Interview: Vicki Igbokwe - fierce, fabulous & free

Friday 27 February 2015 by Carmel Smith

Uchenna Dance 'Our Mighty Groove'. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Later this month, East London Dance celebrates the influence of clubbing on our lives and culture, looking at how it bred new forms of dance throughout the years with a weekend of performance, workshops, talks, jams, and a free outdoor pop-up programme. Uchenna Dance’s Our Mighty Groove forms one half of a double bill on the evenings of Friday 27th and Saturday 28th March. We asked Vicki Igbokwe about it…

Tell us about that all important New York night club experience which inspired Our Mighty Groove
I went to New York for the first time in July 2008, after being awarded a bursary from ADAD as part of their Trailblazer programme, and used the support to train – learning house dance. It was a Wednesday evening and I just finished taking a house dance class at Peridance Studios and had been told about a club called Sin Sin, that had a house night called Soulgasam. I was told this was one of the best nights to experience the culture and essence of this dance, so I went to the club, paid my entry fee and was instantly touched by the energy and atmosphere in the air, it was simply electrifying and cool all at the same time. I was really nervous and felt really uncomfortable as I didn’t really know anyone at that time. Nerves and insecurity got the better of me, so I ended up standing with my back against a wall for about two hours, I didn’t go to the toilet, I didn’t buy a drink, I was just mesmerised by the dancers in this club. There were people of all ages, ethnicities, moving and just living their life and what I loved so much was that everyone was just being free in themselves.

I remember this lady who was at least 60 years old twirling all over the dance floor, she was on the chairs, up against the wall and on the floor, people had to jump and dance out of her way because she was coming through! In that moment it hit me that this dance I was falling in love with, house dance, was much more than just a style of dance, it was a culture a way of life. I remember thinking ‘I bet she has never taken a house dance class in her life’. I kept being the lonely girl from London with my back against the wall, I think another hour had past. I remember a particular cypher (this is where a circle forms and one person is usually in the centre dancing, dancers love this!) starting to form and I could see the group of dancers here performing other styles. I later found out that these styles where Waacking and Vogue (boy I was complete!). The DJ was spinning some tunes and these dancers were killing it! I really wished at that moment that I could of got down with them.

As I was watching them I had a couple of people try to get me to move off the wall, trying to encourage me to dance and embarrassingly I said “no I’m from London I can’t dance like that’”(not cool, cringe!) As I kept watching this group, I could feel a particular set of eyes on me, you know that moment where someone is going to come and chat you up. I did my best to watch the group but avoid contact with this guy’s eyes. Then I saw him walking towards me and I just thought please don’t ask me to dance, floor open me up and swallow me. He walked up to me and it felt like it was in slow motion and extended his hand and I shook my head and said the embarrassing line AGAIN “no I’m from London I can’t dance like that” (not cool, cringe for the second time!). He wouldn’t take no for an answer and took my hand and gently lead me into the cypher. In that moment my life flashed before my eyes and I frantically tried to remember any of the moves I’d just learnt in class. I remembered four, yes four and took a deep breath and started to dance. My four moves on a loop. This guy and the other dancers around me, made me feel like Janet Jackson and the love, the support, the encouragement was incredible. In that moment I grew with confidence and my feet did not stop moving for the rest of the night. That night I was baptised on the dance floor and it changed who I am as a woman and artist.

So how did the making of Our Mighty Groove work come about?
In 2013 I was awarded an ADAD Trailblazer Champion award, I had an idea for an existing piece and then decided I wanted to challenge myself as a maker and choreographer. I also wanted to create a piece that shared the artistic turning point in my life and would also engage with anyone that saw it. I always think about that night in New York and knew that I wanted to relive that and share with as many people as possible. I made the decision that I wanted to get rid of the barrier between the audience and the performer and create something that allowed the audience to experience the work. It was like walking into a room with the lights off. I had no idea what I was doing except for the concept of recreating a club night in the theatre. I knew that I needed to find dancers that were characters and bold in their own right, have the ability to be true and human connecting with the story line, whilst performing and giving the audience a good time. In 2013 it was a 30-minute piece and it’s now being developed into a 50-minute production.

The show happens around the audience and involves them, it seems to whatever degree they are happy with! Do you have particular techniques for handling the crowd?
Yes. In the studio, with the performers, myself and the rehearsal director we work on many different methods to engage and connect with the audience, help direct their attention to particular areas of the space and how the performers can manipulate the audience and the space also. There are a lot of methods to the madness and we spend time getting the performers confident enough to own the work and their characters which enables them to respond to the audience, making a snap decision in the moment. In short the performers have to ‘expect the unexpected’ because every performance brings a different audience, which affects the work differently.

Where does your love of dance come from?
Coming from a Nigerian family dance and music was always present in my life. Sometimes my mum would get me to dance for her in the living room and I can remember doing this as young as seven years old. At 14 my mother was taken ill and I became her carer (as well as caring from my younger sisters and the running of the house). Dance suddenly had a greater importance in my life. I used it as a way to escape the responsibilities I now had at home. I found two dance classes one in Hammersmith and the other in Crystal Palace. I used to travel from North West London to these areas twice a week as it was the only time back then when I could be happy and a 14 year old. It was my lifeline and kept me sane.

That first trip to New York and that first club experience allowed me to understand how important it is to encourage people to achieve greatness, which is different for every person. I don’t care who you are or how many left feet you have, I just want you to be free. Dance for me is expression, passion, growth, discovery and oxygen. I encourage people to take risks and bet on themselves and they are normally surprised by what they achieve. I love people, dance and music!

In Our Mighty Groove all the performers are women – and it feels very powerful for that. Is that an important element of what you do?
Yes, I feel it is important for women and girls to be confident in their skin and bodies, especially in a time where we are force fed a one dimensional theme of what beauty is. It sounds corny but it’s the truth – we are all beautiful and I just want every women to embrace and own that concept. My daily mantra is to be fierce, fabulous and free! However, I should also add that I have auditioned for male performers in the past and have not found the right one. I never want to work with a performer for the sake of it so wouldn’t pick a male just because he is male.

How do you define your movement style?
I describe my way of moving as Uchenna. My style of moving has come through practice based research in the following styles; House Dance, Waacking, Vogue, African Dance and Contemporary.

Since 2008 I have explored these styles in their pure forms and looked at the similarities in them, creating and developing new ways with movement. I have my own technique class (in the same way that you can take a Martha Graham or Doris Humphrey class) that uses the styles above where I have exercises that combine Tendu’s with Waacking arms or bounces with a torso groove. The style is like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, and the body is normally broken up into three parts; lower body, torso and arms. You have to divide all three as they are usually doing something different, connect them to find their synergy and finally embrace the syncopation within the music being played.

With that being said, the style is about connecting with YOUR groove and being fierce, fabulous and free!

What does Uchenna – your company name – mean?
Uchenna is my Nigerian name it means God’s will. I didn’t want to call the company ‘the Victoria Igbokwe Dance Company’ and I left a great full time, project management job with East London Dance to start and lead the Uchenna. Some people were a bit bemused as to why I would forfeit security for the unknown but I always knew I would spend the rest of my life thinking ‘what if’. So I took the leap of faith and have not looked back since.

What kind of dance training did you have?
After studying dance at secondary school I went on to a BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts at Hammersmith and West London College, during which I auditioned for and was successful in gaining a place as a dancer with the Hip Hop Theatre Company Impact Dance, led by Hakeem Onibudo. My formal training was with Middlesex University where I graduated with a Dance Studies degree. I trained with Ballet Black lead by Cassa Pancho via their Sunday associate programme, took many open classes and visit New York annually.

You’re staging Our Mighty Groove at Stratford Theatre Royal & Greenwich Borough Hall in the next few months. Will you be changing it to work in each venue? Yes we will, that is the beauty of this piece, we transform and take over a space paying close attention to its design and layout. Both Theatre Royal Stratford East and Greenwich Dance are very different and I am looking forward to the creative challenge.

And what’s next?
I’m already thinking about the next production called The Head Wrap Diaries, which I hope to be going into research and development in the autumn this year and presenting in 2016. The Uchenna Dance annual summer school is happening in August this year and promotion for this will be starting in March. We have a great line up including an international artist. You can find out more at www.uchennadance.com


Photos: Camilla Greenwell

See Uchenna Dance at Stratford Theatre Royal, 27 & 28 March, as part of the Club Cultures weekend and at Greenwich Dance, 7 – 11 April

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