Feature: All Routes South

Monday 18 August 2008

Alex Reuben *In 2005 London based DJ and dance for the screen lecturer at London Contemporary
Dance School Alex Reuben set out on a road trip to film the dance and music of
the American Deep South, inspired by an audio anthology of American Folk Music
put together by Harry Smith in the early 1950s. Things didn’t quite go to plan – as he travelled from North Carolina towards the deep south, Hurricane Katrina
hit New Orleans and Reuben arrived in the aftermath.*

*Reuben did away with his original commentary on the film and lets the images
and music speak for themselves. Whether its Appalachian Bluegrass, Clogging,
Mississippi Fife and Drum Blues, Krumping, Memphis Hip-Hop, Indian Smoke Dance,
Louisiana Cajun, Zydeco or Swamp Pop, dance emerges as a multifarious, universal
language. Routes is only 48 minutes long – but watch it and you feel like you’ve
been on a long, absorbing and moving journey through geographical and cultural
landscapes. Catch it at Picturehouse cinemas summer (details below) and find out more about the making of Routes here…*

What were you hoping for when you set out to make this film?

Initially I was looking for the roots of how I danced, and wanted to tap into
memories of old footage from dance films that I loved as a child – The Jacksons,
people flat-footing on porches etc. I also wanted to investigate, and attempt
to explain, some of the connections between the histories of different kinds of
music, and different forms of dance. For example, Routes begins with a scene of bare feet, flatfooting on a square wooden board in the
Appalachian Mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina. To many, the dancers appear
to be primarily drawing on British traditions of Irish and English step. But the
forms of dance or movement have evolved together in the maelstrom of colonization
and slavery merging in communities before electricity, amplification or radio
and television.

As the film rolls on, influences unravel in performances by different communities.
The Tuscarora Indians perform a smoke dance, containing steps related to the earlier
flatfooting. Interviews revealed that a flatfoot move bears the name “Indian”
and we have seen the same step in breakdance for 30 years. The African American
step form bears the name ‘buck dancing’, after the term for a male slave. The
young hip-hop dancers in the Memphis ‘hood’ call their moves ‘bucking’. They use
mime, not sound. The dances are beautiful and poetic. Social, political and cultural
significances are clear

Still from Alex Reuben's 'Routes'

Still from Alex Reuben's 'Routes'

Still from Alex Reuben's 'Routes'

How does the finished film differ from your early cuts?

The first cut had a voiceover and interviews but I was never comfortable with
it. I could not get all the information in that I wanted to and also felt very
emotional about the project. My trip to New Orleans was like a pilgrimage as so
much had come out of this city that had influenced me from afar. It is a unique
and volatile place with a painful past and has been home to so many talented,
creative people.

I had arrived there, though, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation
was upsetting. Also the warmth and resilience of the people I had met, whose lives
had been turned upside down, contrasted sharply with US and UK foreign policy
at the time. The invasion of Iraq was on my mind as the London 7 July bombings
had taken place only weeks beforehand, close to the dance school where I worked.
We all got telephone calls to see who was dead or injured. And Jean Charles de
Menezes was mistakenly shot in the subway close to my home.

So I took the words out, partly because I was sick of what had been done with
them in the weeks preceding my trip. I had marched peacefully against the invasion
of Iraq in 2003, in the biggest antiwar demo ever in the world. But it made no
difference. We went to war upon words – or lies, there were no weapons. The English
UN weapons inspector David Kelly, a devout honest man, committed suicide over
leaked words for this. I was questioning how we could find any truth and wondered
if perhaps there was a little in dance. Or perhaps there is a democracy in dance.
Sometimes dance is the only creative expression we make; therefore it’s political
and contains the past. So, this became my tiny, negligible statement of protest.

Still from Alex Reuben's 'Routes' How did you film Routes?

In the opening scene I had the camera in one hand and the microphone in another.
I moved, stepping over grassy mounds, people and guitar cases, pointing the camera
one way, and the microphone another, even whilst taking the camera off the tri-pod.
I felt as though I was painting with sound and image. The sound was recorded in
an unusual, even opposite way to conventional sound recording. I tried to communicate
a real sound experience that is connected to the movement and percussion of the
incredible dancing and my own sonic experience as I also moved. I wasn’t looking
for constant audio excellence. I was looking for grit, atmosphere and texture
and my approach was instinctive.

One of the most important things was not to break the sound recording, as that
would destroy the fluidity and momentum of the material. When it came to editing,
I could have easily cutaway proficiently when the camera went awry, for example
if I had fallen while filming, but I didn’t due to the commitment I felt to sound-synch
and the immediacy of a unique time and place.

Still from Alex Reuben's 'Routes' *The film is genuinely distinctive. What are you hoping audiences will make of
it?*

The subject and language of Routes, and my work in general, is dance and music. I want the audience to be lost
in a language of dance and music related to landscape and environment – not a
literal identification of place (a concept I have come to call ‘Choreogeography’).
I hope they make connections in the movement and feel the emotions and beauty
of improvisation before any rationalization takes place. We think with our bodies
too; the expressiveness of performance is testament to that. That may lead us
to consider why and how moves and music are connected – the anthropology, politics,
history, on a conscious or subconscious level. But first of all I want viewers
and listeners to feel, enjoy, be amazed, excited.

*_Routes_ is being screened at The Gate Picturehouse Notting Hill until 31 July, with a Q&A
on Sat 26 July, 5.30pm screening.*

*It will also be showing at the Ritzy Brixton from 15 – 21 August, with a Q&A
on 16 August; at* *the Duke of York, Brighton on 16 August (with Q&A, times tbc) and at FACT
in Liverpool 8 – 10 August. Times & dates to be confirmed – check* “”:http://www.picturehouses.co.uk
/>

/>*CAMEO EDINBURGH Mon 18 Aug 6:30pm *

*TYNESIDE CINEMA Mon 22 Sept – Wed 24 Sept times tbc *

This interview also appears on www.alexreuben.com, along with further background info and a video trailer.

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