Interview: Ukweli Roach

Monday 28 April 2014 by Lise Smith

Ukweli Roach Photo: Paul Hampartsoumian

One of the founding members of BirdGang Dance Company, Ukweli Roach has danced with artists including Mariah Carey, Kylie Minogue, Cheryl Cole, JLS and Alexandra Burke. Tap was the first dance style he got in to and which still influences him, along with house dance, popping, breakdance, contemporary and jazz. Catch him at Breakin’ Convention – the international festival of hip hop dance theatre at Sadler’s Wells next Monday, 5 May…

What have you been up to today?
Today I’ve been filming a new ITV drama called Grantchester. And arranging my next rehearsal for Breakin’ Convention next Monday (5 May).

What does performing at Breakin’ Convention mean to you?
Breakin’ Convention has given me and my dance company BirdGang so many opportunities, it’s an honour to perform at Sadler’s Wells for the Festival and to be going on tour with them as the first commissioned piece from the UK is quite overwhelming.

Slightly unusually, you started out as a tap dancer, moving into Hip hop and breakdance later. What has tap brought to your other movement work?
For me the main thing I think I got from starting with tap was an intricate understanding of rhythms. Kind of like a drummer or percussionist. Also my choreography tends to have quite a lot of footwork in it, which is probably down to my training in tap dance. It also helped a lot with football when I was younger (I used to play A LOT) and the eye/foot coordination and control helped leave some defenders feeling stupid!

You’ve danced with Mariah Carey, Kylie Minogue, Cheryl Cole, JLS, and Alexandra Burke – tell us about working in the world of pop! What have been some of your best experiences?
Well the good thing was obviously the experiences and being flown to countries I wouldn’t otherwise have seen to do shows. The negative was that nine times out of ten the choreography was not so good, and I found commercial work with pop artists quite unfulfilling and bland in terms of the choreographic artistry. However one of my favourite experiences to date was performing at Fashion Rocks in Monte Carlo with Mariah Carey. That was fun.

You trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). How has your acting training influenced your choreography?
RADA taught me a lot about intention. It’s not enough to just say lines, or do moves. Any performance needs specific thought behind it (or “Emotional Content”, as Bruce Lee would say!)

You’re a founding member of Birdgang dance company – what have you learned from the experience of performing and making work with a dance theatre company?
Well we started off as a Dance Crew, which is where we learned how to create material with very little time and NO money or resources. Which meant that when we started doing work with budget involved, we worked ten times faster than many other companies or choreographers. We also had a pool of very talented dancers to choose from and recommend to directors etc. It was tough, but those harder times prepared us for the professional world.

Tell us more about the current piece you’re working on – what are the themes you’re exploring, and how did you work in the studio to create it?
VICE is a piece about addiction to various things. On the surface it is specifically about smoking and drinking, but deeper than that it’s about the struggle to reach our full potential as human beings. The battle that everyone fights to reach the ideal version of themselves that they see in their mind. The idea came predominantly from my head as it’s very personal to me, but hopefully something everyone can relate to. I wrote down what I wanted it to be about, and the emotions and music genres in each section were always very clear to me. The ‘work’ came when trying to turn those ideas into physical movement. That’s where the amazing dancers I’m using came in very handy.

What are your plans for the future?
My plans in terms of acting and choreographing are to make more thought-provoking work, both in straight theatre/film and in Hip-hop Theatre. I enjoy creating things and telling stories, so i intend to direct and write more one day if all goes well :).

Photo of Ukweli Roach by Paul Hampartsoumian

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