are doubled over, elderly figures wearily nodding their heads and leaning on their walking sticks for support. This age-shifting, genre-tipping motif occurs in the subsequent sections, again reiterating the generational changes and exchanges Seva hints at. Gun-wielding youth, high off the live action danger of it all, instantly folds into near-crippled agedness, intolerant and uncomprehending of the world. The young of yesterday become the elderly of today. Nodding their heads, these tired old figures wag their fingers and shush their former selves. Then, they snap back into gun-wielding youth, patrolling the surrounding space.
Parallels have been drawn with knife crime and, in light of recent white supremacist terrorism in the US, allusions to gun violence can also be made. But Seva neither confirms or denies that this is behind his thinking. Rather the gun-cum-walking stick motif highlights the quick transition from young to old, past to future, kid to man and back again. The weaponisation of an object seemingly benign is designed to make us ask questions. Look at how quickly the old are to dismiss the young, Seva says; look at how quickly divisions are laid between the generations. The difference between youth and old age is the width of a walking stick.
The second section, ‘Oldhead’, continues with the grid-like configuration of synchronised bodies, but goes further in its emphasis on generational division. Instead of army-inspired khaki wear, the dancers don navy industrialised shirts and trousers. Ryan Dawson-Laight’s subtle but astute sense of design suggests an age of fast-paced mass production (the costumes are made up of different shades of denim); an age where people are expected to conduct themselves with the rapidity of a machine. The dancers of ‘Oldhead’ are, therefore, an upgrade of those found in ‘Warhead’. They’re the next generation of fighters, gunless but torpedo-like in their fast, compact and precise actions. They repeat steps from ‘Warhead’ – particularly the punching of one’s chest and the open strut – but at a totally different speed and with a comparatively upright frame. Sharp sequences of martial art-style movement are juxtaposed with solos of vibrant spontaneity – colourful bursts of freedom improvised amidst a controlled circuit of collectivisation. At another point, dancers march on and turn cartoon-like, giving a thumbs up to the audience, an allusion to the automated language and digitised signs we universally trade in irrespective of one’s private mood. A ‘thumbs up’, a ‘like’, a ‘heart’; in itself it’s a kind of absurd performance (of anarchy? Submission?), a glitch of communication breaching the automatized mode again.
The third section, aptly titled ‘Madhead’, disposes of such programmed movement. It is a riotous backlash against any kind of pre-programmed order or formalised behaviour. Seva cranks the energy up, opens the back of the stage with light (think buzzing flood lights on a dark night), and has his dancers bound in with sheer unadulterated energy and emotion. But before any fireworks go off, Diaby stands on stage, confrontational, hand down his trousers, staring the audience out. It’s a stand-off we weren’t expecting, one that grows in size and strength, as more young people cluster around him. It’s better than any portrait that Larry Clark or Noel Clarke could offer; these young people radiate strength, brim with aggressive force, anarchic passion and an unquenchable thirst for life. You can almost hear them sing, along with Kurt Cobain, ‘here we are now, entertain us’. It’s a snapshot that encapsulates the entire piece: all has been developing to this image. Together they stand united, then they disperse, greet each other roughly, jeer each other on and explode as one on stage, trailing and jumping off the sides with uncontained teen spirit.
“Gangs”, “mobs”, “hoodlums”, “street rats”, “hooligans”, “wastrels”, “yobs”, “troublemakers”, “chavs”, “ruffians”, “thugs”, “vandals”, “rebels”: the list is endless when it comes to derogatory labels used to describe groups of young people – or even lone individuals. ‘Madhead’ was one such term hurled at a rebellious Seva when he was a teen ‘throwing around tables’ at school. Here, on Sadler’s Wells’ stage, Seva has the last laugh with the label and throws it back at dismissive, unsupportive adults. There’s reason in the madness, he says; this is the creativity contained in the “mad” heads of young people then, as well as today. Through MADHEAD he subverts the negative connotations of such a term – and, quite possibly, all such terms as ‘gang’, ‘mob’, ‘vandals’, etc. And as Seva has continually said in his interviews, such issues and miss-relations are cyclical. His experience of being unnoticed, stigmatised and misunderstood at school, of having his behaviour branded as problematic, occurs again and again for young people today. In a world where “rebels” like Greta Thunberg can be called ‘disturbing’ by the right-wing press and Malala Yousafzai can be shot for speaking up about young women’s educational rights, labels matter. Language can hurt – but it can also empower. MADHEAD therefore heals where the term previously scalded.
Critics have rushed to pin a label on Seva’s unique aesthetic. ‘Hip hop contemporary’ cries one; ‘contemporary infused hip hop dance theatre’ categorises another. This is precisely the kind of pigeon-holing Seva also decries. His background will always be hip hop, but his unique, eclectic, all-encompassing and ever-powerful language dashes all such narrow categorisation to the ground. Besides, Seva’s more concerned with giving the floor to all the brilliant “madheads” of today and tomorrow; letting them shine in all their madcap, indefinable brilliance. For me, MADHEAD comes from the same incredible, enchanted tree as all his previous work; that is, to echo Diaby’s words in Williams’ film, this is one ‘orange’ we will always be wanting more of.
MADHEAD was performed by the National Youth Dance Company at Sadler’s Wells on 19th July. Follow Ben Williams on Instagram here. Find out all the latest news from NYDC and Far From The Norm by clicking the links in the article or following them here: NYDC Instagram and Twitter; Far From The Norm Instagram and Twitter.
Lucy Writers and Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou would like to thank Chelsea Robinson, Sadler’s Wells and all at Far From The Norm for allowing us to see and write about MADHEAD.