Zoom, December 2021
Inspired by a music video on TV show Top Of The Pops, Bobak began dancing in Bristol aged sixteen. His continued passion lead to a degree in contemporary dance from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. Since 2004 Bobak has worked full time in theatre and dance for a wide range of clients in both community and professional settings. Frustrated with the media and public discourse instilling fear, hatred and a general ignorance about all things Muslim, Islamic and Middle Eastern in contemporary Britain, Bobak now makes work asking audiences to find love, joy, fun, laughter and respect.
IA: Can you introduce yourself and describe what it is that you do?
BC: Yes. I'm Bobak Champion and I make theatre, movement and dance work that is trying to tackle preconceptions about Middle Eastern, Islam and British Muslims - which are often negative. I've been working on my elevator pitch when I’ve got 10 minutes or so. My mum was born in Iran, so I'm half Iranian and it's time for me to start using the fact that I'm from a Muslim background, from an Iranian background to offer a different voice...because it is frustrating, upsetting and depressing when we are sold a specific narrative in the media that's often really negative and really violent. I'm really keen to make work and although that all sounds really heavy, the work is comedic. In a subtle way it can be a gentle poke, or it could be the choice of what I wear or what the background beat is. They're heavy and important themes. But it’s not to say that it can’t be light-hearted work.
IA: The idea of crews and kinship is really prevalent in hip hop and breaking. Could you talk a little bit about the idea of kinship, family that you've chosen and some of the crews that you've been in?
BC: Crews? That's a good question. I think for me it's intertwined with generations as well. When I came into it, we'd had that gap, where rave culture took over. When breaking and hip hop had originally peaked, it was so trendy at the time, but then there was that die off. I came into it after that dying off period. There were guys who knew what they were doing, knew what it was and knew how to break...imagine that you couldn't YouTube things, it wasn't an option back then. Those of us that wanted to break...I'd seen...in ‘98 I’d seen the Run DMC and Jason Nevins video It’s Like That and for me, that was what changed things. I thought that I wouldn't say this...I wouldn't phrase it like this now...but I thought dancing was for girls. But that video got me into it. When I arrived on the scene, you had these older guys that knew how to break, whereas now if you look at the scene and go to a jam, quite rightly, you've got young kids and teenagers there and the OGs - everything through the generations. For me that question, it's like having father or uncle figures that you could ask questions and get moves from, that's my view on crews. I’m trying to picture some moments that really define it, Secret Garden Party...I've been involved in a couple of festivals, but when you tour with people, you set up tents in a circle with the lino in the middle, you wake up and unzip and you see another B-boy or B-girl across from you, that is really something. Everyone that's been involved in those festival gigs...that really brings you together and we know that we really wanted to represent our culture well at these events and festivals, when you're surrounded by other artists. It's like a rite of passage...when we tried to, I was coordinating them and we tried to bring people into the crew but it wasn't just about the best the B-boys and B-girls - it's like who hasn't travelled away or seen a lot of other art and things. Being around people who are surrounded by these experiences for the first time was incredible. Driving back from those gigs, being in a car when you’re on your way back from doing quite cheesy commercial gigs, I remember in one phase we rapped all the way back from every gig we'd do, we’d have to MC battle each other in the car, imagine if you're driving all the way from Leeds to the south-west. It would start off like ‘cat, mat and a hat’ or whatever but by the end of it, we were spitting some tight bars if we went hard enough. Those moments of being squished into a Ford Fiesta with five big guys rap battling each other all the way back from Wales, that's definitely part of the crew experience. I think it’s definitely to do with friendship as well - not just the dance. We're probably guilty of being part of the crews that are friendly and approachable, a nice guy situation. Whereas sometimes popping down and seeing the London scene now and again, the scene can be a bit - prove yourself first...and then we’ll have conversation. It’s fine, but it’s the old school way. It gives a certain discipline. I think it's easy when everyone's friendly. It's interesting when you dip into other scenes, seeing what the vibe is...I remember a similar thing, pre-internet when I popped up to Scotland for the first time for Random Aspekts. Those guys were very cool, ‘another dancer, cool, no questions asked’ as soon as I started talking about breaking, it's like who are you, who do you know, what do you do - all very friendly, very open and do you need a sofa to crash on? That was before we'd cyphered rather than...prove yourself then we’re mates. It's interesting, seeing where that is now, which cities have that vibe.
IA: Generational hierarchy and lineages are really present in breaking. Could you talk a little bit about generational hierarchy and your lineages both, those people who you have learned from, exchanged with and who you're passing that on to?
BC: I think that's a good question...because I do owe a debt of gratitude. My lineage...I started off with that Run DMC video and then I started asking around where I could experience some breaking live and I was pointed to the Dance Centre on Jacobs Wells Road in Bristol. There was Gee from The Scarecrows and a guy called Keen. Keen was wicked - a super fearless guy, I remember...there was one stage - maybe it still happens - where people try and pull each other's trousers down in battle, so you’ve got to make sure you lace up and if you don't...his weren’t and his trousers were pulled down. He just had his pants on and he didn't even blink. This guy carried on straight through his battle, did a few more rounds, it was amazing. He was also very honest. At that time, he was like, ‘look, I'm just as much a graffiti writer and I'm learning with you’. So even though he was the teacher, he said, ‘I'm gonna learn and push myself, I can't answer all your questions, but I'm gonna do my best’. He was frank like that. Then Gee from The Scarecrows was another all round guy, I'm sure he was a writer. He had really good power. I think he was linked with Swindon...anyway he was teaching in the dance centre and was really creative and inspirational. I remember turning up at Ashton Court Festival and seeing him front a band as well, I didn't even know he did that, fronting his own band and absolutely smashing it. There were other dancers in the building like Physical Jerks, they're doing their thing. I know you've interviewed Little Lar, Lauren Filer...she was a year or two below me at school. There was an energy in Bristol at the time - which I used to think was a myth - but Bristol was a vibe and a hotbed, there was a lot going on. I used to pop over to Swindon as well, I don't know who it was that was leading the youth centre, but it was amazing. It was important to experience that there, you might have a breaking event or battle, but an hour later it would be a DJ scratching battle then there’d be some writing graffiti thing - all in the space, all very linked...and it'd be the same kids and the same adults entering. You’d have to go quite early to get to Swindon Dance when Benji and Banksy who were leading a session. Great debt of gratitude to those guys. I remember entering the space for a class with them and they were vibing off each other, just playing and having a good time in the corner. The rest of the people came in for the class and I was sitting there quiet, and everyone else came in, sat facing me as if I was going to be teaching that class. They were like the two clowns messing around in the corner who are naughty students. I think they introduced themselves eventually. Looking back on it now, that was my first bit of teacher training, seeing two male adults, one who's not White, just playing and having fun together, creating that as an atmosphere to enter a space in. It’s awesome. There's a few people who I think create that vibe and I think it's really important for young people to see that. I remember that moment very clearly. So obviously it did a lot for me. What was the question?
IA: Generational hierarchy, lineages, who you learn from and who you're passing that on to?
BC: Is there anyone else? I'll probably miss people off. I've been teaching for a while in Leeds and I get a lot out of it. I'm really excited to try and give opportunities to people who might not otherwise get out the city very often. There's a lot of people in Leeds who might have engaged with breaking, but not with any other form of arts or theatre or anything like that. It's all really exciting and watch this space because I'm hopefully getting the opportunity to go down south and work with some high level folks. I'm particularly excited to see how Middle Eastern, Pakistani and non White folk who might traditionally have pushed into academic routes or might not be the obvious folk to get a chance to take part in some of the arts. I think there's certain parts of the community...or certain young people who might not necessarily be the obvious choice for organisations or get a chance to see an opportunity. I'm hoping to hone in and focus on that a bit more. Somewhere like Yorkshire Dance is great and I've been teaching there for many, many years, it's in a really prime location, right in the centre of town, but I actually want to go to certain parts of Harehills and Chapeltown and be there on the doorstep, bring those people in and start to take them out on trips - all that good stuff. Hopefully I've inspired some people along the way. I've stopped teaching at Yorkshire Dance and I've stopped teaching for other people because I think it's time for me to take stock and really think about who do I want to take on? Who do I think my work might make a difference to on their journey. I’m working on my name and carrying on my own work...the advice that I've been given is if I were to do that - maybe not do as much community and teaching for a year or two - then I'll be in a really good position to think about which communities are well placed for me to engage with and take forward. I really enjoy facilitating and teaching, but as a freelancer you’ve got to watch it and not to say yes to everything because...I've delivered GCSE dance before and it was good for the payslips, but it's not why I got into dance, not purely for teaching. I'm trying to listen to advice and hopefully my performances will inspire people as well.
IA: In your networks and those who are in your orbit, who are the three people who nourish, support and feed you?
BC: I knew this is coming, you asked for six people? I think the line’s gone.
IA: You can only name three.
BC: There's a couple of people...but for a little bit of context, I've had this idea for the type of work I'm making now, but it hasn't been forever, it's been two or three years. I'm almost duty bound to talk about this argument and make this type of work. So when I share that vision or that thought, there's different ways I could approach that. But I shared the idea with a few people and I got some good advice to pin it down. So then I was like, actually, it's going to be a solo but I don't know what it’s gonna look like yet. I explained that to Foggy from SIN Cru - James - and straight away he was like, ‘yes, whether it's funded or not, I will support you on that journey. Count on me to help you in any way I can’. He explicitly came out with it. So massive gratitude to him. A lot of people might not even say that out loud, a lot of my friends will be there, but he specifically stopped and told that to me. I think that gave me that boost of confidence as well, to carry on with it. He's really putting multiple hats on through my project and has been really useful. There's loads of things I didn't know about him, it turns out he's got much more experience than I'd ever hoped for, including, bizarrely - one example is that I use some Farsi, I use a foreign language in my show, one of the characters - and he's even done a show in a different language before. The other one is a woman called Lizi Patch who is a theatre maker. I met her back when I was covering maternity leave in a school and we both had that connection of it's difficult being an artist locked into the mainstream secondary school system. I think we both felt that and so we built up a relationship. She's a mum of two teenage boys and I think the relationship she has with her boys is incredible, at the same time as holding down a youth theatre company and writing a play. She's one of those people. I've been to her end of term sharings and you can just tell the vibe she brings with the kids...I think there's been some challenging parents - that a lot of us will relate to as teachers - where they're just like, ‘I want to see little Johnny at the front and centre doing a massive solo at the end of term’ and they don't care about the process. She's able to stop and tell everyone why it's not just about the performance, the process is important too - she somehow wins over those really difficult parents in the way she explains it. She's able to get everyone in the room fully on board, committed to the art, to the process and the product as well as making it a safe space that's conducive to creativity. Her work’s badass as well, but just to see the way she talks during those sharings, the way she addresses the room is really important. With my project she's been really good too. They're both super good critical friends, so they'll come in and grill me, bring me down a peg or two when needed. It’s important to have those people that don't mind telling you like it is. The third one...I have to say my daughter. Maybe it’s a bit cheesy...you're always going to have a bond with your child - maybe it's a bit cliché - but I'm quite a touchy, feely person, I like physical contact. I like contact and I've done partner dancing a bit as well - I met my partner through salsa – but I really crave...I love going for a massage and I crave physical touch. I love that she loves being flung upside down and thrown in the air...doing contact improvisation even. It's a massive win win. I can guarantee that that's what I need and that's what she needs at any given moment too. It ticks both of our boxes in a massive way...these duets that happens a lot around our house. She's 16 months old, just to put that in too.
IA: Paris 2024. Breaking. What are your thoughts?
BC: It's tricky...because one half of me is quite anti trying to judge art like you would judge a sprint...if you line people up for a sprint, the measurements of how you choose the winner is fairly clear. Whereas if you put five art pieces in an art gallery and ask which is the winning piece of art, it’s a daft question to me. I don't want to be the grumpy old get in the background stopping people's career, not seeing the scene elevate...I think for me, it is absolutely a double edged sword. I know there's rhythmic gymnastics and I'd apply the same question to that...it’s the same with picking up weights, who picked up the heaviest weight off the floor, that's clear. At least there's people putting thought into the judging systems, so that's good. But there's all these different factors, charisma - I've seen people winning battles on charisma and character...you need to balance all these things. I don't just see it as an aesthetic endeavour. Controversially - even the term breakdance - I know people are going to really hate on this, I can see why some people don't want to use a term that the media created...and then it all died off, but at the same time, it’s the word dance. For me, dance is an important word. If you look at it as just power move after power move or from a purely athletic viewpoint, then it’s missing something. But at the same time, it's really important for young people to have that platform and status because it does deserve that recognition. I'm not someone that says it needs to stay underground the whole time, I don't think it necessarily helps. I think the more visibility - and we deserve to be visible, everyone deserves to be visible – but there's a huge question around judging art for me, because it's subjective. I'm sure they'll pick fantastic judges who've got a lot of experience and there'll be some entertaining battles in there as well...I’m coming to it open and there's always one or two battles at these events that really get people talking.
IA: Following on from that...the Olympics is about representing a flag, you're representing your country on a global stage which in some respects is a form of nationalism. Nationalism is quite problematic in many other parts of society. Breaking is about the hyperlocal, representing your city, town or estate. Could you talk a little bit about that relationship between repping a flag, nationalism and localism?
BC: Now we're getting into it. I imagine it's problematic for a lot of those guys that are being asked to represent certain countries...I bumped into Marius recently and I'm sure he'll say that he's got...he talks about Coventry with a lot of love and it’s the same with Romania. Things that must be a real clash for people to have to make their decisions. I think you're right, for me I find nationalism scary. To bring it back to us, to talk about what you know and my personal experience...the idea of being British is sometimes quite scary and at the same time, my mum was born in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even as a Muslim...I would separate some of these things as well. There's all sorts of connections that go hand in hand with these national flags and symbols at the same time...without writing an essay or doing more study I don't know how to answer it. I'll just talk about...if I open it up more to geography rather than a national flag. I grew up in Bristol and I've lived in Yorkshire, in Leeds, since 2000 and people have a lot of pride locally. I went to Northern School for Contemporary Dance and I still live around the corner from it now, I live in Chapeltown and we’ve got the oldest West Indian Carnival in Europe and people are rightly very proud of it. I even enjoy being a Yorkshireman now, even though a lot of my time is spent...even though Chapeltown is quite concretely, quite urban and it's not a green neighbourhood. So therefore I try to get out into Yorkshire...being a Yorkshireman as well and the Pakistani connections that's really important...I'm starting to realise how rooted that is as well...all these mill buildings that we see and the contributions that has happened from India and Pakistan. Geography does play an interesting part and I can understand the conflict that that's going to create, but if you look at the international jam's, you get people facing off - supposedly from these different countries and flags - but we're all under the same art form. There's a massive positive with it as well. I can feel the clash and the difficulties with it sometimes but I think it's one for the studio...I don't know if I'm academic or smart enough or have done enough reading to answer that in words...it's certainly something to take to the studio and think more about and write more about. I'd like to hear that answer from other people and it’d be interesting to talk to some of the people that are entering on the international scene. I'm not on the international scene myself in that way. This is bringing up more questions, which is great.
IA: We're gonna go way back now. To your krump pilgrimage in 2005 with the Lisa Ullman Scholarship. You met Tommy The Clown, watched Tight Eyez and David...
BC: Yeah. I was inspired, I saw some clips and I was like ‘this is really exciting, I want to meet these people’. The west coast has a big pull for someone that’s into hip hop music. That was the first music...I think a lot of people forge their identity through music don't they...before I started dancing, it was CDs back in the day, listening to Snoop Dogg and some of those artists from the West Coast who I was listening to. It was magical to go out there...but at the same time - I did have some really positive experiences - it's interesting looking back on it now, many, many years later. I don’t know if appropriation is the right word, but I feel like the scene is very much linked to Black and Christian values - things that I don't know. Looking back now, I don't know if it was ever going to be the main thing for me. I found LA a tricky place to be as it's a very car centric city, I was there for a six week period, which isn't long enough to buy one and it was too expensive to hire one. It was cool...I was staying in Midtown and people were telling me don't go to Compton ‘what are you doing?’ I was wanting a lift there and I was catching buses...but at least when we went to the hood, people would talk to you during the daytime. You could go up to people and ask them stuff...I found LA to be a challenging place because you're in this melting pot and the city is divided very squarely into Korea town, the Black part, the White part, the this part, the that part...people get out of their house, jump in their car to go to this part of town, do their thing and come back the same way. It's very easy never to mix with anyone at all...I really felt racism strongly there when I was watching Fox News and the American news channels. Interestingly enough, I got some contacts and people said stay, make some money and you'll be in the sun...but if money and sunshine are the most important factor to someone then staying there is great...it was interesting because of my family, there's a huge Iranian...I'm going on a bit of a tangent here as it’s gone from krump but looking back at the experience I had there, there's a massive...they call it Terrangeles, a huge Iranian community. But when they go to work, my uncle might be Majid, but they'll be Matt or Joe or John wherever they go to work. Not even vaguely close names, it’s like we're going to put our White hats on...it's interesting because in Bristol and Yorkshire, even growing up there with the national front and all sorts of problems, it was normal to have a Mo or an Amir in the mix, but in LA the same people that I was meeting were going off to work as Matthew, Luke and John...it was just, there was something weird...there was a lot of things going on. Looking back I don't think I was sure what I was doing as an individual...it was amazing to see that dance first-hand and going to those parts of LA is wicked...I would go up and ask for directions and suddenly I was like sat on someone's porch drinking lemonade and chatting, trying my best to answer questions about the King and Queen of England, which I know nothing about...or the Beckham's...just hanging with some cool families in Compton, they insisted we hung out...so there's all this and then at the same time I went for a walk around the posh gated communities, you'd walk around them and a security guard with armed security detail would cruise past you just for the fact that you're walking in that posh neighbourhood. I guess while we're talking about race, it's important to caveat that I'm very much White passing. My wife is white and my mum has light skin for an Iranian, I think it's important to mention that anything I face is the light end of the situation compared to what other people face
IA: Tell me about the full length Hip Hop adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in Turkish hotels.
BC: How did you know about that? I don't think I’ve told anyone about that recently. It was wicked, that was 2006 or 2007 and it came through a commercial agency in Leeds, UDC, who I’d done small choreography jobs for Bench and Ford. It was this luxury hotel chain in Turkey that had groups from all over the world, they approached the agency and so I quickly made this piece and it was amazing. I got to help cast it as well, it was a really interesting crew of dancers...coming back to teaching styles, what I have come to realise is that, if I'm honest, there's more talented dancers than me...not to do myself down...but I think there's something to be said that a lot of the B-boys, B-girls and people on the scene are all self made. They’ve never been told what to do in a room, their team might have always been just themselves...some people might have not been in a crew and so they're all captains. There's not that ‘you stand here mate and do this’. But they're the folks who’re exciting movers and the people who really light up a room. So from that perspective, it's good to have an understanding of breaking and being able to communicate respectfully, how to get on with people...there were some commercial dancers...but the idea of sending off a group of early professional dancers to Turkey with this production was exciting.
IA: What was your adaptation of Romeo and Juliet? Was it West Side Story-esque? What did you do with it?
BC: We had a really talented group of dancers and just finding an exciting soundtrack...when you've got certain B-boys and B-girls you can do some really obvious things if you choose to, but there's really interesting stuff around dynamics and timing and music choices that you can do to make things look much more exciting. Even the rhythm of movements, people might be used to tata tata tata, boom, boom, boom, boom, spin, spin, freeze (I don’t how you’re gonna transcribe that)...let's not give you any moves, let's say I want to see something that's very slow and fluid and then it's got just a little bit of tata tata. Breaking often has the same sets to the same rhythms. I was offering them a different platform and creative tasks to chew on, how can they present their form in a different way using the same vocabulary, but looking at dynamics - that could be one thing. The year or two before I cast this...I think the reason I got this position was because I'd worked with Manuela Berndt - who was German and studied a lot of William Forsyth techniques and she would give tasks to dancers and make work super fast. It was amazing how, compared to Northern School where you'd get a choreographer to come in and you’d do a process over many weeks and you might not even have anything to show at the end - Manuela would come along - and I was in her company - and boom...in a matter of minutes and hours you'd be creating something that looked like it had been worked on for weeks, really intricate things. I took some of that with me into that space, so I was able to give tasks that I knew would produce interesting and intricate work fast...it wouldn’t look like a load of dancers dancing beautifully in unison, it made the most out of their talents. There was interesting use of space, interesting phrases and at that point I was doing less writing, but I wanted to get them to express certain things verbally, as it's quite powerful when you've seen an amazing dance piece, you see something really athletic, lots of flips, the whole range...and then for them to turn round to the audience and tell you something altogether, that was nice as well. The mad thing about that was that the financial crash happened...so I was due to...credit to the dancers, because I left it after a very short rehearsal period and they went out there and did the rest of the work on it, to rehearse it and get it up to scratch themselves, change some bits etc. I know Ess Green, props to him as well, he took the soundtrack on his laptop and was a wizard cleaning it up. The agent was like...I buttered them up a bit to get a flight out there, but then the financial crash happens and no one's going to luxury hotels. So all the shows left, the dancers came home and I’ve got some really interesting stories about it through the cast. But I went out Turkey anyway to not see the show that I'd choreographed...I never saw it finished, the last time I saw it was in a church hall in Leeds. So if anyone reads this, has footage or wants to share stuff about that trip...some of the dancers you've got on here, Ella Mesma, she was in that group. So if anyone has any footage I'd like to see it.
IA: At the other end of this - you've already mentioned Foggy - talk to me about Breakin’ Dads with Maison Foo.
BC: Great. The journey with them has continued as well...it was totally out of the blue that Foggy approached me and told me about this project. I think Beth and Maison Foo...I might be wrong on this, but they were both mothers and had been talking about projects for some time...I think they thought we need do something different and you don't think...when breaking comes to mind you don’t necessarily think of dads. I think they liked to take a risk - which is great - so Foggy and I were enlisted and we were given these slings and our doll babies...we suddenly had to think about what it's like to move when holding a baby, some of it was obviously taking the piss - it wasn't real, but there was tenderness in there too. I'd never been to Derby, so experiencing that, going down there, working on the street and working with them...it transpires that since then they have moved their work towards community engagement and they've built up a lot of trust within the Iranian community. I was checking in with Beth and she gave me a lot of sound advice...especially around how to...if people come to this country and they've been treated badly by every organisation, let down left, right and centre and had a difficult time to get here. It's understandable that the trust isn't going to be something that's there at the forefront. You have to build trust really slowly to work with groups...sometimes as an artist, you walk in, everyone's on board and you get cracking...they've built something up over a long time and have got a lot of trust within that community...so it was good for me to go down recently and show my solo work and hear from that community.
IA: Describe Breakin’ Dads for those who haven't seen it.
BC: It's two dads...maybe they've stopped...maybe they used to break back in the day when it was popular and they were B-boys. Back in the day they get down do the worm, the caterpillar, the classic moves and then they bump into each other in town and think ‘has he still got it?’ Then, here’s a little something, oh you can still do it, here's a little bit more...but I'm carrying a baby, I've got to be careful now. That kind of thing.
IA: From that to your relationship with Damien Barber and your Hip Hop folk dance collaborations.
BC: Yeah. That's been a big thing for me. Damien Barber runs a folk rock band - originally The Demon Barbers. I'm quite nosey and curious, so when I was at Yorkshire Dance they have multiple studios so I poked my head around every door to see what the vibe is...see if I get told to do one or...when he was in I poked my head in and I was there for something else...but the choreographer at the time, Lucy Suggate, said come in...Damien was doing workshop and talking about the history of English folk dance because he's got really good knowledge about that. He was explaining about rapper dance, not MC Rap, but rapper swords - they're like kebab skewers, they're quite rigid but you hold them so they're bent and it's quite physically demanding. He spoke about how they were originally used to scrape dirt from the pit ponies and talking about the history and then he taught a workshop on the dance as well. It was a massive eye opener because I think like a lot of us you think English folk is just the butt of jokes. But to see something live, done well, is completely different. It is actually really cool. He had a genuine urge to move away from the folk circuit and offer it to a wider audience and theatres. He recognised that ability to quickly make something and get everyone on board...you have to remember that his cast and band weren't necessarily...they were used to being behind their instruments and doing their thing in a classic way...the way I saw it is that OK, why doesn’t this person be a bit of a clown, you’ve got these Tommy and Betty characters...when I was finding out more about the tradition, I was finding out more possibilities about how we could work this into a story and present it in a completely different way. Could this be a fight? Could this be a battle? So I worked with him, looked at all the different parts of the jigsaw, who could do what and came up with this concept where it was hip hop meets English folk...at first they're not really sure about each other, things build, they interact more and eventually start to get on board with what each other's doing. There was a real penny drops moment in the studio, especially once we stripped away the music, because if you look at the dance moves from certain Morris steps and you say let's not do this in a traditional costume, let's look at hip hop vocabulary and see what the most similar bits of footwork are...you put them next to each other, I was teaching the other dancers and then Damien and I stepped back and both our jaws dropped. Once you take away the classic things of any aesthetic, you can put a hip hop beat behind it or the Morris way...it was like wow. I guess we're all humans from East Africa at the end of the day and we can only move our hands and feet in so many ways. It’s funny how things change if we’re wearing baggy clothes or putting beat on something. Neither of us expected it to be as successful as it was, so it goes on tour every Christmas and it's been nice having people open the shows with different morris teams and crews coming through.
IA: There's a digital version on Zoom version coming up for Christmas 2021?
BC: Yeah this year is a complicated year...we were going to do a single date rather than a full tour, but it's quite fun, last year we did it as a digital Christmas version and we were thinking of Jools Holland. Rather than trying to do the original show on camera and it might not look very good we’re treating it as a bit of a Jools Holland...a bit of a show, different snippets, some interviews, let’s play around with it a little bit. We're gonna combine those two ideas this year and there’ll be a live audience too. We're not gonna try and do the stage version on screen...we are going to have fun and mix it like a TV show. Someone's gonna get custard pied.
IA: Those projects are you with other people in collaboration, can you talk about you as a maker and a creator. Talk to me about The Persian Paddleboarder.
BC: Exactly. You're quite right - all these are other visions that other people have had. The Persian Paddleboarder...there was a call out for this project in Bradford where they were looking for...it was a lot to do with site specific...so I got on Google Maps and I was thinking about what really excites me about Bradford, what are the areas, is there a certain building that really does it for me. I do try and cycle in sometimes from Leeds and the nice way to do that is along the canal. So, it was Bradford, it didn't have to be the city, just a Bradford postcode...so then I thought, the canal’s a cool place, it's COVID safe, no-one can touch me and I’ll be two metres away from people... I'll get a flotilla and do a carnival, one big boat with the band, one big boat with the dancers and audience on the towpath. I sat down and was explaining this idea to Sarah Shead and Hadi and they looked at the budget and were like, ‘great Bobs but let's look at the budget, we don't want to pay people crap’ So, we thought, reduce, reduce, reduce until it was me on a paddleboard. Within my solo show there's a character that I call the Purrsian, like the cat, he's not a clown in the classic sense, but that's the form he tends to use. He's very fun, interactive and it's really exciting.
IA: How are you getting hip hop on a paddleboard?
BC: It’s team bonkers...how do you get Hip Hop on a paddle board? There's a difficult and fine line between Borat and...that's not what it's about for me. But getting people in with a sense of humour, being a bit nuts...then I’ll stop on the board and I've got some really cool Iranian DJs remixing Iranian poet/singer Shajarian...reel everyone in, get them laughing, get them crowded on the banks of the water. Then stop all that and have a nice, long, popping/animation section. There is that moment of calm and that moment of hip hop and stuff like that. Then it stops and it's the next bonkers bit...I give myself a tea break. I got a clown coach, Holly Stoppit, mainly to work on the solo show, but I mentioned the paddleboard and she was like, ‘let's find a backstory’. So I've arrived from the Iranian Tourism Board and I've got a meeting at Bradford Council, I'm on the way to that meeting with the council to see if anyone can help and on the way I'm really happy to connect with people.
IA: From that to your solo, which has been in development for a while. How would you describe where it is right now?
BC: It's in a good place...we had four solid test performances in different venues and the reception was ace…alongside the conversations around it. I'd said to myself, I want it to spark conversation and hopefully I'd be doing stuff where it might leave people a bit more open to having a conversation with someone in a hijab or engaging with a culture that is often associated with fear and danger. Some of the sharings early on we did like a q&a and I don't know where the idea came from, but after the performance is really special for me...it's important that we serve Iranian tea and biscuits and I stick around in the space. It's not just watch the show and go home...we experimented with doing a q&a, allowing people to stick around and not rushing off. If you imagine from our perspective, if you only see hate, hate, hate in the media about people from your community...I've had trips to Iran, so I won't be shook, I know we are normal folk that are loving and I've been welcomed with open arms every time I've been...I'm back-pedalling a little bit...we'll rewind a sec, because why did I want to make it? As you’ve said I had this career of mainly doing cool visions for other people...it's been good and I've been really blessed to be on that journey. I've been living the dream as far as I'm concerned, working with people that I looked up to...I mentioned earlier, I had a bit of racism lite, very lite with the National Front in Bristol. Then as I grew up, I felt there was less of that around and I was surrounding myself with more artists and so I wasn't hearing as much of the P word - the short version of Pakistani - which was bandied around a lot when I was growing up. Then 9/11 happens. Luckily, I was surrounded by cool people, but everyone who was Brown or Muslim was now a fundamentalist and were expected to know why that had happened. It was not great. I carried on, doing more stuff and then there was the Trump Muslim ban...that was like, it's getting to a point where I'm like - fuck. I got quite angry, quite upset and quite depressed about that. It's OK now...but I thought I've got to use my skillset and I need to make my own work. That was the motivation. That got me into the studio. So I did those runs of the test show and the conversations and it was really nice to hear...I did an exercise where before we spoke about my work, I asked everyone in the audience if they could think of either a British Muslim or something from Islam or Middle Eastern culture that they could talk about that was unrelated to my show - as a positive thing. It was so, so nice to hear these things and there were medics that came that had said some of their patients had brought in amazing pastries and home baked food, someone had been invited to an Iranian wedding...it was so refreshing and exciting to be in a room and hear people - after years of bullshit in the media - that was really, really special. Regardless of my work, being in a room and allowing that conversation to happen with lots of people – White, non White kids, younger, older...I'm really happy about that.
IA: There's a story in it where you talk about finding these breakers in a park.
BC: Yeah. That's cool. So with these bigger, wider themes in mind...it was like, well what’s the personal story...and I knew what those bigger questions were, but I didn't really know what form it was gonna. Most people thought I was going to make a movement based piece, but that specific bit, when I talk about it now, that's the real hip hop theatre. The other thing is...you just make work and then people call it what they want...I didn't set out to make a Hip Hop theatre piece. The story is fairly true to life...I'd gone to Iran in my late teens - when it was getting exciting in Bristol - we had reached the point where we were getting invited to clubs with our breaking stuff and were on guest list...it was really exciting because Roni Size and all the Drum and Bass was kicking in the city. All those clubs would have a second room and would be playing hip hop and we’d be on the guest list at The Thekla or wherever in Bristol, do our set and our thing...and as a teenager to reach that point was good. My family had been toying with going to Iran. I think my my mum had wanted to go, but even she had some reservations. So we went to Turkey instead, which was great, it's the Middle East and we experienced a wonderful time, but it wasn't Iran. Eventually, she was like, ‘let's just do it. Let's go as a family’. At that point I hadn't been...I'd been as a toddler but not as an adult. I knew it might be quite family orientated, so we're going and I've got the chance to extend my stay, to have a few extra weeks in Iran...bearing in mind I'd left this really exciting hip hop scene in Bristol, all the graffiti, all the partying, all of it locked in together. I was a little bit like ‘I'm going to be sat around with aunts and uncles drinking tea, not doing too much’ and the hosting was amazing and you're sitting down drinking the best tea and biscuits you've ever had in your life. But Tehran is a megacity, one of the biggest, on the top 10 lists however you measure it. I was like, I'll just go and find the latest crew...but you could barely check your email, the Internet was shocking, Googling stuff wasn't getting any results and I was just asking my family and friends and they would say ‘no, it doesn't exist’. But then you're like, somewhere in your mind, you think it's just not possible. You can't have this many people and not have a breaking scene. I was asking around and I'd found some bits of music, some interesting cafes and I was having a nice time, but it’s not that fix. I was getting the same response from everyone. No. It doesn't exist here. I was spending a lot of time wandering around the parks as a nice thing to do. There's smog there and the air’s not good. Finally two guys appeared, you can see by the way they dressed, they looked a bit more...with the threads on and sure enough they just started hitting freezes. It's that classic thing - at that point my language wasn't very good. I literally tapped him on the shoulder and started throwing down. Trying to really not hold back. I was like, this is it, this is it. Because you don't know what people are like, it's that old school way of thinking you have to battle us...and then you can be part of the crew. So I was like, bam, go and I was calling them out. It was cool, but I think they were quite surprised, but happy to go for it as well. There was no music, just raw on the concrete. Old school. Went a few rounds and that was it then...you just need a phone number. Once you've got that number in your mobile, then they showed me all the rest of the spots. They were a bit younger than me, but then the elders of the crew came and I was able to train all the time. There was multiple crews and it was really good. Back then the scene was really power orientated, because with the bad Internet you could only see 10 seconds of video, you’d only ever see these short bursts of power moves. It was quite nice to be able to...I'm not power head...show some bits of footwork and a little bit of popping. It doesn't matter with language when you train with people. So I thought that would be an interesting thing to put on stage. I’d seen Tony Mills with Room 2 Manoeuvre, where he'd come to Leeds with his piece and he gave me a ring and said ‘hey, do you want to come down, there's a bit part for a walk on role for some B-boys if you're up for giving your crew a shout’. So we went down there, it was really cool, it was, here's the cue, just come on, you're gonna have a battle and sit back down again. It was nice but challenging because we’re sat in theatre and where's your warm up...you’re boom, on stage and doing it. Unfortunately there wasn't that many people in the theatre, so I thought that is a really interesting concept that he's done. He knows...he's come to see the show, so it’s a bit of a bite, but I've got his blessing. So I thought, let's test that idea, let's talk about that scene, talk about that moment and invite different breakers in for that moment. You talked earlier about who I'm teaching now or my lineage...at first I asked people quite close to me...I found that the more sharings the better, it’s that kick up the butt I need and I've been sharing every two minutes during my process, asking various people to come through and step into that scene. This is what I say just before that scene ‘I began to lose all hope until two B-boys enter the park, dressed just like me, and they've got matching caps on’ and at that point they wander on it. There's a lot of people that have never experienced Hip Hop theatre, some younger dancers have come in and experienced a sharing of my work and have stepped into that role and have been around for the feedback...hopefully it’s given those people a bit of experience as well. What I learned through that is that I'd been whitewashing that role - which is really shameful. Because that situation was with two Iranian Muslim guys in a park and I had been looking at who's around, who’s been working with me in the studio and inviting them to play that role...whereas I should at least try to call out - it might be long shot and I might not get two Iranian Muslim B-boys cast. When I went to London, I was like, let me reach out to my networks and see if anyone Middle Eastern or Muslim might be around for this specific date to come down...and that opened up some really amazing conversations, loads people got back to me all saying Faraz Razzle Roc Khan, and B-boy Flo as well who has converted to Islam more recently. I'm really glad that that's starting to happen and that's opened up some doors for some really exciting conversations. It was interesting putting that call out and starting to understand. Going back to that scene, it started to make me think about things like that and call myself out on things...also about vocabulary. It's really easy to...again through conversation with Razzle Roc...I use the term breaker, there's one time I use UK B-boy Forums, but before that I kept saying B-boy and Razzle Roc was like, ‘yo, you've got a little girl, what about the women and girls that come into your show, don’t they want to be inspired? You're just saying B-boy this, B-boy that?’ I'm like, ‘God. It’s so true’. I'm learning a lot. I've edited my lines to either say breaker or B-Boy and B-girl and I'm really grateful to have that criticism. It made me think it's important to at least try and get those terms correct.
IA: What was the first hip hop theatre work that you saw?
BC: It was at the Arnolfini in Bristol, there was a bouncy castle and a cast of four or five. Maybe it was blah, blah, blah...have they done anything in hip hop theatre? I can't even picture it that clearly, but in terms of the earliest thing, I don't even know if it's 100% Hip Hop...it probably would be. A few people kept coming up to me and said I should go and see it at the Arnolfini. It had a bouncy castle in it. It definitely had a guy that was doing a lot of popping and breaking. It was quite a physical show. One that was influential was Insane in the Brain / One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Bounce, that really stayed with me, it had a cinematographic production and used all sorts of things. That was one that's really stuck. Considering Run DMC and Jason Nevins video on Top of the Pops was the thing that got me interested, I've never really been that excited by film, I've always been interested in live audiences and live stuff. But they used a bit of film really, really cleverly. Recently what's been influential, I experimented with substances too much as a kid and I'm afraid and that's why I can't remember the details of all the first things I saw which I should do...to be fair I went to see a lot of music gigs to feed and nourish myself. I saw Akeim Buck’s Windows of Displacement - which isn't Hip Hop theatre - but it is very physical and he's talking about his experiences in Jamaica and in this country. That really made me want to get up and do something really positive...the other one is Andy Brooks aka Testament - an incredible MC. When we used to jam and go out in Leeds he'd be fronting and appearing with loads of bands, I knew he was a badass MC. I went to see Woke twice or three times and I would see it again, it was asking all sorts of questions about how he'd become a dad and started to realise about the misogynistic lyrics in things...he started to question things and kept digging further, but everything he would dig, every record he found would have more questions and be more problematic - James Brown Black Power – but he was known to be beating his wife at that time. He had the audience in the palm of his hands, it was seriously amazing stuff. Really fun, quite funny, poignant and moving. I took a couple of friends and I think it did a lot for them as well. So those two guys and seeing those two pieces made me think, right, a solo, I could do a solo...I was like do I try to curate a weekend of events or do I try and challenge myself and make a work?
IA: Part of the Hip Hop Dance Almanac is about archiving and documentation. How do you consider your archive? How do you document? And ultimately, what is the legacy that you want to leave?
BC: Oh, gosh. Well done for asking that question...because you've given me some homework I think is the short answer. I'm bad at that. I think even this process…and I've seen other artists on their website have a more in-depth thing of their own story for a start. Maybe I should...I could start by putting pen to paper and having somewhere where that's charted out, I think that'd be good. I think with contemporary dance some things have been charted and there's a bit more like ‘oh, this is this company, this is this company, this is where they sit in the world’. But if you're Middle Eastern and Muslim, and you're in the Hip Hop world, what organisations are doing what, who's good and who's like…where do they sit? So I think there's a bit of work to be done…to chart and explain things. There's different important organisations...one’s MEND Muslim Engagement and Development, they’re doing important work and there's MENA ARTS UK. There's people like Lilou who back in the day rocked that ‘I'm Muslim, don't panic’ t-shirt - that's something I really clocked as well. I'm starting to try and...I would never do this before...I'd be like, ‘what's the meeting for, I just want to move, meetings are a waste of time’. That was my attitude. But actually, I think…a bit of charting things and figuring things out and head scratching and chatting to people at this point is a good idea. I’ve started to listen to advice as well, so if anyone's got any advice on how to do those things and document it and chart it then I'm all ears, really. What did you say, documenting?
IA: Documenting, archiving and then ultimately, what is the legacy that you want to leave?
BC: What's the legacy I want to leave? [pause] I feel like...going back to that thing about...people feeling they have to...so Bobak is my real name, people are like ‘oh, is that some cool street name he’s made up’ sometimes. To clarify, I may as well use this platform, the first syllable is B.O.B. ‘Bob’, the second syllable ‘ack’. Bobak...if anyone's worried about how to pronounce it. [pause] One part of my life...I've been called the shortened version of Pakistani, I've been around racism and I’ve really let it affect me. I was just wanting people to call me Bob.. My friends and family, I asked them to call me Bob. But now I love being called Bobak and it's nice to not have to think about a street name or a breaking name. I think there's been...I've been working in the contemporary and Hip Hop field...there's a lot of people who could choose to be a bit more open...maybe they’ve had a similar experience to me and are hiding who they are in some respects. I might identify that there's someone who's a B-boy or a dancer or whatever and I'm really excited cause I think they look quite Iranian, ‘I wonder what their background is’, and I come over really enthusiastically and they’re like ‘I've been discovered just let me be Matt’. Leave me alone, basically. That's difficult to encounter, but understandable having been on that journey myself. There's been a few cats that have bucked that trend. If I can be part of that reason why the next generation of certain people are proud to...even if it's just using their real name or not hiding away from that. If it's a choice of how they dress rather than feel ashamed and I can help influence that. There are certain people in the mainstream like Nadia Hussain, Mohamed Salah...and then on breaking with B-boy Lilou. That is my learning...some people realise how massive that is for people…the fact that he's chosen to embrace that. He's not screaming and shouting about it necessarily - I guess he is because of that t-shirt - but at the same time he's just getting on with it, but he's not kowtowed to that pressure to shut up and be a good Muslim behind closed doors. We are starting to see it and I think there will be more bucking of that trend and we'll come out the other side and someone like me won't matter. All these isms and things, they're all different sides of the same thing, but I feel like Islamophobia is a real issue at the moment. We're talking about Muslim rape gangs and that's what you hear, so many different things, (Boris Johnson's) letterbox comment. So it is a real problem. Suicide rates are higher in Muslim young women than they are in any other group. All these things are what we hide in our community compared to...if you look at Stonewall or Black History Month or anti-Semitism - all these elements that all need…it all needs to improve, but for some reason we haven't galvanised. I think we're good at helping our own, helping our family, but I think if we can widen that to our community and start to just open the door...if I can be part of that. If I can make one person come see my piece and go right, instead of Iran being some scary word, I want to go to an Iranian restaurant and have a lovely interaction with the food and culture, I want to be a part of that.
IA: What do you want to dismantle in Hip Hop and breaking?
BC: What do I want to dismantle in Hip Hop and breaking? I mean...there's a lot of positives. Dismantling. When you say that, what springs to mind...it leads on to ‘what is Hip Hop’ a little bit. If we talk about dismantling something, it probably isn't Hip Hop. So if you take the image of a rapper with those of women in bikinis round him and lots of expensive items, that's not Hip Hop as far as I'm concerned. So if we're having to think about dismantling it, it probably isn't Hip Hop. I don't know if that makes sense or if you'll get to catch my drift, but that question is a bit like null and void to a certain extent because there are huge problems that apply to the world that are really concerning to me - like the wealth gap. If I was a freelancer now coming out of...I came out of uni in 2004. With LEA payslips and things I was able to get a mortgage and survive reasonably and mainly off my art. I'm still doing 10 or 20% other work, but I’m mainly surviving off my art as a self-employed person...if I was to come out with the same experience since the financial crash in 2008, I don't know how I could have made it work. The wealth gap is a hugely concerning thing that I'd like to dismantle and I feel like it's getting worse. I’ve talked about Islamophobia and all sorts but all those things aren't Hip Hop for me. Hip Hop is like...what is Hip Hop then? How do you answer that? It’s the creative blueprint that we've been given by the Black and Latin community in New York...we've been given this offering, this tool and this creative outlet - that is the sense of it. You can't talk about dismantling that...no thanks, it's a beautiful thing. That doesn't mean the world doesn’t have its problems, Hip Hop is there to support and solve them and help it grow and develop.
IA: What is your relationship to craft and to practice within breaking?
BC: What’s my relationship to craft and breaking? That's a difficult question. It's a love hate one. I feel like I'm just dipping my toes really...there's people that really live and breathe it. I want to be involved in that conversation, I want to be able to go out and throw down in the cypher - I don't want to be just watching from the side-lines. I like too many different aspects of art and life to have that same level of dedication of hours that the people competing today are...but at the same time, I definitely enjoy being part of that movement conversation...with breaking as well, sometimes I'm trying to find excuses, like...I'm slightly more slender...breaking is like the sprinting of Hip Hop, it should be for the short, stocky guys. Then I'll see people like Steady or Tony Mills that are a bit taller and they absolutely hit it on the nail dance-wise. There's another young guy from in Battalions as well who’s particularly tall and a great dancer so I’m like ‘that’s no excuse’. I think my body type lends itself quite well to house or popping or waving. In terms of my practice, it's interlinked with the show...people ask you, as soon as you start making work, ‘who are you making it for?’ I’m like ‘I'm making it for me, I want to make the show that I want to see with the aims that I've got’. But actually, I did start to think I've got...I can imagine certain people that come to the theatre and they want that intellectual challenge. They want to be stimulated with certain debatable questions, so I'll try to put something in for that, give the show peppering of that...but certain people want to come away saying, ‘I saw some badass breaking, people were spinning, hitting freezes, they were upside down on their hands’. I've got a duty now, I’ve got that goal where I'm...I turned 40 recently, but I've still got to dial it up and at the very least be training and have a daily practice and conditioning in the run up to the show. So there's the commitment, no matter the excuses, I definitely have that person in the audience in mind and I want to be able to deliver on that. Gotta keep trying to bash out some power, step into those circles and keep cyphering. It's difficult and it doesn't feel natural on my body either compared to locking. I've been...in some ways it’s about the teacher as well...if I'm getting the vibe of a class I like and with locking I love that disco era music. Breaking is what got me started on things, but I definitely feel like I'm in a bit of danger of being a jack of all trades...but the good thing about that is if you're casting or you're making work, then you've got an insight into different things. I shouldn't beat myself up too much about having a basic level of lots of things rather than specialising in one discipline but...but it’s the connection to the music, that's how I started to identify who I was by listening to the break beat, [does break beat impression] like the Amen beat was something very...it makes me think of what people...when we first started picking up a drum and having drum circles years and years ago...for me there’s a deep connection there. Then with this locking class, I love the disco era stuff, it's really uplifting, funky music. I've been enjoying a regular locking practice a lot. Watch out for some good lockers coming out of Leeds very soon.
IA: This is a space for anything that you want to talk about or record that you've not spoken about so far.
BC: That's a good question. Let me see, I made a list. In terms of stuff I've seen that’s been inspiring...I mentioned that I was delivering GCSE dance in the school and I wanted to do a school trip that wasn't on the menu of school trips that people do…I was young and inexperienced and I was getting a lot of grief…it turned into this massive deal with loads of risk assessments and I think people were doubting that I was capable or mature enough to…I took a load of young people to two different settings to do some workshops and then see Benji Reid Life of a B-boy. I was getting so much grief and I was like ‘why did I even bother doing this?’ And then of course, the day came and it was so, so great. The piece was amazing and all the young people I took were absolutely buzzing and it worked super smoothly, maybe that's what inspired me at that moment. There’s something cyclical about what's happening in Leeds now, as I said, it was really big for breaking then it died down again and now it really is bubbling - so it's exciting to be in a city like that. I think when you asked about crew and family...the other thing is I'm still looking for that as well, I think collaborating with people rather than doing solo work is my…the idea that SIN Cru have ‘strength in numbers’ and ‘who is my clan’. I've got this group of people that all dance who are friends, professionally as well. I don't want to just be doing solo work the whole time, so I'm still searching and seeking that out.
IA: One of the big global conversations at the moment is around environmentalism and sustainability. Because we've got this capitalist narrative about bigger, better, growth. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on degrowth and slowness and how they might manifest in your practice and in Hip Hop.
BC: Yeah, that's a real good one. It's so easy to go down those roads and we're all fed this idea and this advertising that we're hit with all the time. Talking about dismantling in Hip Hop, there's an argument to say that there's this capitalist type thing and it's so easy to get sucked into it, because we're subjected to it from a young age. Even as a parent you have a child and suddenly you've been bombarded with ‘you need to buy this, that and the other and these bouncers and these toys’. If you give my daughter an egg box, she’s happy for an hour. It’s so unnecessary to have these huge chunks of plastic all over the place…it's always about upgrading everything all the time, ‘I need a new house, I need a new kitchen, a new car’. We're conditioned to think that we have to...but if you stop and think about it...where can we slow down? It's a really important question and I can only answer these things through personal experience. I’ve been spending a lot of time going from theatres, nightclubs, yoga studios, dance studios, indoors, all those examples of cross lateral movement. I'm doing stuff that's great for my brain. I'm meeting people. I'm travelling, I've got all these fantastic tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. But what season is it Bobak? What? I couldn't tell you anything about it. Has it been a good winter? Bobak, the people that grow your food, what's that season been like for them this year? Has it been good or bad for the potato growers in this country. We’re so far removed from that, and at the same time, I'm doing all this on the outside, on the surface of it...good work in young offenders institute's teaching them stuff, but again it's all indoors. I had a period where I was quite skint as well and a few people had gone to a running club. I was like, ‘how much does it cost?’ and they were like ‘no, you can do the first few runs for free’. I had the sense that I needed to get out of the house and do something that wasn't gonna cost me a lot of money. It was fairly simple, trainers on and I started running with a group. I got some problems with my ankles and my knee and by the time I got to...I did that classic stupid blokey thing of not seeing anyone for years and by the time I did, they were like ‘how often does your foot give away?’ I was like, ‘what do you mean give way?’ They said, ‘yeah, you're not going to be able to use it anymore’. So I had to have a big operation and usually when it’s physio, a lot of dancers will ignore the advice like, ‘you need to take three weeks off’. So you'll be back on it in two days, get a massage, put some weight on it and go again. But this time, I was like, ‘no, I'm gonna listen to this dude. He's put a load of metal into my leg, broken it, redone this, that and the other. I'm going to take the advice’ and I took the best part of the year off...but I was unable to dance or go outside. So when I came out of the other side of that...the good news is I was hench on my upper body - for the first time I was doing doing pull ups and press ups - but I started running with a vengeance. Marathoning. Once I've been out the other side of that it made me realise that I can’t stay cooped up. I've cultivated this need to...it’s mental health as well, being outside is really beneficial on that front. I think it ties into slowing down and being outside and connecting...you've got to have a reason to preserve and not make a mess of things. Being a dad as well, for me it ties into that idea of wanting want to leave things right and well for the for the next generation. I had an interest in that before. I mean, having kids takes a lot of carbon! I’m not suggesting we don’t have kids...but we need to be honest about what increases our carbon footprint and I'm really looking forward to doing some carbon literacy training. There's a lot people doing carbon literacy training and people have said good things about it. I don't know if the Arts Council will pay for that…that would be nice if I can tie that into the project. But we need to slow down. As dancers we need to find ways to get outside sometimes to help mental health. Especially with the Iranian gene, the idea of going out in winter is wrong...I over wrap and put all these layers on and go out like this crazy lump. Then eventually, the habit sticks and I'm running through winter. In my show I talk about different stories from the marathon I did in Tehran...I don't know what people think of Iran, what their perception is, but I'm talking about the breaking scene and the marathon. That’s one viewpoint that might be different. It's not all deserts, AK47s and crazy people with beards shouting. I thought that I could try...my aim at first when I was making a solo was to fit everything on my bike. But then I had this brush, a loop machine, a rug. I was attaching a saxophone too. Imagine what my bike looked like...it got more and more and more...and sadly I'm past the point where there’s no way my show can fit on a bike.
IA: In the last 18 months there's been all sorts of revelations around sexual assault, toxic masculinity and grooming in the Hip Hop and breaking scenes. What is your experience and thought on this?
BC: It’s good that people have talked about it, it's really good...you can still see things from the fringes but as a bloke, fortunately I haven't been a victim of anything like that. But you get a sense of the atmosphere and what's happening. Power to people to keep that going and if I can be an ally in any way. I went to the Northern School and Nadine Senior was there when I was first there and she was really championing stuff...she'd gone out into Harehills and started this thing from nothing. Then someone else took over and there was quite a negative thing happening there, you could just sense it. Luckily, that's all turned around. I realised with my show that I'd written something like, basically it was a damsel in distress story where I come in and save the day. I was just like, ‘oh gosh that's not helping anyone really’. It was this unconscious bias...I mean, even recently I made a comment of someone crying like a little girl to someone. And it’s like ‘why have I even said that?’ So now, even with a daughter, I’m trying to do my bit to understand, learn and educate myself. It just goes to show how embedded it is and how these things do need to be talked about. There's probably a lot of reading and understanding that I need to do around that. I feel like with Black Lives Matter, people were pushing things into my face...but when there's a lot of hype around something, I'll tend to want to let things settle and in my own time, start exploring things around that...I eventually did and started reading Akala and watching specific films. I learned a lot so as the dust settles with this scenario, I'll be able to learn a bit more about it. You need to constantly remind yourself because if I want to go away and read poetry, before I know it I would’ve picked up a load of dead White blokes and read their viewpoint on the world. You need to consciously remind yourself. Have you ever heard of the Rizla game, where you lick a cigarette paper, write a name on it and you stick it on someone’s forehead? You have to ask each other questions and guess…even amongst non-White groups or whatever, if you play that game, everyone's gonna write dead White blokes. That's what happens. So, if I play that now and again, you have to caveat it and say like, ‘you're only allowed to do women today’ or something like that. It’s great that this global movement has happened. All these isms and challenges and things need dismantling. With Iran, I'm really keen to big up all their powerful and important female roles. There's this thing in our culture, where the men get treated one way and the women get treated a different way and it can result in a lot of strange viewpoints and laziness and stuff.
IA: I want you to nerd out a little bit here. What is it about Hip Hop that really excites you…be as specific or niche thing as you want.
BC: This in itself is exciting, there's people who in academia are one thing and breaking is another thing, but to see it merging and people have started to realise the value of it and care about is great. People are excited about the history and how we were saying earlier with Second to None and how Storm got it when they went to Germany. When rave culture came, and breaking was dying off, what was it that motivated people to still be travelling internationally in the face of being told, ‘you're just doing this thing that's blown over and isn't trendy anymore’ But they still went out. What was it that made these people want to do that? It's really exciting hearing about those stories. It's quite biased, but I'm excited about the next generation of Lilou’s that are unashamedly going out there...that choice is a big deal, to open up and do that. With the battles and events sometimes you can just be like...especially the judges who see battle after battle after battle they must be like, ‘that's a lot of...it’s not the same stuff, but the base of the movement they will cover is the same, but there will always be that standout battle, or someone will just do something ridiculous or call out or something so entertaining and everyone's talking about it. Being at those events and seeing those moments unfold...when B-girl Terra wasn’t very well known and suddenly someone will step up to her like ‘I've got to take it easy’ not realising who they are up against. I think seeing those moments unfold are great. Compared to back in the day with the male testosterone and this generation gap of who was dancing. Going to Tech Styles last weekend and seeing who was there was so good, it was such a mix - little kids, OGs and everyone in between. There was more females there than guys. Marius was one of the judges and Lil’ Tim and Fox. What they had to say, their positive outlook on things was really good, about owning it and the ownership of the dance and not letting other people take that away from you. Everyone's got that right to their moment on the floor. I think it was interesting with the Olympics debate, people realising and expressing verbally why this is important and the cultural impact it has on people's lives. What’s exciting in London now with the Sadler's Wells Hip Hop Academy...you can start to say that someone has understood the value of this and said yes, we need to have this, it is hugely beneficial to everyone, let's make this happen. This is as deserving as the Royal Opera House. Why shouldn't breaking have this? As an art form in our own right we deserve the same status as the Royal Opera House and the leading contemporary companies, but we're all still practicing in garages and the back rooms of pubs. Maybe that's the beauty of it, but what we offer society as a community is massive...it's very engaging and it's good way to get people in. What else do I geek out on? There’s some amazing movers on the UK scene and we are sending people all over the place...at one point we weren't repping as much internationally but I think that has all changed. People are going out and winning as well, B-boy Litefoot, Kieran from Shepherd Gang, I think yesterday he was in Spain took a title. But where's the Hip Hop Institute in Leeds? You’ve got the Playhouse, Northern school, the ballet company, the Opera House...and yet out of people's garage we've produced a dancer who's already on the world stage, smashing it. That’s pretty good going.
IA: Anxiety, mental health, COVID grief, it's been massive and really, really real for a lot of people in this past 18 months. As an inversion to that could you name some of the kindnesses that you've received from Hip Hop?
BC: That’s a great question. I’ve been going back and listening to a lot of Black Power music from that era and have been really uplifted by that spirit of what was going on politically and historically. It was Malcolm X...but all those negative times resulted in this ’we’re Black and we're proud’ I was going out running to that, I was like ‘come on, yeah, there's a pandemic and all this shit’s going down, but then there’s this powerful uprising, and the music was really inspirational’. It really fuelled my fire. People will beat back to the 90s era and they're like...‘conscious hip-hip'...before woke...where the lyrics were not just about gangsterism...what a lot of people talk about in the golden era in the 90s, Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul...so to suddenly see people like Kendrick Lamar entering the mainstream and he's got like such important messages and stories. It was really nice to be able to work with young people as a teacher on the front line and still connect online with people...we danced to Anderson Paak’s - Lockdown. So for me to not have to educate a group of young people on someone really niche, the fact that he is so big and mainstream was really exciting. I'm grateful that he's putting his work out, that it's been so popular and has resonated with so many people. It's a bit like when it's all guns and the female word beginning with ’B’, that's not something to celebrate. Any other blessings? We had a baby through lockdown so that brought a lot of light as well. I know it's a beautiful thing and it's probably not relevant to this but it breaks down a lot of barriers...a lot of people connect with you when you've got a little one in your arms, so there was light and energy in that.
IA: What is your strongest memory of dance?
BC: There's that I talked about before Run DMC and seeing that but my Mum used to...I remember as a toddler, me in the living room...and she used to put on traditional and contemporary Iranian music and she's a really strong dancer. It's nice because there's this idea of belly dance that gets exported but she was doing traditional dances, mixing them up and making them her own but also keeping an eye on the Egyptian belly dance too. I remember her daily practice and the enjoyment from putting music on and I would...it’s funny, I remember shooting little Nerf things at her and being a little idiot in the corner, kicking a ball around. This was when I was quite young. I think her doing that and seeing her do that regularly is a really nice image in my mind.
IA: Is there anything else that you want to talk about that it's not been picked up on? You mentioned in another interview that you went to a Mamson class back in the day that felt quite important.
BC: Yeah and he understood teaching styles as well. I'm not always good when people talk in class, sometimes I switch off...but going to Juste Debout, it was the teaching style of...he would do things half time, and then go [claps twice] and you’d do them double time. If you couldn't do them, he’d do them half time again. It was great. We were doing a week of house class and he just said in French, ‘who can speak English and French?’ he got someone over and gave us a calm, brief overview of what house was and where it had come from. Not too long, it was to the point and then we got on with it. Sometimes with the OGs, if you go to a workshop, you can learn loads from the originators, but I've been to classes where you’re looking around the room and they're talking about stories, they go off on a tangent and the hour’s over and you haven't even moved. That doesn’t suit my needs because I'm a visual learner. The other thing...Wanted Posse...they’re a really good example of all the dancers being very individual and having their own styles and skill sets...if you look at the Hip Hop choreography, although it's an amazing visual experience, there's a danger that you're creating...if you look at the most famous of those type of groups that are dancing unison material nobody knows who the dancers are. All they do is push the name or the brand. But what Wanted Posse are a really good example of, is how we can learn to create individuals with their own style and their personality. That's what I'm interested in pursuing as an educator or facilitator. Can I contribute towards more individuals finding their own output and style within that side of Hip Hop...we need to bring those individuals out rather than creating something where they're just a cog...there's a danger where you are a cog in a machine where everyone looks the same and doing the same movement. It was exciting in the early days of Juste Debout...that was the other good thing about the WDSF qualifiers, going back to that like, what was that building that they did the qualifiers in?
IA: Le Châtelet
BC: Thank you. It was so good that they're all cyphering...I went to audition at Juste Debout...no one was sitting down to watch it, it was like that hall was just full of people cyphering, dancing and practising. It's like, yes that’s what we were talking about with the cultural importance of our dance style, we deserve to be there in this big gold room. For now everyone's gonna carry on practicing in their garages and funny spaces, but hopefully cultural institutions in the UK will understand our value...the French government has started to recognise it, so fair play to them.
Photo Credit, Oliver Parker