Interview: Si Rawlinson - 'The awkwardness and incapacity of well-meaning people too often gets in the way of urgent social action'
Wayward Thread are returning to Breakin’ Convention, the international festival of Hip Hop Dance Theatre, next week. Leading the group, Si Rawlinson questions history’s attitude to civil rights, exploring the discussion about racism, as a white man. Featuring a mix of breaking and verbatim spoken word, the work has been developed at Back to the Lab, Breakin’ Convention’s professional development intensive for hip hop choreographers.
We speak to Si on how he came to create Inherent and how it’s shaped his work since.
Tell us what first inspired you to create Inherent?
Last year, it was hard to keep count of the unarmed black people shot by police in America. Each time had to be the last time, then it would happen again. I’d be angry for so long, and then I’d forget.
These terrible events have been repeating for as long as there have been police. And yet, this is embarrassing to admit, when the Black Lives Matter movement started, I thought the name was wrong. Shouldn’t it be All Lives Matter?
It wasn’t until I watched 13th by Ava Duvernay that I realised how I had totally missed the point. I couldn’t believe that I considered myself ‘progressive’ and yet didn’t even know what racism really was. I had never feared for my life or my families, had opportunity withheld or experienced the countless invisible ways that the system around me favours one ethnicity over another.
It felt uncomfortable addressing a subject like black oppression being myself British Chinese, but I realised there is a need for those who are not black to engage with Black Lives Matter, the same way men need to engage with women’s rights. The awkwardness and incapacity of well-meaning people too often gets in the way of urgent social action.
I wanted to create a piece with two other dancers, Ryan Naiken who is from The Seychelles, and Vladimir Gruev who is from Bulgaria, to try and say something about the limits of memory and shared experience, how we embrace certain aspects of black culture whilst shrugging off the system of racism that we don’t have to live with. But I also hope, at a time when community and perspective seems more divided than ever, to find ourselves in each other and inspire accountability for change.
How do you think dance can add to current dialogue on race and civil rights?
So much of the dialogue is expressed in dates, events, and statistics and though that’s important, it’s not everything. We need storytelling to remember the impact on people’s lives.
Dance is so immediate and human, I think it can draw you into the now, and into what’s happening to real people. That feeling you get of being in the same room with others and sharing an experience grows empathy and helps tie us together.
Also, the hiphop community is now one of the most diverse ethnic communities on the planet, with a dance language that speaks as diversely in a way that connects younger people to the current dialogue on race and civil rights.
The piece features a mix of breaking and verbatim spoken word, talk us through how you brought these two forms together?
I started with drawing memories from my dancers, trying to pull out a picture that everyone can recognise themselves in, and used movement and gesture that came from personal stories to be a kind of crossform duet. We use a single radio microphone in the show too, and it becomes a central prop, guiding movement as we try to make each other speak, or refuse to speak, as we tell one story, or argue in an ironic twist of historical quotes.
How has creating Inherent changed your work?
Since making Inherent at Back to the Lab, it’s interesting, I just can’t justify making work that won’t mean something for other people, and doesn’t somehow challenge the way I see the world.
Ivan Blackstock shared a quote with the audience last Breakin’ Convention from Nina Simone, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times”, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Then again she’s also been quoted to have said, “I don’t like rap music at all. I don’t think it’s music. It’s just a beat and rapping.” so not everything she said was gold.
I’ve been commissioned by Curve theatre since, to make a feature of the show I did last year, now called Ink, and it’s become about the role of the artist as activist and political dissident, drawing from the social commentary of Ai Weiwei.
I am really glad, because this turn in the direction of my work would not have happened without working on Inherent with the Breakin’ Convention mentors Jonzi D, Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, Ivan Blackstock and Jonathan Burrows, all of whom are heavy hitters in making provocative and personally charged work.
Who are you looking forward to seeing at Breakin’ Convention this year?
I love seeing companies I’m not familiar with, and one thing Breakin’ Convention does very well is curating the shows so each day feels like a journey.
But if I was forced to pick a few; Boy Blue are veterans, so I always look forward to how they bring fresh ideas and evolve every year. I’m also a massive fan of bboy Cheerito, who is easily one of the most creative dancers out there right now. Just Dance from Korea is on the list, I’m also looking out for Theo Godson’s work, and a good friend of mine, Emma Houston, who will be mixing breaking and vogue on the main stage.
What’s your favourite part of the festival?
As soon as I finish performing – and get over the things that inevitably won’t go down the way I had planned – I can relax and enjoy the good vibes. At Breakin’ Convention the people and the atmosphere really make the festival.
I’ll be seeing as many shows as I can, but I love being surprised by familiar faces on stairways and corridors, and stealing a moment to catch-up.
You’ll also be taking part in the Breakin’ Conventions tour, performing in Leicester, what’s it like taking the piece home?
I’ve been living in Leicester for a year now, after living in London and Leeds before that, and it feels good to find a city where I am finally laying roots. Some of my favourite theatre makers are from Leicester, including the acclaimed spoken word and dance artist John Berkavitch, who really has taught me so much, in so many ways. He was one of the first artists I saw and thought, maybe I can do something like that one day, at a time when I was unsure I was capable of anything as a dancer. I’d like to think young people who might have little experience of hiphop theatre, might see Breakin’ Convention on the tour and get inspired like that.
Breakin’ convention ’17 is at Sadler’s Wells from Friday 28 April – Monday 1 May 2017.