Watershed, Bristol, November 2018
Wilkie is an interdisciplinary dance artist and film-maker. Self-taught in both dance and film - which form the main focus of his work - the roots of his practice lie in B-Boying. He is a New Wave Associate Artist at Sadler's Wells and in 2019 was the recipient of the Outstanding Production award at the Theatre and Technology Awards for TOM.
IA: Hey Wilkie. First question. The idea of Hip Hop as alternate kinship and family. What is your experience of that?
WB: For me that alternate kinship, as you put it, is one of the things that got me into Hip Hop in the first place and one of the reasons I stuck with it. I found something really special in it. I got into breaking when I was in school; I wasn’t really into football and all the other things sporty people were into but I was quite physical. I got into inline skating and the skaters were all into Hip Hop; they were all doing different things – DJs, writers, rappers. It gave me a home and a sense of belonging which meant that I stuck at it; as time went on and I moved to Bristol and Physical Jerks started I felt it changed me a lot. It enabled me to grow and become the individual I was meant to be. Fitting into a family and being embraced for that was the thing that made it feel special and I felt like that when we were battling; we were a crew. They were as much my family as my blood family were. It’s always been an important aspect of it and it’s only since moving away from the culture into a theatre/film scene that I long for it. It was the heart of what I was doing. It’s been more difficult to hold onto as what I’m doing now is a different context and that has highlighted how important that was while I was doing it.
IA: What role did you adopt within those families?
WB: If I look at it now, I felt like we were all brothers and sisters and depending on what we were doing, the roles changed. If we were in a battle, some of the others who were older and had different experiences would take us on board when we were travelling around; I was doing a lot of the organisation, marketing and stuff so we could do what we wanted to do. Looking back it was quite difficult to define. There were people that you looked up to who were in the generations above you when it came to Hip Hop and that was something that was always drilled into me, understand where it came from and where it can go to. We had these father figures...but I think we were all just brothers and sisters. Yeah. It felt like we were siblings because where we were going was uncharted territory, you know, nobody had been there before so we kind of held onto each other, as siblings do when they encounter new things in life.
IA: You mentioned getting in with an inline skate crew. Can you talk about coming into that community for the first time?
WB: It was really special I think. When I look back, finding that group of people who were all kind of left field and who didn’t fit in anywhere else...the beauty of what we were doing is that each person could find their niche in what they were doing; it was all embracing. Whether you were a skater who liked to hang out with us or whether you were someone who painted the trains at night, there was a place for all of us. As a community it was free of all the other cliques that school had because it didn’t have that overbearing sense of judgement. The more you were able to express yourself, the more you fitted in because you formed part of a cog that fitted into this machine.
IA: How have those formative times and relationships impacted on the things you have made since then?
WB: Coming into Hip Hop that way has influenced how I make work now and the relationships to people I try and work with is an extension of that community. I’m conscious of working with people who might not have the right skills but we’re on the same page and we understand the endeavour that we’re gonna go through. But perhaps more significantly...the way that we went about learning when we were starting out. I got into breaking before YouTube and before it became popular again. There were no classes and nowhere to look online, so you just had to get (video) tapes through the community and figure it out for yourself. I think that’s been a valuable tool, particularly in the films I’ve gone on to do, because I’ve never been daunted by something that technically I haven’t been able to do. I’ve never sought justification or validation, I’ve just gone OK it’s possible and figured out how to do it. I think it’s Hip Hop that gave me that. I know what I wanna do and I’ll figure out how to do it. That’s a Hip Hop way of being and I definitely carry that through what I do now.
IA: Can you talk about the 90s, your early days and battles? What are the things that stand out 20 years later?
WB: When I look back on it, it seems so sort of…we had a couple of VHS tapes and Second to None were the UK B-Boy champs. You saw these people who lived down the road from us and they were incredible with what they did and we were blown away by it. When you saw the way they battled and how they were so passionate about it, it made me want to try and emulate that in some way. In the early days when there was a jam or a battle - because we weren’t connected through the internet - it was like an adventure; you would go somewhere and they wouldn’t have heard of you because you weren’t on the internet. There was an excitement to it and we’d all break slightly differently because we’d all evolved slightly differently in our little bubbles; it was different to how I see it now. Now you finish a battle and it’s already up on the internet and someone on the other side of the world has already seen it. There was something special about that and it also made it quite tough. It changed the way we saw ourselves because you didn’t have anyone to compare yourselves to and you might think you were the only B-Boys in the South West and then you’d turn up to Westward Ho! and discover a whole group of people doing it down there. Discovering all these pockets of people doing it, and this mutual respect really made it feel like you were doing something that was a special. You felt you were in a special club because there weren’t that many people doing it.
IA: It’s impossible to imagine now - the idea of watching video tapes. That’s an alien concept to today’s instant digital saturation. What was that like? Was it communal watching?
WB: Yeah. If someone had been to America and picked up the latest Freestyle session tape - which had probably been copied a bazillion times and the tracking was all off - we’d all sit down and watch it. We’d watch it again and again and again. I think the thing that came out of that that was different was, we were all watching them together. The people we were seeing in those videos...we sort of idolised them because there wasn’t so many crews here. With the handful of crews in the US, you would get excited if you knew the new Freestyle session was out and someone told you that Havikoro were battling Style Elements; you knew all the different characters and elements in those crews. As the internet became more prevalent, we were just a bit spoiled I think and didn’t look at things in the same way. Technically the level has continued to go up and up, it’s better than what we could have imagined at that time. But the way that we come to the culture has changed over time.
IA: That’s interesting. How people find Hip Hop or how Hip Hop finds people. How has that changed in your opinion?
WB: I dunno, it’s difficult for me to say because I feel like I’m not as connected to the culture now. I definitely feel like when I came to Bristol it was a little bit elitist. It was a difficult scene to break into and you had to earn your stripes; I imagine that element is still the same now. It was a much smaller group of people and it was much harder to find out what was going on. The first thing I did when I came here, because I came to Bristol for university, was to try and find out where we could go B-Boying. I came here with a friend and we grew up in the sticks and there wasn’t really that much to do. We had been in real isolation. Bristol Dance Centre was the first place I tried; we went down there and tried to integrate and after a couple of months I remember them saying “Why don’t you come to Dojo on a Wednesday?” They always used to go there and it felt like being let into something. Nothing was for free, everyone had to earn their stripes. I can’t really speak for how it is different now, other than there are classes and there are YouTube so you can look up a tutorial.
IA: What was going on in Dojo nights? Was it practice? Was it social?
WB: It was a bit of both really. It was a chance to do what we felt was the heart of what we were doing. We used to go to the dance centre and learn moves, it was social in that sense, but going out to a club - where you’re in a certain environment - that’s where B-Boying has a real home, it felt like a chance to do things where it should be done. We used to have battles with each other and every now and then people would turn up who were new to the city and we’d battle them, lots of arguments with drunk people who were spinning around on the floor. It was just having fun at the end of the day, somewhere to go and have fun and do what we loved doing.
IA: You mentioned the brothers and siblings. Hip Hop and brotherhood is really clear in two works you’ve been involved in – Boing! and White Caps. Can you talk about how that has fed into your work?
WB: I think most of my work has been autobiographical. When I found Hip Hop it was a way for me to express my identity and try to demonstrate to the people around me, my actual family, what I was doing with my life. That element with me and the crew that made White Caps and Boing! was one of the most influential things in my life. I thought it was a universal thing, that other people would be able to relate to it and be interested in a sense of brotherhood. With White Caps the narrative that we were trying to put out there - about two brothers trying to achieve something and forge their way in the world together - was the same as the process we went through to make it. To keep feeding ourselves and keep a roof over our head while we were doing it; being ridiculously ambitious, filming bits outside in November etc. We had the strength to do that together; that was in the story and in our lives at the time. I’ve definitely found that taking what we were doing and putting it into that context, into theatres and films has been in conflict with those things sometimes. When we made the transition between a B-Boy crew that was doing street dance and battles as Physical Jerks to Champloo – a company we were trying to run and be this Hip Hop theatre company - it wasn’t really in harmony because we went through a thing a lot of B-Boy crews go through when you get into your teens and early twenties. Life starts to change, you get lives and responsibilities, people have families and have to look after their own lives and pursue their careers. It stops being the endless summer it was and forces you to make a decision about whether you are going to pursue it in a way that supports you professionally in your life or if you try and fit it in around the things you have in your life. Everyone gets to that point and has to make decisions and that creates conflict; as soon as you bring any life weight into something and it isn’t just about having fun and winning battles it becomes about how you’re moving forwards in your life. The weight of it changes. It’s very difficult to sustain and be considerate towards the friendships that were at the heart of it at the beginning; that is the thing that I and other people have struggled with the most.
IA: White Caps is the theatrical manifestation of the things you are describing and that’s an interesting way of putting autobiography on stage. Is that how you would frame TOM as well?
WB: Yeah. I think all of those projects are reflections on where I’m at really. I’m aware of it being self-indulgent but I’ve always felt what I know most about is my experience of life and that’s valid for me as a piece of art. If something has a universality that you’re reflecting back then everybody can relate to it. The struggle we were going through and the thing that bound us together is something everyone can relate to. The specifics of our situation is different, and the context is different but I’ve only made work when I’ve felt strongly about the essence and struggled to communicate it in words. With White Caps the community and relationships I had with B-Boys was such a massive part of my life. I thought that my parents would never be able to understand that or be able to relate to it. But White Caps was a way for me to show them that. I could never tell them, so I showed them. I think TOM is the same. It’s dealing with a lot of issues but they’re things that people find difficult to put into words and express.
IA: How has making these works been received by friends and family?
WB: I’m not sure to be honest. I think it does what I set out to do. I’m not sure it opens up more dialogue between those factions of my life; I’ve used it as an excuse to not open up those elements and talk about it more. A lot of the things in those shows are things that can’t be put into words...they can only be communicated through showing and expressed in the ways that dance communicates things. I’ve imagined that they’re going to be magic bullets and unlock a communication that will be free flowing; if I’m honest, in real life it doesn’t work like that. You have to do all the work to make those connections with people and build those relationships.
IA: Talking about Joel (Daniel) how did it go from Wilkie to Wilkie and Joel?
WB: We were together in Physical Jerks and were getting to that age where we were heading in different directions. A big turning point for me was when Joel wanted to push Hip Hop and dance as much as possible. He went off to Northern School of Contemporary Dance and got a degree in dance; when he came back I felt like it was the natural point for us to go off and explore that. We’d always liked to think we were a little bit ‘Bristol’, a little bit on the left side and our aspirations was to do other things and make shows that weren’t just about Hip Hop. We shared that. It was the two of us, in the right place to go down that line together.
IA: Within your networks who are the three people that you would go to?
WB: Right now? That’s really difficult to answer. I...the problem I’ve always had is what I do falls between the cracks. It’s not film, it’s not contemporary dance, it’s not Hip Hop - it falls in the middle space between those things. Depending on what I’m doing and where it sits closest to one of those islands, that person might change. I’ve been very transitory in the relationships I’ve upheld. When I was in Bristol things were much more settled, Joel was one of those people, but when I moved to Brussels and to London those people have kept evolving. It’s a very non-solid thing at the moment. There’s definitely people at Sadler’s Wells. I feel they really support the direction I’m going in and that’s the best anchor; when I need direction those are the people I go to. I feel very estranged from the Hip Hop community as I’ve gone on. I don’t think there’s people within that community that I go to.
IA: Your repeated collaborators...Rob (Saunders), Adam (Peck) and Benji (Bower) have been with you for many years on multiple projects. Can you talk about what it is to collaborate with them and why you work with them?
WB: They’re super talented people. When you find people that get what you’re trying to do it’s worth sticking with them. When I go about making a project it’s very…it’s not the best way to make a project. TOM took over two years to make it, it was very over budget and difficult for people to connect to the vision; it was a very slow project and the venues I was working with encouraged me to work in a more conventional way. Because they’re very talented people and I’ve chosen to work with them, I’m trying to protect the vision and feel they feed into that without bringing up conflict and feeding the artistic vision.
IA: In particular Rob as Director of Photography. How is that with him? Choice of shot, angle, lighting etc. How do you get what is in your head out?
WB: Me and Rob haven’t worked together since White Caps – that was the main thing we worked on. We got into breaking together; we were in physics class and both discovered we’d been trying to learn to windmill off of a video, so we teamed up. He came to Bristol at the same time I came to university and the process of self-teaching, making stuff up as you go along together; we’ve gone on quite a long journey. With White Caps one of the biggest choreographic elements in it was the movement of the camera responding to the landscape. It was impossible for me to think I’d create what I wanted if I had a DOP who just set up a load of shots and make it in the edit. I was really specific about each shot because I was protecting the vision; but because I had that relationship with Rob, he was able to suggest things and I was open enough. He’s very good at what he does.
IA: Has studying geography impacted how you’ve made work?
WB: I think it must have done. I did enjoy it at university; it was physical geography, so we did a lot of stuff on landform and that must have got in there somehow. I’ve always been drawn to the aesthetic and shape of landform; it’s definitely something that’s important to me and the work I do. When I think about the process was very difficult; I struggled to fit in as much ‘dance’ as I wanted because the process dictated the form it was gonna take. What I was most excited about making was how I could make the camera dance within these landscapes. As well as a camera that wasn’t attached to physics, I could make it fly; it became the choreographic tool I’d always wanted. Even when we did White Caps – which we had crazy ideas for – I had loads of flying shots I wanted to do, it was before the days of drones so we had to make rigs of washing lines on trees in the forest and do it that way. It finally feels doing TOM in this way I’m able to do what I wanted to. To make the camera dance how I wanted it to dance.
IA: There’s a real prevalence of landscape in TOM; different landscapes that are evocative of different moods and mental states. Can you talk a bit about the emotional relationship to the landscape?
WB: I think it’s just that Ian. When you’re in the underground in London, you feel an individual, not even connected to other people; when you’re on the escalator travelling down into the depths of the city...the way the Jubilee Line is this grey, iron, hard steel, it reflects back to society and that’s an atmosphere that evokes a lot. It’s the same for landscapes. A lot of the landscapes for TOM were based off of a visit to the Isle of Skye a long time ago; there’s a lot of diverse landscapes there. As an individual I’m just really really drawn to and love riding the underground, the feelings it evokes...we’re a metropolis and we’re all being carted through the city, like veins and blood, doing our jobs. That has a particular emotive meaning to it, but it also has a choreographic element to it as well. The pathways we travel when we’re in those systems, and conversely the freedom we have when we’re in a wilderness environment.
IA: I want to talk about labour, investment and repetition. In Little Dreams and TOM there is a real investment from you. One way I look at it is like when you’re trying to perfect a move. You practice and practice till you get it. I see similarities with what you’re trying to achieve with the animation. Can you expand on that? What was it like to cut out all those figures?
WB: Both of those things was a real challenge because there was a lot of repetition. The particular way I decided to do them was driven by an artistic choice but also the practicalities of what was possible to achieve; I made both those pieces of work at times when I felt powerless in my own life. Having something that I had complete control over was a way of dealing with that; the projects I’ve done have been over ambitious in a technical way and I suspect there is an element of over compensating through working hard to mitigate against failure. I enjoy the endeavour and I enjoy the challenge. I know that is a privilege to pour that amount of time into something because it’s not something everyone is afforded. At the same time it feels like I’m afraid of not succeeding or not being good enough; I feel like if I can do something that’s more impossible than everybody else, then that’s something. That’s not necessarily related to talent or vision or anything else it’s just over compensation. I think when you look back to breaking...when I started breaking it’s there as well; there was a lot of being the best that I can be, but also trying to emulate Second to None. If I had a faster windmill or better swipes those could be things I could stand by to make me feel like I had a sense of self-worth. I haven’t dealt with those issues and I’ve carried it through into the way I make work.
IA: What are some of the things that are troubling you?
WB: The thing that is most concerning is that I’m 35 and the way that I make work is very unsustainable; I don’t make enough to get by on most of the time and when I think about the future, and heaven forbid think about pensions or anything like that, it’s just a big black void. I see peers who are settling down and making sensible life choices and I’ve avoided that road; I’ve always prioritised the work that I’m doing and unlike a lot of other industries this one doesn’t pay you back with security and sustainability. In many other industries if you poured yourself into your work you would climb up a ladder and your pension would build up. That’s the thing that concerns me the most. The thing that I do is driven from a very insecure place and the path that I’m treading is a very unsustainable one. How long can I sustain that? How am I able to switch to a more sustainable way of working? What am I prepared to compromise?
IA: What isn’t spoken a lot about in the Hip Hop community is the idea of self-care and mental health. How do you invest in those?
WB: I’m not very good at that. My coping mechanism is to make the work in the way that I make it and I don’t think that’s right, I wouldn’t be an advocate for that. But within the dance world and within the Hip Hop world there are a lot of similarities; I see with people that have come into the industry and culture because they’re seeking a sense of place, because they haven’t been able to fit in elsewhere. Or they’ve been drawn to the escapism of it. As a result I think a lot of people do struggle with mental health issues in those communities; it’s become really apparent to me recently how difficult it is to talk about those things, not just because they’re difficult things to talk about but the industry is very unforgiving. It’s very competitive. Everyone’s getting undercut and if you stand up and say 'I’d like to do this job, but I’m not in a very good place to do it.' They say ‘OK, we’ll get the next person in to do it.’ There are not enough resources in society to deal with it. We don’t have the cultural tools to deal with it as individuals and as an industry; I don’t really have any answers for that. When I made TOM I was very keen to get across...I’m not trying to get across a political statement about men and their mental health, I was just trying to get across something that others might benefit from seeing. That’s partly because I don’t feel I have any answers. I’m just an artist. I make things and I don’t have the tools to answer them.
IA: The moment in TOM where one you - because there’s many you’s in it - was beating another you in the face. That was explicit. Other works skirt around it, but that felt real.
WB: For me it’s a way of demonstrating self-harm with a narrative; when I started making it I didn’t set out to make a piece about it, but it’s an element of what it’s about. I was unsure how to make...when you go to see work you can get shock value from things and you can use music to get emotional things for free. I try to be aware of these things. To use violence against yourself, to harm yourself, it’s such a stark and brutal thing that the logic of it doesn’t make sense to people who haven’t gone to that place or haven’t had that door open. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t think of a way of saying to those people that knew what that was, and to the people who have never experienced it, this is what it is. I felt like I couldn’t find a way of doing it in a less direct way. Because there are so many versions of me in the piece, I could have another version of me inflicting this on myself, and the two of them being complicit in it; it felt like a way of achieving that without making it cliché, literally watching someone doing it to themselves. Having a clone of themselves and doing it says the same thing but in a different way.
IA: Hip Hop has a codified language behind the original styles and foundations. What’s your relationship to the origins?
WB: From a technical dancing perspective?
WB: When I got into breaking it was all about foundation. I feel like I got my foundation and tried my best to evolve that on; it’s always been a part of what I do because I didn’t come into dance in any other way, I didn’t study contemporary dance or ballet or anything to a high level. I didn’t even move that much before I started breaking, so I feel comfortable enough to let go of those foundations. I don’t feel that if I make a piece of work it has to have a six-step or a baby freeze in it; even if I’m doing something that to somebody else might look like contemporary dance, Hip Hop gave me my foundation in dance and that will always be within everything I do even if technically it’s not always apparent. In a less technical sense, the way we went about learning those moves and the way we taught ourselves all those things; we were always on a quest to ‘How can I make this six-step my own?’ Or ‘How can I make it different to everyone else?’ For people who come from a contemporary dance background they wouldn’t necessarily understand the idea behind biting and copying somebody else’s moves; you had to carve your own movement out and obviously everybody’s done every movement that’s probably ever going to be done but it was about making something your own. I feel like there’s an ethos around movement that’s stayed with me even though it’s hard to do sometimes.
IA: There’s a split between those who want to preserve the original forms and those who want to take those forms and evolve them. I’m interested to hear your take on the split.
WB: I definitely come from the school of thought where it’s the foundations of B-Boying for me...there are foundational elements of learning to B-Boy and then we build off of them. But the real foundations of B-Boying and Hip Hop are ideological ones; they are about expressions of identity and uplifting yourself through a positive creative endeavour. We need to know the past and know the foundation technique but it’s not about learning those and that’s the end of the story. The real story of Hip Hop is what happens after that and how you make your own little space within Hip Hop. That’s one thing that has been made more difficult with the internet, everyone has access to everything and the technical level is so high that everyone can do everything. When I was starting, and for most of the time I was battling, everyone had their own niche and if you put a breaker in a silhouette you could tell who it was. I’m not sure that’s the case now. That’s the foundation for me, an expression of individual identity as part of a greater thing. The ideological cornerstones of it are what matter to me as foundation.
IA: From our conversation, what hasn’t been set down that you want to share? It might be an important moment or memory that you want to share.
WB: It’s difficult to be specific but I remember when we were the Physical Jerks and we got someone from a club in Birmingham who said why don’t we go up and do some breaking in this club? So we all got in a car and when we got up there and there was some breakers in the club and we didn’t know who they were, and they didn’t know who we were. The thing about that time is there was no way for anyone to know; what I really loved about it was they all went to one side of the room and we all went to the other. There was an element of trying to size up the other side and we had a good battle but there was respect at the end of it. Those were the memories that I really cherish. Turning up, being part of an adventure and being part of something that you don’t really know. Quite often when I went to jams and competitions it was a stressful thing; you walk into a room and get hit by a wall of testosterone and everyone is guarding what they’re doing, not letting loose because they want to hold everything back for the battle. I never really enjoyed that element of it, but I put myself through it because I wanted to do it. It was all the adventures we had driving around in a tiny Metro with some hardboard in the back, driving up to Scotland just to do some street theatre.
IA: What were you driving to Scotland for?
WB: I don’t remember! It was somewhere outside of Glasgow. We were fortunate to have an agent, Fool’s Paradise in Exeter. They used to get us gigs in all these towns across the country; we’d turn up and do our breaking set...I don’t remember much about it other than driving for hours on end in this tiny car with all these guys, and all the hardboard and a broken ghetto blaster…but we were living the dream! We were getting paid a little something to do what we loved and we were driving about and meeting people.
IA: What’s giving you energy and feeding you at the minute?
WB: I think one thing that has changed so much since I started is the technology. We’ve talked a lot about YouTube and how that’s changed things; the fact that something like TOM...I never would have imagined it 10 years ago and it wouldn’t have been possible to do it. The cameras and the computer just didn’t exist. If it did, it was in Hollywood and it was just untouchable. That’s what keeps driving me. I’ve always been careful and embraced technology and ways of doing things that have been technologically driven from the outset. But the dance and the essence of what I want to say have been at the heart of it and these technologies are the tools that have come out that have enabled me to do it. The democratisation of technology...10 years ago for nobody could really access the technology to make a dance film, but now everybody can do it on their phone. If you want to do it really top quality that’s also achievable. I think that pushes everyone forward. It pushes me forward, because there was a lot of crap out there originally and it was only a handful of people and lots of big companies who were able to do that. Now everybody can.
IA: What is the heart of Wilkie? What is the philosophy? What do you want to share?
WB: I think we touched on it a bit before. It’s finding Hip Hop and finding a place where I belonged; it’s always been driven by a sense of wanting to belong. Feeling that I can carve out some self-worth; as a result a lot of the things that drive me to make work are quite negative drives. I don’t really know what more to say about that other than I acknowledge that. I know that it’s not a healthy thing. Perhaps it would be healthier if they were coming from a more positive place rather than a place of shame and fear. That’s just the reality of where I am. At times Hip Hop has been cathartic, it’s given me a family, it’s helped me avoid dealing with the reality of my situation at times as well. That journey I’ve been on at times has had lots of positive and negative turns and I don’t really know where it’s going.
IA: Can you talk to about music and your relationship to the music choices in your work?
WB: I think I’ve always been a choreographer/filmmaker that comes from a place of music first; a lot of people generate material from the music - either it gets made in unison or it gets made after. For me music is one of the first arts. Whenever I hear music it has such ability to draw out imagery and emotion within us; I’d have to say for me - and this won’t be for everybody - but dance serves the music. You can draw a picture however you want but the music gives you the colours on the canvas and you fill in the details. Whenever I’ve made something, TOM for example, I started with a load of tracks that basically told the story and it painted the picture in my mind. I created to that music and it gave me the colours in the landscapes. There were tunes I’d lived with for years, or had heard recently. If I had a tune or something that was particularly in my head, and it talked about the thing I was trying to do, it made sense to use that. Benji reworked the score after that, which is a difficult job for him. Maybe if we’d had time we’d have worked another way. Starting with a temp track and had a conversational starting point, so we knew we had a common ground we were starting from, it would have been a much more collaborative effort that way. But because of the time that it took we just didn’t have that luxury unfortunately. With White Caps it was the same, everything got made in such a short and unresourced way there wasn’t time to sit down, discuss, source and come back. It was ‘We have to film it then.’ So we just have to use this as it is.
IA: Where does class and race sit in your work?
WB: I’ve always tried to make it not sit within it, but it has come into the conversation somewhere. It’s harder to be embraced by Hip Hop because I come from...a not rich family by any stretch, but I don’t come from a working class background and I’m White and I’m male so…it’s a difficult question. I’ve tried not to make it a part of the work because it’s not the essence of what I want to explore. I’m in a real position of privilege compared to some people. We were talking earlier about the fact I’m 35 and I don’t have a pension; I don’t have to support a family or my wider family and I’m in a lucky enough position that I’ve been able to spend two years making TOM because I have the luxury of a safety net and I know that I’m not going to end up on the streets. It’s not to say I haven’t made sacrifices, I’ve given up my flat, I’ve had to move back in with my parents, I’ve made hardly anything and I haven’t taken any holidays or this, that and the other. But I don’t run the same risks as people from a not so privileged background; in a way it’s given me a voice where other people haven’t had it but I have to feel justified that I can still have a voice. Just because I have that luxury doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have that voice or say anything at all.
IA: You exist in lots of different worlds, one of which is making work for young people and families. From How Cold My Toes to Boing! There’s many things you’ve collaborated on for that audience. What does it offer you?
WB: I guess the why goes back to me and Joel when we started Champloo; we connected with Travelling Light and they make work for young audiences. That was our doorway into the theatre when nobody would open a door for us; they happened to have a project that made sense to collaborate on. Like everything else, that spawned other things and other relationships - like working with The Unicorn and Sally Cookson. But The Unicorn, Travelling Light and Sally make work for everybody and that’s what’s kept drawing me back to it, we make work that people can enjoy. I think the more you get into work that’s specifically for adults the more you hit different cultural filters and things get put in boxes; one reason why I got into Hip Hop was I didn’t want to be put in boxes and I think that’s why I’ve been really happy to embrace that...it’s one of the freest areas within theatres. A lot of people on those projects are on the same page and they see the value in it; I don’t have the energy to invest in a cliquey scene, making work for a particular type of person. Even with Hip Hop I never wanted my work to be labelled in that kind of way, not because I’m turning my back on Hip Hop but because I feel it’s as valid as any other type of dance or film. I know the counter argument to that is we have to fly the flag for Hip Hop and give it the exposure but I think they’re two different ways of looking at the same issue.
IA: Boing! has done nearly 200 performances?
WB: Probably more. We did nearly 100 last year. It must be between 4-500 I think.
IA: What is that like? As a dancer doing the same thing over and over again. That’s unheard of outside of the West End. No one gets a 400 gig tour. Can you talk about that as it’s a unique position to be in?
WB: It’s really easy. Not only because I just remember the choreography every year, but what Sally did - who directed the show - was largely based on the relationship that me and Joel shared at the time. We’re effectively playing ourselves, but as two boys who are messing around and having fun. It still feels like playing every time we do it. Obviously I’ve never done another show anywhere near that many times, but Boing! still feels like the same year we first did it.
IA: Is there anything we’ve not talked about that you want to say. A space to say ‘Ah that could be a memory…’
WB: Nothing is jumping out at me, we’ve covered such a broad range of things.
IA: Could you talk a bit about the film making process and you as a film maker sitting in that Venn diagram of theatre, dance and film?
WB: Existing between those fields is a very lonely place. There’s a lot of freedom involved, and I feel like I can go off and do what I want but I also feel like I lost that sense of belonging when I was in the Hip Hop community. As far as making things go I’ve always gone 'Right, what is it that I want to do?’ Whether that’s a song I hear or a visit somewhere or the architecture, building or landscape - it dictates what I’m going to make. With TOM I was originally thinking I would film the whole thing and then split it into the three layers of film. Then I had an idea to sketch over the top so that each had a hand drawn element and process it all so it looked like watercolours over the three layers. But I looked into that and realised it would be a 10 year job so I thought maybe I’ll...I’d done a little bit of 3D animation before where I had to animate paper flying around a room, and I thought - with the tutorials that were around - it was fairly easy. So why not do it all in 3D? I found these big libraries where artists had put all this work, so I thought why not build it up like a big jigsaw? I looked into that and it became apparent really quickly that the cost would be prohibitive and there would be a compromise to the vision because I would be using a little mountain that artist x had created next to something artist y had created next to a building and it would all look like a random computer game. It was by coincidence that I saw these models looked really realistic and I wondered why it was; they were made using photogrammetry - which is taking 1000s of pictures of whatever tree stump or rock - and then using a computer to recreate it. I thought if you can do that with a tree stump or a rock and someone is selling them it can’t be that hard to do with a model. I thought it would be easy to make all this by hand and to go to the locations; I’m creating this handmade world which is supposed to be inside someone’s head. I believe it was with a Hip Hop attitude of ‘I can see it’s possible...’ and ‘How financially un-impossible is it?’ If it passes those two tests there’s no reason I can’t do it. So, I have that vision and then I try and find whatever ways exist to do it without the least compromise possible.
IA: You have three screens in TOM, does that have a name in terms of presentation?
WB: I don’t know exactly what you’d call it. They are on projector mounts, but that’s only because of the very steep angle the projector has to be angled on to not bleed onto the next one. The way I thought about them conceptually and what gave me the idea for it was 2.5D, which is the compositing thing you do in After Effects, taking a background from a plate and mixing it with something in the foreground. You’re mixing lots of 2D layers like you would in Photoshop, to make something that you have control over the depth but it’s not really 3D. That’s what I wanted to create. Because we did White Caps and that had one gauze downstage and I thought it’s a bit like compositing, if you have three layers you can have a tree in the foreground and the main guy in the background. It’s not quite 3D it’s 2.5D.
IA: That technique is used in the film industry?
WB: 2.5D is really common in the industry, you see it in lots of adverts where you have lots of 2D layers built up to make something that is 3D; you get a camera action where the camera moves around and the relationship between those layers shift. That’s what you get with TOM. Doing it in theatre is not something I’ve seen much, and I think the main reason is probably because physically it’s on the limit of what’s possible. The gauzes that we use are specialist gauzes and because they have to have an opacity when they’re projected onto that their image is strong if there’s an image behind it that it doesn’t get washed out. But it’s translucent enough that you can see through to the one behind it. Just using a normal gauze is not possible. On top of that the projectors have to be rigged at such an angle to not spill onto the next one and you have to use more projectors than you would normally. It’s a simple concept, but because it pushes the physics of what’s possible with light, it’s becomes expensive and difficult to execute. I’ve said before that the essence of what I’m trying to do is convey a feeling or an emotion or a story – that is the thing, and the technology is a device and tool to serve that. I was a bit worried that when we did this people would come away talking about how it was done and the heart of the story would be missing because people would just be focusing on what it is. But I feel like that hasn’t happened as much as it could have done.
IA: It’s been a week since TOM’s premiere. How has it settled?
WB: I feel like it hasn’t ended! I’ve worked on it for so long. In the last 6 months I was doing 15-16 hour days every day so it was a desperate...it was desperate really. There was such a high risk I wouldn’t be able to finish it. It took four months to render the whole thing. In a sense it was such a struggle to get there and it was all encompassing; it was all I had in my life for quite a big chunk of time, now that it’s finished it hasn’t been able to sink in. I’ve gone on to rehearse Boing! so I’ve escaped the reflective period where my brain would have suddenly found that it’s not doing 15 hours of animation a day. I’m occupied with Boing! but at the same time there is a lot of fallout from the end of that project. I’ve let a lot of things slide by the wayside that sensibly, ordinarily you wouldn’t, there’s a lot of financial implications for doing that project that I’m having to sort out now. It feels impossible to reflect on it, because it doesn’t feel like it’s over. I was so embedded in it even though I wasn’t performing in it. It’s going to be a while before I can be objective and reflect on it in any meaningful way.