Interview: Deborah Baddoo Q&A

Friday 20 February 2009

Deborah Baddoo *Deborah Baddoo has been a pioneer in the development and promotion of Black dance
in the UK. Since 1986, her company State of Emergency has provided opportunities
for hundreds of performing artists in the field of dance and music covering a
wide range of projects, including events, tours, vocational and educational training,
festival, recording and choreographic commissions.*

***Deborah trained at the University of Surrey and went on to gain an MA in Performance
Arts at Middlesex University. She is now based in the West Country.* *The latest Mission Possible UK tour is currently underway and touches down at
The Place in London on 3 March.*

*Your latest State of Emergency tour, Dads & Lads Move features work by three
choreographers for five male dancers. What’s the idea behind this programme,
why the focus on men now? * **For the last State of Emergency Mission Tour (*Mission Re-Position*, 2007) we focused on the female psyche, perceptions of the female and female
icons and I wanted to focus on the flip side and to make observations about the
male and the male psyche. I was inspired by a conversation with Jeanefer Jean-Charles, a choreographer I had worked with before, who had been doing some research
on working with fathers and sons and was struck by the way in which experience
of dance had helped to develop their relationships. That is why I commissioned
Jean to make a work alongside the two male choreographers, *Kwesi Johnson and Colin Poole. * **We have quite an extensive workshop programme that runs alongside the tour that
not only focuses on creative dance with fathers and sons, but also encouraging
boys into dance, delivering workshops with positive male role models, that help
to dispel the myth that dance is a female territory and the general paranoia about
homosexuality that exists amongst a lot of male teenagers.

Rather than simply a celebration of the male psyche the three choreographers
explored different aspects of it, from issues of peer pressure, through sexuality,
the complexity of father/son relationships and male bonding.

As a mother of a teenage boy, I am constantly perplexed by the complexity of
feelings, emotions and attitudes that are manifested on a daily basis. I do feel
that in general males are indoctrinated from an early age into what is appropriate
behaviour and discouraged from exposing emotion or getting in touch with their
feelings. TV tends to re-enforce images of men who let their fists, or aggressive
behaviour, do the talking rather than engaging in any thoughtful dialogue to resolve
a situation.

I also feel that expectations of the male psyche are not always justified and
that males would benefit greatly from an opportunity to get in touch with their
feelings, express themselves and so build self confidence and awareness and improve
their positive engagement in society. Divisions between males and females are
so easy to over simplify and I realise that there are very complex issues at stake
here, but in general I feel that people do not spend reflective time in schools
or families looking at the male/female terms of engagement with the world.

*You founded State of Emergency in 1986. Tell us how it came about, what you
set it up to do specifically?*

Initially it started as a music and dance production company and then later separated
into two strands. Both strands still exist but operate completely separately.

At the time I was working closely with musicians, choreographing and dancing
in a number of situations, both commercially in clubs and also with a more ‘arty’
programme of work. South Africa had been declared as in a ‘State of Emergency’,
and this situation was always influencing my thoughts. It felt like my company
was always on the alert, ready for any gig and to grab any opportunity to perform,
in venues from, at the time, The Fridge nightclub in Brixton to the Shaw Theatre in Euston. We were ready for anything, constantly in a ‘state of emergency’.

Since 1986, State of Emergency has provided opportunities for hundreds of performing
artists in the field of dance and music covering a wide range of projects, including
events, tours, vocational and educational training, festival, recording, choreographic
commissions etc. From a dance perspective, State of Emergency is at the forefront
of pushing the boundaries in the profile and the development of black dance in
the UK by making positive changes in the national dance ecology and working both
nationally and internationally towards creating a strong place for Black dance
in the national culture.

We are pursuing this vision through the driving force of the Mission Programme, a unique umbrella providing performances and showcases, tours and festivals,
artists training and professional development. As well as delivering high quality,
entertaining touring dance productions, we also work in schools and colleges,
breaking barriers by using dance as a positive and developmental tool in social
settings, such as with young people who have been involved in gang crime and by
addressing and tackling issues such as teenage pregnancy and sexual health.

*And how have things moved on in twenty plus years? * **The cultural landscape has changed somewhat in the cities but in the regions
there is still a very long way to go. I tour book on a regular basis and the
ignorance that still exists about black work is abundantly clear. A lot of venues
still see black work as a quota thing, rather than looking at each company on
their style and merit. For example, some venues feel that if they have booked
Tavaziva Dance, they cannot also have, say Kompany Malakhi in the same season. They cannot seem to, or want to, differentiate and acknowledge
that they are coming from two companies might come from completely different aesthetics.

Promoters also often plead ignorance about what work by Black choreographers
is actually out there, or question the quality, using this as an excuse not to
programme it. They need to get out more, to commit to seeing a range of black
work, attend Festivals in the UK and abroad where they can educate themselves
on the quality and range of work and then get on and programme it!

In June this year we are delivering a conference for promoters, and marketing
personnel in the South West region that focuses on understanding, marketing and
promoting Black work in the region. However, venues need to make a genuine commitment
to attend.

*Mission Possible is the fifth State of Emergency UK tour – is touring an important
part of your work now?*

Touring will always be an important part of our work. It is important to get
the work out there, to expose and support the work of black choreographers.

State of Emergency has developed in that we also work in more subtle ways. For
example apart from the national touring Mission Showcases, we have developed a
lot of issue based work and work in other fields. We always work with Black choreographers,
that is taken as read, but we create new opportunities for dancers and choreographers
and without making an issue of it, they are subtle and positive role models. For
example, we are developing a children’s show for next year – ‘Mini Mission’ and
are in an international collaboration for a site specific work with a South African
choreographer and a programme of work with young offenders.

When did your interest in dance start?

I studied ballet from the age of four. I adored it. I had a very strict old fashioned
ballet teacher and we used to put on shows. I have a very happy memory of my grandmother
making me my first tutu for one of the shows of red velvet and red net scattered
with silver sequins. It was fabulous! The first public performance that I remember
was when my mother took me to see the ballet Coppelia when I was about 8 and that
clinched by love of dance!

What dance forms interest and involve you most?

I need to be engaged on an emotional level for dance to work for me. I get turned
off by dance that may be technically brilliant but has no emotional content. Beautiful
shapes in space don’t really do it for me. A lot of work around in the UK is
so derivative and formulaic and lacks emotion.

I like hard hitting dance theatre that works in a stylistic fusion. If I am honest
most impact on me has been from Black American choreographers such as Bill T Jones, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of Urban Bush Women and Bebe Miller. All mature artists that have poignacy, humour, individuality and intelligence
in their work.

I also saw a mesmerising work at last year’s Dance Umbrella Festival in Johannesburg,
by the Burkino Faso based company Salia Ni Seydou. Stunning and with an exquisite live musical accompaniment.

Practice wise, I was always influenced by varied style inputs mainly African,
Jazz and Contemporary fusion and free improvisation to live music.

Who/what have been influences on your work in dance?

Music has been a key influence on my work in dance. In the early 80’s through
to the 90’s I was part of a musical hothouse in Hackney called Pyramid Arts. A pioneering project where hundreds of musicians used to meet to rehearse,
teach and generally socialise. I used to run the dance studio and so crossed paths
regularly with a variety of musicians. I particularly worked with drummers, it
must be my ancestral voices talking, but I really connected with the drums and
worked in both free and structured improvisation with amazing drummers from the
African conga player Jimmy Scott, through to the amazing jazz talents of Clifford Jarvis and Clive Roper. They were hard task masters. We used to spend hours improvising. They seemed
to have a clarity of thought that I hadn’t experienced working purely with dance.
A highlight of this time was a work that I made which traced the history of black
music from its African roots to its avant garde contemporary manifestations, and
performed with a musical accompaniment of thirteen amazing musicians from all
over the world.

If you didn’t work in dance, what would you have like to have done?

I would like to have been a writer. I have already written a few articles for
various dance publications and really enjoyed it. I think it is because I have
strong opinions about things and tend to communicate them in a very direct manner
which is suited to this kind of work. However I would one day like to attempt
a novel, another personal challenge for my old age!

What have been some of the State of Emergency highlights over the years?

There have been numerous high points, but the ones that particularly stand out
include, spotting and nurturing talent that eventually bears fruit. For example
as with Tavaziva Dance we initially commissioned Bawren Tavaziva in 2001 and he
toured a work as part of The Mission Touring Showcase, we then continued to support
him with further commissions and opportunities, including international partnerships
and finally were instrumental in the company achieving regularly funded Arts Council
status and recognition for their work.

Another particular high point I remember was producing the first Mission National
Showcase in 2001. This was an experiment and a vision that I had seen turning
into reality. State of Emergency were the first to nationally tour a mixed showcase
of new work, and it went down a storm. The commissioned choreographers were Bawren Tavaziva, Robert Hylton, Irven Lewis and Maria Ryan. It was a cutting edge programme of new work by black choreographers and it
was varied and accessible and well received,

The first Big Mission Festival in 2005 was also a highlight for us, and re-enforced
our raison d’etre. It was clear that there is a need for artists to meet together
to exchange ideas, see and support each others work and to generally network.
It is also an important opportunity for promoters to see the range and diversity
of work that exists by black choreographers and make informed judgements

On the music side of the company, State of Emergency were nominated for a Grammy last year and also produced an album with legendary Jamaican artists/producer
Lee Scratch Perry, featuring such luminary guests Keith Richards and George Clinton.

Mission Possible 'Dads and Lads Move' 3 March, The Place. Photo: Irven Lewis *Mission Possible is touring the UK until April. * *Details of venues and dates: * **“”:

*If you catch it in London at The Place on 3 March, take advantage of this special offer – * *Book a £15 ticket for Mission Possible and when you quote the reference ‘Dad’s
Offer’ you’ll get one free ticket for your dad. * **(_Not available online and subject to availability. Call the Box Office on 020
7121 1100 for details. Terms and conditions apply.)_

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