Hi Tony! Could we start by asking you to tell us a little bit about your background? How and when did you get into dance, and what does dance mean to you?
I was born in Bristol, but grew up and still live in Hackney. My mum was a dancer in Nigeria, so as a family we were always dancing. It was second nature and now I have taken it on and made a career out of it. In primary school I had two passions, football and dance. Every Wednesday there was a student assembly and there would be an opportunity to present something. Each week without fail, I would come up with a new routine, rehearse all week and present it. I was having fun, but now I realise that I was choreographing from a young age to Vanilla Ice, Salt n Pepper, MC Hammer. I was hugely inspired by Michael Jackson and learnt all the moves from watching him on TV.
I went to study computer science at university but instead of making computer programmes, I was more interested in listening to music and going to the studio to make moves. I dropped out, kept teaching myself, and then got recruited to choreograph Mel B’s world tour. I founded Avant Garde Dance in 2001 and I have not looked back.
Dance is my output for my passion for music. Music is the driving force and dance is the way that I show my appreciation.
How would you introduce Avant Garde Dance to audiences who are unfamiliar with your work?
We use hip hop at our core but we deliver it in a contemporary package. The movement is theatrical, abstract and focuses on musicality. There are no typical street dance formations here. We are constantly playing with styles and genres, and have developed a unique approach to what we produce. We strive to create fresh and exciting work that moves forward. We embrace new concepts, challenge conventions and break boundaries. I really enjoy challenging myself and our audience, and have worked with circus, chinese pole, clowning, theatre, film, projection and unusual sites in my dance shows.
How would you describe your choreography for Monteverdi Ballets? What should we expect?
I usually work with beats, finding the musicality and quality of the sound, which then informs the choreography. In opera it’s the vocal that creates both the musicality and the structure, so this is a new challenge for me. We are attempting a collaboration between dance and opera. We do not want to just dance in front of the orchestra and singers. We are working with Thomas Guthrie (music & dramaturgy advisor) to really understand the relationship between the music and vocal, researching the context of the opera, what is being said and the story of the characters. We are also watching how the orchestra move when they are playing the music. The musicians become at one with the music and the instrument is translated in their bodies, similar to how the dancer becomes at one with the music. We want the vocal to translate in the body – this is what is inspiring the movement. The choreography will be daring and stem from those that are singing and playing.
Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda was written in 1624. How have you and Avant Garde Dance approached working with such an old piece of music? Have you had to try different ways of working?
Music is always key to my work – the difference is that the vocal is creating the rhythm so we want to respect the vocal and marry the movement to it. We are analyzing the vocal musicality, analyzing the speech patterning and in addition, are taking into consideration the translation. I’m constantly asking, ‘What are the core moments of the narrative and how can we stay true to that?’ We are aware there are audiences that know the music, so we want to stay true to the meaning somewhat, but move it on.
And finally, what do you enjoy about working with live music and how often do Avant Garde Dance get the opportunity to do so? What are you looking forward to most about working with Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company?
I love live music. When I went on tour with Liberty X (in 1999), it was the first time I danced to a live band and it was incredible. The energy and vibe you get from another human playing a live instrument right next to you is amazing. Every night was different and that was so exciting. Working with dance and live music brings my two worlds together, so I am really excited to be working on this. It’s a palpable energy that is incredible.
Avant Garde Dance have only worked with live music about three times. We are a large company, and with a live band we would need much bigger budgets, so to have the opportunity to do this is really enjoyable. Like I said, this is a collaboration but it’s pretty tricky to do over email and skype, as we do not have too much time in the rehearsal studio together (dancers, singers and orchestra). I want to try and integrate all of the performers into the story, modernise the way that they all move in this opera.
Monteverdi Ballets will take place on Monday 17 June at Village Underground from 6.30pm-7.30pm and 8.30pm-9.30pm. Ticket prices vary from £5 to £15, and can be purchased via our website.