At the beginning of 2020, Dickson Mbi previewed his new work Enowate at the Jerwood DanceHouse to a sold-out audience, he then gave a down to earth post show talk which made our audiences love him even more.
We hope to have Dickson back in the theatre soon but, in the meantime, we wanted to catch up with him to find out how he’s been and talk more about his experiences. If you’re an aspiring dance artist, this is definitely one for you – so, grab a cup of tea and read our humble interview with Dickson to get an insight into a career within the dance industry.
Hi Dickson, it seems like ages since you were last at DanceEast but it was only the beginning of this year! How have you been, have you managed to keep dancing through?
It’s been quite hard but I think it’s hard for everybody. So, I’m just taking it step by step and trying to stay positive. Still dancing, yeah, I don’t think I could stop! It’s just hard to find motivation to do things. At the beginning of lockdown, I was like “I’m going to do so much, I’ve never had this time before, I’m going to make the most of it.” But you get two weeks in and you’re like – mmm… I can’t carry on like this. It’s just getting the motivation – you know what you should do, it’s just doing it. So, I’ve been cooking a lot, eating a lot, getting a bit blobby! How about you?
I’m good, thank you, itching to get back to how things were, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen any time soon. You were doing online popping classes at the beginning, weren’t you?
At the beginning it was great – it was lovely. A lot of people were engaging, but then I just felt like I was entertaining people. You had to be like “Guys, did you get it? Give me a thumbs up!” and like, I don’t teach like that normally. But you have to do that because you’re trying to make people all vibey, but you’re not vibey yourself. And it drains you – a lot. So, I said sorry mate, I don’t mind being broke – my mental health is more important to me.
Your mental health should come first, you’re right. We wanted to talk with you today about your experiences in the dance industry, gaining an insight from your perspective, but to start with we want to know a bit more about you. So, who inspired you when you were young and why?
When I was younger my parents inspired me a lot, but I think I was also inspired by what they were into – like music and dance. Dance wasn’t something like a career you know – it was just something we did. And that led to artists like Michael Jackson, and he was THE person that everyone wanted to be where I grew up. Michael Jackson and my parents, growing up, that was it. They were the people that really inspired me and made me want to believe in myself.
And would you say they’re still your inspiration now?
Definitely – my parents are my hero’s, you know? They’re ethnic minorities, moved to England and worked hard to feed five kids. My mum and dad man, but still Michael Jackson to this day – probably because I come from the popping world, and he was taught by my teachers. It’s kind of weird, I was inspired by this person when I was younger, and then I got into dance and ended up being taught by the same teachers. And I’ve danced for so many different artists but I’m never star struck, but I know that if I did meet Michael Jackson I’d probably fall on the floor, I’d be crying. There was one show I saw on TV and he just stood still for like five minutes and everyone was screaming and crying, and I thought oh my god, if I had that!
He did have a powerful presence. Can you tell us more about someone you admire?
That’s a big question because I admire a lot of people, you know? There’s a lot of people who are my peers and it would be unfair to mention one and not the others. I admire a lot of my contemporaries and I admire a lot of the people who came before me because they paved the way for me to be able to do what I’m doing, as a Black artist, in the world that we’re in. I admire all the work and struggle they had to go through. I’m not saying that we don’t have struggles now, or have those discriminations against us, but I feel like it’s not as hard now as it was back then – so I admire all that hard work.
And in terms of admiration of art right now, apart from my contemporaries, I admire loads of musicians. You know when you hear a musician or singer who makes you feel a certain way? I guess what I’d like to say is that I admire the people who aren’t scared to be themselves. Whether they’re my contemporaries or anyone.
Absolutely. You might find this question hard to answer too then – as the world celebrates Black History Month, I wondered is there a Black artist you wish the world knew more about?
There’s so many, it’s hard to pick! There’s a lot of artists, and it would just be good if the world paid attention – there’s just so many!
It is a hard question, don’t worry – let’s talk more about your experiences. When did you first know you wanted a career in dance?
I think I was 19, or 18. It was like 2005, and I started dancing because I like girls. I took a class at Pineapple Studios but I wasn’t good at picking up the routines and I walked out, and in walking out I met a group of guys outside and these guys, they shaped me. My crew, they’re called IP which stands for Immigration Poppers because most of us weren’t quintessentially British and those guys really shaped my development as an artist.
But I didn’t really know I wanted to dance professionally until I met a teacher called Stuart Thomas. He said to me I needed to take it seriously and go to a dance school. And for me, going to a dance school, it’s not a thing – I’m from east London, I’m from the streets or whatever you want to call it. I do popping – you don’t go to dance school – you just dance, you just practice. And when I told my mum and dad I wanted to do that, the idea of being a dancer wasn’t what they knew – it was to be a lawyer, a doctor, all those things were the jobs to have – but a dancer? That’s not normal. So that was difficult, but Stuart Thomas told me to go to a class that his friend was teaching and when I got there it was an audition for Lewisham College, and I didn’t even know! But I had so much ego as well, when I walked in and saw so many people that I knew, I just didn’t want to walk out – my ego was so strong. So, I stayed any way and somehow, I did it – it was the first time I had done ballet as well, and they offered me a place. So, I had to quit my job as an IT Technician to go to Lewisham College which was a big change.
So yeah, I would say Stuart Thomas was the one who planted that seed really. I was just doing it for fun and I didn’t aspire to do what I’m doing now. I think I feel fulfilled that this is what I do. I just feel something in my heart, and in my chest, I just know this is what it is for me. I feel like I can express myself in a specific way that’s true to myself.
And your movement style is quite unique – how would you describe it?
I’m heavily involved in the street dance world, and I went to contemporary dance school, so I’m heavily involved with the contemporary dance world – but I wouldn’t say I’m blending them. I’m just being me. It’s like taking two colours you know; you take blue, and yellow, and you get green – I’m green. You don’t look at green and say it’s a mix of blue and yellow, you just say it’s green – you know what I mean? So, I’m green – what I do is Dicksonism – it’s just me.
I think a lot of theatres and places try to market you in a specific way to get a certain crowd. But I believe what I do is for everyone – it’s not for a specific group. I have been influenced by the people I’ve worked with but I really try not to do what others are already doing. I work on expressing myself in a different way so I say okay, how can a non-dancer relate to this? How can I make something so mundane look special? One of my last performances that I did at DanceEast, one of my mates came along and he goes, ‘I can do that, you’re just bending over mate’ – and that is it, for me, that’s it. I do it for anyone and everyone.
Okay, this is a tricky one – so, you perform, you create, and you teach – how would you describe your experiences so far in three words?
Hmm… Educative – because I feel like I’m learning all the time. Fun and I think really deep.
Yeah, my experiences are really deep sometimes. I think that’s important – to have those difficult conversations, and in that you learn something about each other, you get to know them, and then you can relax and have fun.
I try my hardest not to let anyone feel left out, whoever they are, because I’ve experienced it as a Black artist, and I really work on that, to not let them feel like they don’t belong here and that they’re different from anyone else. Yeah, you are different, but it’s okay to be different and we just keep it moving mate – you know what I mean?
I do, can you elaborate more on your experiences – any challenging moments and how you’ve overcome them?
Sometimes the challenge is not being accepted for who you are. I think it was like 2012, I did a premiere of Russell Maliphant’s piece, The Rodin Project and there was this critic, she slated me. Literally, she crucified me. It was the way she said it. I don’t mind being ripped; you know I’m from East London. You grow up with people cussing you and you cuss back, and you get a tough skin. But it sounded like she was saying she was above me, and a bit snobbish. That was challenging for me to take and I remember thinking, well hang on a minute mate, it’s not like I didn’t go to school and didn’t train. I might not be doing what you expect of a “real” dancer, or a contemporary dancer, because you haven’t seen me before – and it felt like she was letting me know how it works. I didn’t pay much attention to it. But it was hard actually, at the beginning. I felt like those sorts of energies of being around some theatres and people when you meet them, and you look different and walk different and speak different, and the way people look at you. So those prejudices are challenging but when people speak to you and get to know you a bit they change – it’s ignorance really. And that’s the challenge – and I think it won’t stop, it’s the world we live in. But a good thing is more people are aware of it, and things are moving on, the next generation are working on a better environment for everybody.
What about any favourite moments so far?
I don’t think I’ve had one yet – I’m really lucky to be doing what I’m doing, you know? Remember I had a normal job before, I was an IT Technician. So, for me to be doing this is like, woah! To be paid to do what I love! I’m on cloud nine all the time.
But some moments have been cool – like I’ve been nominated for some awards or been awarded certain things – those things make you feel good. You feel like you’re doing great things, but it doesn’t make me lose my hunger for what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. It’s a good way to show people who you are, who might not know you otherwise.
I bet it’s reassuring too, especially after moments like you mentioned with the critic.
Yeah, by the way that critic commented back in 2015 saying that “Dickson is the most amazing dancer” and I thought hang on a minute – do you remember 2012 mate? But I think what it is, is when you’re new and people don’t know you – sometimes you’re too much for someone to take, and they might not be used to how you express things. It’s like eating marmite, you’re like what is that? Then after a while you’re like, I kind of get it! It’s not my favourite thing, it’s different, but I can work with it.
That’s a great analogy! Is there anything you wish more people knew about the dance industry, whether that’s an aspiring artist or someone who’s not experienced dance before?
If we’re talking aspiring artists or dancers, I think there’s a lot. Authenticity and being yourself is really important. Rather than changing to tick a box because a teacher would give you a better mark, or to move ahead, or to get in a company – you start to lose who you are. I guess for me, after my first year at The Place Russell Maliphant saw me do an improv and invited me to join his company. I ended up just learning on the job. He always championed what made me different and my uniqueness. So, I wish for aspiring artists to know that it’s okay to be yourself.
In terms of normal people, I feel like everyone should know that dance can be a career. You don’t have to work in a restaurant for example, if you want more.
What do you think is the next positive step for the dance industry, and how do you believe we can get there?
This is a big one. I think it’s hard because every sector has its own culture. Like the word BAME, I find that really strange because it’s putting Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities in one box. But for example, there’s African-Black, Caribbean-Black, Australian-Black – there’s so many different cultures, and countries they come from – some of them speak French, some of them speak Dutch. But everyone is all grouped into one box. And that’s what I think it is, there’s so many different cultures and they need to be championed. Sometimes that doesn’t happen.
How do we do it? I don’t know. Raising awareness is one – and having opportunities. Theatres, venues, museums, art spaces need to let people be themselves and support that – and if it’s not for you, it’s not for you – but you’ve got to give those people a chance and an opportunity. I don’t have the answers, but I think that is something that could help. It’s easy for people to say we need to come together, and unite but it’s like, you don’t know what I’ve been through, you don’t know my experiences. So, if I’m coming across frustrated about certain things and you don’t understand why, it’s because you can’t relate. Does that make sense?
Absolutely, I think it’s like what you said earlier – it’s starting by having those conversations and celebrating the differences between people.
And do you know what the best thing is though? Doing that will actually bring people together. I do a lot of meditation, and one of the tutors told me to be selfish. And I was like, what? They said you need to be selfish about what you choose to do and that helps everyone understand who you are. It’s like, you’re really doing what you do and how you do it, and you appreciate yourself. It would be better if everyone was like that instead of trying to please everyone all the time. When you’re trying to please everyone, you’re not doing you. But if you stay true to yourself, you learn who works well on your level.
That is great advice. Can you tell us what’s next for you?
At this moment in time, I’m currently working on getting fitter because of the pandemic I’ve been at home, eating a lot, cooking a lot… but what’s coming up next for me is the piece Enowate that’s going to be at DanceEast – I start rehearsals next week! That’s really soon, so you know, I got a couple of days to get fit.
Then after DanceEast I’m going to Hong Kong for another commission at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. So yeah, that’s what is next for me and I’m working hard on it – and hopefully everyone will enjoy it. That’s it really, not too much, just little bits and bobs.
Thank you for taking the time catch up with us today, before we go, is there anything else you’d like to share?
I think what’s really important now is that everyone needs to take time for yourself. Put yourself first. That’s really, really important. I know for me, I’ve been focussing on my career, I wasn’t in the country for 7 years on the trot, I was in London, in my home for a month, a year. This is the longest I’ve been at home. And I’ve learnt a lot about myself, and I’ve got closer to my family, you know? So those things are really important, not to lose sense of family and friends. And yeah – that’s all.
Actually, something to add is my new website is going to be out next week, it’s going to have lots of content on it so if you want to find out more about what I do. You can contact me for classes too, private classes please, I can’t do this zoom thing. But yeah – new website, out next week!