Interview: Kwame Asafo-Adjei's Spoken Movement

Monday 18 April 2016 by Carmel Smith

Kwame Asafo-Adjei - in a still from

With his company Spoken Movement, London based Kwame Asafo-Adjei is pushing at the limits of hip hop theatre. We asked him to tell us about the new work he is bringing to Breakin’ Convention, the annual International Festival of Hip Hop Dance Theatre at the end of this month…

What was your starting point for this new work?
Family Honour is a concept that follows a young girl (Catrina Nisbett) trapped in her mental state, confronting her past sin against tradition. Abandoned by her father she seeks solace from entities that resemble her father and sister (Angelica Brewster). We look at the relationship between all the characters within the piece and focus on the transition in memories. Communication throughout the piece is organic sound and movement, we aim to evoke thought but yet provoke the audience to engage with a guttural response. As language is developed through the piece we incorporate forms of hip hop like popping, which entails tension and release. Using concept, stimulus and props we create an immersive performance forcing the audience to be more open to possibility and establish a connection with the young girl. This piece was inspired by a memory of an intense discussion I experienced a long time ago in Ghana with my father which gave me the intention to create the work.

It sounds like a complex story full of emotions to tell all through movement…
To me, movement is a form of art which is self-explanatory depending on your intention. Finding clarity in your intention is what can make the process easy or difficult. Depending on how you workshop, your focus can play as an advantage or disadvantage. For example, in the piece I wanted the characters to communicate, or have a sense of narrative, but eventually, after workshopping, I discarded the idea of speech; I thought I was giving the audience too much.

So we invested in the idea of sound and breath and through layers of movement we begun to establish a language which formed a narrative within the piece. The biggest challenge for choreographers, I believe is to let go of a good idea and to be more submissive to the piece’s organic development. These are some of the tools I have gathered through the process of this piece, allowing it to grow and not being the carrier in its growth, in a sense getting out of my own way.

The short film you’ve made of the work is very dramatic and intense – and could stand alone. What will change in the live performance – and is it important for it to be seen live?
The challenge would be to create the same intensity and affect it has on the audience. Creating the piece in video form, I really wanted the public to feel a part of the piece, almost like they are present at the table whilst this explosive conversation developed. Collaborating with Omari Carter and Shae Carrol/Motion Dance Collective, we looked at angles of the camera and the intimacy between the camera and the characters, in order to engage with viewers on a mental, physical and emotional state. Translating this on stage I found easier because the viewers are now present in the room. I used each camera angle and replaced it with lighting for more depth. It’s important for people to see the piece live or any piece live because that’s what makes us human our physical bodies within the space and experiencing the emotion first hand. With film there is always a disconnect or a void we try to fill due to it being film, but on stage and being in the moment gives us more to relate to.

Your company is called Spoken Movement – an interesting phrase! How did you arrive at that?
I was raised by the phrase “Action speaks louder than words” which coined my motto “Make moves that moves make”. I was tired of talking about what I wanted to do with my life and decided to take action and create this company to push my work, like other artists who have the same goal and drive as me. Spoken Movement was only right and befitting for me -and self-explanatory to my existence – a consistent reminder to do less talking and more action! We don’t only use narrative, we also work with concepts and stimulus to push hip hop theatre on to a different scale in raising awareness.

As a choreographer, where do you usually find your inspiration – what sort of thing sets that first spark flying?
One of my techniques is just to pay attention to organic movement in the world. The world is a stage, with different sections, transitions, formations and movement phrases. It consists of natural lighting, narrative, various sounds and use of space. Sometimes taking a simple walk with music playing in your head phones and being aware of your surrounding definitely sparks inspiration for me. I like being in the space listening to various genres of music, freestyling, exploring movement, talking with different energies or life forms, watching films being with friends and family who inspire me.
Other choreographers/dancers who are my peers, like Botis Seva (Far from the Norm), Sunni (Soul Mavericks), Chilli (Rain Crew), Ivan Blackstock (SWNSNG), Sean Grayham, Shawn Aimey (Plague), Jonthan Burrows, Jonzi D – having just a discussion, or training with these people has helped me in some many ways and I appreciate them. But to generalise, I am just a student of life – and life is my number inspiration.

Is making work a collaborative process with your dancers?
Depends on how I feel at the time. I would like my dancer to find their voice, I train leaders not followers so there can be an exchange of information when creating work. Choreography is done by me as well artistic direction but miss-direction plays a role in my process. Nothing is wrong, it’s just a perspective we don’t understand yet, a formula me and my dancers use in order to engage more with each other.

How did you first get in to dance?
The clichéd but true story, as a child Michael Jackson played a big part in my dance career. The Smooth Criminal video was absolutely perfection. Transitions, production, choreography, styles, quality in dancers were just superb. Till this day I believe I was somewhere in that video and I will create work on that level or better someday soon.

And what training have you had?
Meeting Stefan Sinclair and joining crew Innovate boys trained me in funk styles at Lynn Boxing studios, in the Aylesbury Estate, Elephant and Castle. Eventually I came across Shawn Aimey who developed my understanding in technique within funk styles. Through all this I was training at City of Westminster College in contemporary dance. Attending the University of East London put me in contact with artist/choreographer Sean Grayham who opened my eyes to the world of house, lofting and UK jazz. His relationship with the floor is what inspired my texture of movement today. The understanding of my language was polished by Botis Seva, but solidified once I took a year out to self-train and digest all the knowledge given to me, obtaining my language and identity within the art form.

You were one of Breakin’ Convention’s Back to the Lab artists. What did you learn from that experience?
The mentors, or ‘senseis’, Jonzi D and Jonathan Burrows opened my mind to understand choreographic tools of artistic development. They took the time to acknowledge my identity and enhance my growth through questioning me and my work. Jonzi’s aim was to challenge me for me to challenge myself and question my decisions and where it stood within the hip hop theatre circuit. Jonathan would give words of wisdom and both would always open my mind in seeing other perspectives and approach to work.

They were the perfect team for my development as an artist, adding pressure in regards to time, but giving me enough space to create. The genuine love shown by these two amazing artists really was a stand point in my career so far. Jonzi D probably doesn’t remember this but when Spoken Movement first did Breakin Convention in 2012, I created a piece on human trafficking which was quite literal and he said to me: “If I say do a piece about a can of bake beans, I don’t expect you to go on stage with a can of bake beans in your hand. I would like to know about the shape of the can why all of the beans are compact in this can and why it’s been labelled” That was a turning point for me. Back to the Lab is about exploring your ideas and being open to research and challenging yourself, as well as sharing knowledge with other artists. I learnt how to be open minded, to be submissive, to rebuild and become stronger. So much appreciation goes out to the Breakin Convention team and how much they believed in me and helped me in my career over the years, thank you.

You’ve performed at Breakin’ Convention – what do you like/value most about being a part of it?
Breakin Convention is an establishment that connects artist around the world by sharing information through the art of dance. What is not to like? We have a platform that supports us and takes us around the world in one venue, Sadler’s Wells. I value the sense of sharing my art form with people, meeting new artists and showing my senseis my development. I aspire to inspire the younger generation to really push the art form, for us to acquire longevity and for artists to be respected within society for the work we put out there. I value the way Breakin’ Convention value artists and the work they put in to create this epic show – and I like that Spoken Movement is a part of this legacy.

When you’re not performing, who will you be making sure you see in the line-up over the weekend?
I will make sure to catch my friends and there companies Far from the Norm and SWSNG

And what’s next for Spoken Movement?
We are currently back and forth between Belgium and Poland, creating work and performing. We are talking about extending the company – watch this space for an announcement after Breakin’ Convention! We will be having an End of Year show, including pieces we have developed throughout the year and special guest performances. We’ll continue to push boundaries and the art form of hip hop theatre to challenge minds and evoke discussion.

Catch Spoken Movement at Breakin’ Convention in the Lilian Baylis Studio, Saturday 30 April

See Kwame on

Kwame Asafo-Adjei is a Sadler’s Wells Summer University student, 2015 – 18

Photo: still from

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