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Dickson Mbi and Farooq Chaudhry tell us more about Enowate and what’s next.

19 Feb 2021

“The creative process is as much about destruction as it is about creation.” – Farooq Chaudhry

In an alternate universe, Dickson Mbi would have been premiering Enowate at the Jerwood DanceHouse on Friday 19 February.

As we’re still unable to open to the public and host performances in our theatre, we wanted to commemorate what would have been our first performance of the year, and Dickson’s premiere. Brendan Keaney, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of DanceEast, caught up with Dickson Mbi (Choreographer and Dance Artist) and Farooq Chaudhry (Producer) on the journey of Enowate, Dickson’s solo performance which previewed at DanceEast in Spring 2020.

We hope to welcome Dickson back to the theatre soon, but until then, enjoy this heart-warming conversation between artists and friends.

We might not be able to host performances in our theatre, but we have got some great online screenings coming soon! Click here to see what’s coming up next!

Prefer to read? You can find the conversation transcribed below!

Brendan: Welcome Dickson, welcome Farooq to DanceEast. This wasn’t how we imagined this week was going to be, we had hoped that this piece that you’re working on in the theatre here at DanceEast would be being presented to the public tomorrow evening actually, but as it turns out we’re doing a production week here and we’re doing something different with it. But for those people who don’t know who you are perhaps you could tell us a little bit about who you are. I’m going to start with you Dickson, you’re the Choreographer.

Dickson: Yeah, so my name is Dickson, I’m from East London, I’m the Choreographer and Dance Artist.

Brendan: Yeah, and a little bit about your history.

Dickson: Yes, I was born in Cameroon, but I grew up in in East London, started dancing at the age of 18/19 because I like girls and that led me on to do what I’m doing now I never thought I’d be a professional Dancer or Choreographer. I worked with several choreographers in the UK and in Europe and overseas.

Brendan: And you work in contemporary dance, but you didn’t come from a contemporary dance background did you?

Dickson: Yeah, I don’t really work in contemporary dance you know, I work in street dance but yeah, my first dance style or first love, still my first love today is poppin, street dance form, which I’m heavily involved in still. I run a, I don’t want to call it a mentorship programme, but I run a programme where we give back to the next generation, so we teach them popping, myself and my dance partner, Brooke Milliner. So yeah, popping is my thing, but contemporary dance is also another avenue of mine which I feel like I can express myself, or the vulnerability of myself, in a specific way which I can’t really do in popping. Popping mate, it’s all about virtuosity you know I mean you gotta explode, gotta have presence, you just carry yourself in a different way and I think with contemporary dance it allows me to show that but also show another side of me which is something I’m really enjoying, and I’m just working out what that means for me in both worlds.

Brendan: Just one last quick question, you’ve talked about choreographers you work with, who might some of the people watching this know?

Dickson: I guess for me you know there’s a lot of them, but I think the person that made the biggest impact for me is Russell Maliphant because he, I don’t wanna say took me out of school, but you know he offered me a job when I was still in my first year at The Place and then I joined him and I worked with him on and off for eight years, and a lot of the choreographic ways of thinking and how to look at the body, how to look at flow, how to think of movement, a lot of it comes from Russell. And of course you know, I went back to The Place and did a masters in choreography just to understand what I’m doing, you know what I mean? But that experience of you know education working with Russell really helped me, and even the way I think about lighting and talk to the lighting designer about loads of different things a lot of it comes with what the movement is saying as well, rather than you know, just do a piece of dance and then on the last day you just put light on it. I think it’s an ongoing conversation, I think that’s one of the things I learned from Russell as well.

Brendan: That’s great, I’m going to go over to you Farooq, I’ve known you a few years now.

Farooq: You have yeah, we’ve known each other a long time.

Brendan: But for those people who don’t know you, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about your background and you’re the Producer basically here aren’t you?

Farooq: Yeah, well producer, entrepreneur, collaborator, dramaturg, the whole thing.

Brendan: You’re the impresario.

Farooq: Well, I guess so, that sounds a bit grand. No, really though, I’m here to help Dickson get the best out of the work. You know whatever you call me to do that I’m happy to accept it. But who I am, well if I’m going to be all about where I come from London, I’m from North London, my name is Farooq, I was born in Pakistan, not born in England, and raised here. Came into dance quite late, like 21 when I was doing university, so I’m another late bloomer like Dickson, and then found myself on this beautiful journey of dancing and lots of different kind of areas like contemporary dance, opera, backing dancer for a pop tour, film, musical theatre, I did the lot. And then I retired at 38 and did a master’s degree in arts management, and after that I moved to London because I was living in Belgium working for a very famous dance company called Rosas, and then when I came to London I almost accidentally bumped into Akram Khan after Jonathan Burrows told me that he was dancing at Southbank. Met him and we had this fantastic connection and in 2000 we co-founded the Akram Khan Company. So, actually last year was our 20th anniversary, it’s amazing, and you were there right at the beginning Brendan, you were the one who first helped us get off the ground, when as you know for young artists it takes a lot of energy and belief and a circle of trust and love and good faith that allows artists to kind of flourish. So, what you’re doing for us here is a similar thing, it’s kind of a similar thing to what happened with Akram. So yeah, I’ve been a Producer, I didn’t call myself a Producer actually until 2006 because I didn’t know what I was and I don’t particularly care, but the most important thing, as I said, is I kind of conjure up circumstances in which the artists can make their very best work every single time. Someone gave me a really beautiful description of what a Producer is the other day – someone with an extremely warm heart but an extremely cold eye. So, why I’m here is to offer Dickson my warm heart and my cold eye in terms of developing the work.

Brendan: And some of your connections as well of course.

Farooq: Yeah of course, I mean over the years I’ve built a lot of connections, very dear friends you know, including yourself actually. But I’ve learned over the years it’s not just like you know ‘hey can you give me a gig?’ ‘You give me money’, connection is more meaningful than that, it’s about finding mutuality, about developing what’s happening at DanceEast in terms of your vision and making sure that what we do serves that as much as how much you guys do for serving artists who are kind of at a key turning point in their career. So, it’s about mutuality, it’s win-win, you know?

Brendan: Quite often people think of Producers of people who do the money, do the organization, but actually it’s much more than that isn’t it? It’s also about looking at the artistic product and you know it’s guiding the artistic principles as well isn’t it?

Farooq: Exactly it’s laying down the culture, the values, you know, every organization that wants to succeed has to develop a culture and a set of values in which that money and creativity flourishes. So the producers are really there to open that space and then to close the space by protecting it.

Brendan: Yeah, so we talked a little bit about each other, let’s talk a little bit about this piece because it’s been a while, and it’s been a while in gestation. Some of the lucky people in Ipswich saw a preview of some of the early material this time last year and we had hoped of course we were going to open tonight with the finished article. I think one thing people often don’t understand is just how long a project like this does actually take to get together, and how much work goes on, you know when you go into a theatre you don’t really realise just how much stuff’s happened. So, tell me a little bit about how it’s come about and where we’re up to and then we’ll go on to what happens next.

Dickson: I’ll let Farooq talk about that.

Farooq: No, no, Dickson, it’s something that sprung out of you, I think this work is probably the most personal work that Dickson’s done in terms of his career so far. I mean when I first met Dickson, what was it like 2017?

Dickson: Yeah 2017.

Farooq: Right and he had, you had a solo called Duende, a beautiful solo which really showcased your immense physical virtuosity and also your sensitivity, but we felt that as we were looking at that work as it was touring that there was another level you could go to, and Enowate was about arriving at this next level, and then developing a process which was going to take time, which was going to start with a work in progress, start with a collaborative team right from the beginning. Rather than, you make it up on your own and you get people to come in and add the lights and music. So, this is probably the most thorough and most expensive process you’ve done and we spent a long time talking about it before we even got to the studio because you know what it is you’re trying to find, it’s that thing which is most universal, is most personal, right? And so, we had to find the personal wellspring, the DNA of Dickson and start with that and that involved lots of conversations with you, with me, with Roger, with Lee and just to explore where we would begin, not where we want to end up, because that you’re never gonna know, right? But where you want to begin and what you want to preserve as you go through the process. So, now it’s like a year and a bit right?

Dickson: Yeah, I think to be honest this one is because when something is really personal, you care about it so much and it affects you a lot more deeper and also certain things like, so I don’t know certain things about my culture was one of those things that I was finding it quite hard to show as a performance because it’s – I don’t know if you can get this it’s like, I’m African but I’m also British, but when I go to Africa I’m not seen as African but when I’m here, I’m seen as African. So, there’s that confusion, so what am I then? I know who I am, and I know where I’m from, but also because I’m from East London, I’m from the West, there’s this sort of exactifying the way how Africa is, you know? So I guess one of those things was not to present that sort of energy in this world and as much as it is personal to me I’ve got to take a step out. So, that was a big challenge, and it’s still a challenge now because we’re stepping away from a lot of different elements which I think would work but it also would be misunderstood. Not just by the public, but also people from my culture or from my community, do you know what I mean? But those sorts of things have been really difficult to manage but, I’m lucky, I know I’ve got a great team, Farooq, you know they can step out and tell me ‘look mate you know that’s not happening’, Lee, Roger, but yeah. The stimulus came from the journey I went to in Cameroon in 2016. 2016 was the first time I went to the village that my parents were from, but I’ve never been there and I saw a two-headed snake, and I never even knew that existed and that threw me off. And then I saw a tiger in a funeral, a whole different thing you know, that was the weirdest thing, and you know my mum was like ‘don’t look at it in the eye you know, because you might challenge it’ I said ‘challenge it? What do you mean by that?’. You know what I mean? So, those sorts of things really affected me, but personally in my upbringing here in East London, I’ve always had this practice, animistic practice, you know I don’t have a religion like Christianity or Islamic religion and stuff like that. I always believe in different elements, you know like the buildings, the buildings have energy, water, all those sorts of things, I believe in. Even when I perform sometimes, I feel like when I’m on stage I’m not me, I’m something else, but I can see myself. I even get goosebumps doing what I’m doing on stage, I don’t know what’s happening to me – it’s so hard to explain. But when I went to Africa those things made sense to me because of everything that I experienced and I wanted to share it in a way I guess that’s personal to me, but also not express this culture in an exactifying way, but also keep the balance of who I am in East London as well as African. So, it’s a dilemma that I’m working with but I think it’s a good one that is really exciting.

Farooq: I mean just to add to that I mean, Enowate means ‘truth stands’, so already there’s the intention you know? But it’s like Dickson says and I know that, and I’ve experienced that with Akram, I like working with artists like Dickson who carry many worlds within them, it’s a richness but it’s also a complexity. As we know we’re living in a world where you know about racial equality and stuff and we try to simplify it but actually, it’s complex, because you know when you are carrying multiple worlds, multiple identities and you’re trying to converge them into a truthful representation of self, it is extremely difficult. However, I still believe that beautiful things happen when different worlds mix, that’s my motto right. So, what people don’t understand about the creating process, you don’t wake up like an epiphany and you go in and it just spills out and you’ve got something beautiful and then within six weeks you can put it on the stage. A lot of the time your creativity is craft and imagination and judgment and decision making and choices with people, and often what’s happening in that early stage is you’re pulling out the familiar, you’re pulling out what you will naturally obviously want to put out, but often that stuff ain’t really good, because it’s too close to you. And so, the first kind of year you’re putting stuff out and then you’re throwing it away, because that is kind of too predictable. And then you’re sifting through those little bits of what you’re throwing away, you’re finding these little nuggets of ideas and bits of gold, and you think ‘oh I think that is something, I’m kind of fascinated by, it’s me but I don’t understand it, how can I take this further?’ and I think you know you asked about why it takes so long, that’s what creative process is. It’s as much about destruction, as it is about creation.

Dickson: Yeah, I would agree with that, you know because the first things that we did, mate, even I was like ‘oh my god I can’t believe this is coming out of me’ but, it’s been good you know? I’ve learned a lot and I guess I think me as a person you know? Farooq challenges me a lot and but the whole team, they are asking a lot of questions of me that I don’t even have the answers, so I’m asking those questions, but then when I have an answer it gets challenged. And I like that because I don’t like yes men, or yes women, yes people, to just accept what I’m bringing forward and a lot of things get questions, things I can’t even see myself, because I’m in it.

Brendan: Now you talked about a team, and you used two names Roger and you talked about Lee, can you tell us a little bit about the rest of the team? Who else have been working on this with you?

Dickson: So, in this team you know, we have Lighting Designer Lee Curran, yeah he’s been in at the beginning of the process since the first, you know when we were here for the R&D process. Roger Goula is a Spanish composer, lives in London. So, I’ve worked with him for about three, four years now as well. Started with Duende and then we’ve done the Company of Elders at Sadler’s Wells together and we’re doing this, and I want to work with him for more years to come because I think he really understands my process, and I understand he’s his work. And then we’ve got Farooq of course, as you know, Farooq I think for me, I don’t just see him as a Creative Producer, he comes into the studio, he provides dramaturgy information that sometimes I don’t really think about, questions me a lot about loads of things, sometimes my brain is like ‘what is this guy saying?’. I don’t know what to call Farooq to be honest, but I feel like he’s an integral part of this, it’s a team. There’s Nick, Nick is such an important guy because after the R&D process we realised that we needed another element to this work so, we contacted Yeast Culture, Nick Hillel, so we’re putting some animations into part of the work and hope you will see it soon. It’s something that we’re really excited about and finishing touches are still happening. And then we have Kenny, Kenny and I, we go way back you know, we’re both from the street dance culture, he used to be a b-boy before we went to The Place together before I left. So, we’ve been working together for 10 or so years, he’s really important because he acts like my body, you know some people you just do something and they can just do what you do? You don’t have to explain anything. So, he’s one of the most important, without mate… without Kenny I don’t think I could do what I’m doing because I just need him to do it. We have different qualities I think that complements each other as well when we dance together, but when I’m making a solo I trust him wholeheartedly he’s like my right hand man, so yeah.

Farooq: And Heather Benson who’s working as Creative Producer, and exec producer right, on the show?

Dickson: Yeah, and then we have an Associate Producer as well. Yeah, we have a big team of people you know.

Farooq: And Mikey.

Dickson: Oh yeah, we’re working with Mikey J as well. Mikey I’ve known, you know since I was 19 yeah so, he’s bringing another element to the music.

Brendan: What’s Mikey, Mikey’s doing the music?

Dickson: Another element of the music, Roger is like the Musical Director of the whole art of the show, Mikey’s bringing certain elements that represent myself in East London so to speak.

Brendan: I’m gonna finish up in a minute, but what’s gonna happen next? I suppose that’s really, that’s a six million dollar question, none of us really know what’s going to happen next do we?

Farooq: It’s I mean who knows? We’re living in a world now where a sensible plan can last a week right? But I think, one thing I do want to say is that the version that people here saw, the work in progress, we now have a whole new beginning section which is 20 minutes long, we have introduced animation elements, the music, lighting has been refined. After this we were going to the Barbican beginning of April which was also postponed into a further residency, thankfully we’ve got more time to explore further elements, we want to finish it in April and then we’ll film it. There was talk about performing it and streaming it, but I think for a premiere that feels like, I don’t know it just feels, it doesn’t feel right you know? Yeah, and then we’ll just have to sit on the work for a bit till the world opens up and we’re ready to share it. I think there is a danger though, I would think that having more and more time you just overthink it and over tinker, and you know we’ve got to ride that place that feels this is the natural place for it to then be performed, because something I always say Brendan is that actually the audience are the final collaborator. They finish the work for you so we can’t do that bit until we put it in front of an audience so it could be the audience here, it could be the audience at the Barbican, who knows but we’re waiting for our final collaboration.

Brendan: Yeah, well let’s hope we might be part of that collaboration, I really hope so. Listen, it’s a great pleasure to have you here this week, I’m sad we couldn’t provide you with that other collaborator this time around.

Farooq: But thank you Brendan, you know offering us space, you know your team have been amazing.

Brendan: Well, it’s a great place, building, you know just one company in here, you’ve got your own toilet! So, it’s a great pleasure and let’s hope that we will provide that collaborator, very very soon.

Dickson: Yes sir, yes please, we need it, we really need it. Yeah, thank you, thanks Brendan.

Brendan: Take care, bye.