ED2016 Dance & Physical Theatre ED2016 Interviews ED2016 Week2 Edition

Andrea Walker: Back at the Fringe with Smother

By | Published on Thursday 18 August 2016


If you are Fringe regular – especially a die-hard dance-fan Fringe regular – you may already be aware of 201 Dance Company’s ‘Smother’, a piece which was staged at the Festival in 2015 to much acclaim.
It’s the sort of piece that we think is very much capable of drawing in those who might not necessarily view themselves as dance-lovers, with its urban moves and LGBTQ themes.
To find out more about the show, we put some questions to the show’s choreographer, 201 Dance Company’s Andrea Walker.

CM: Can you start by telling us what kind of show we can expect?
AW: ‘Smother’ is a high-energy and emotionally charged dance piece about relationships, addiction and commitment. We’ve got seven dancers, and move between punchy group pieces that are a great start to a night out, to more lyrical duets and solos, blending dance and music styles. The piece centres on two same-sex relationships between two guys and two girls. One reviewer last year said it felt “reminiscent of Jamie Brittain’s ‘Skins’, told through beautiful choreography”, which I think hit the nail on the head in terms of the feel of the piece.

CM: What sort of dance is it, and what type of music?
AW: Our style mixes elements of contemporary, hip hop and commercial dance. We’re big fans of adapting hip-hop movement to acoustic music, but we also don’t shy away from hard-hitting beats. Underlying all my choreography is quite a commercial feel, so we’ve had a lot of people tell us that they would never usually connect with dance but were completely drawn in by the accessible and emotional aesthetic.

CM: Does the show tell a story? Whose? What themes does it examine?
AW: Yes, ‘Smother’ follows the encounter and subsequent break down of two young men’s relationship, touching on other relationships along the way. Themes of obsession, addiction and commitment surround the setting. The piece was inspired by my own experience of heart-break – it’s a simple story, reflecting on the difficulty of being in love, of staying in love, and of that question that so many people come to in relationships of whether or not to keep going, despite problems, or to just let it be and walk away.

CM: The juxtaposition of hip-hop with LGBTQ themes is an interesting choice, given the way homosexuality can still be such a taboo thing within that world. What made you want to focus on this?
AW: Being a gay hip-hop dancer myself, I found it upsetting that my experiences were very rarely represented in the style I love the most. When I decided to create ‘Smother’ it made sense to take this direction. Hip-hop is still quite a machismo-filled and sometimes homophobic world, and I think we need to challenge that and present strong gay characters onstage in a genre that has not really let them in before. We had some wonderful performances last year where we brought in groups of young people from quite rough backgrounds who were really interested in the dance and music styles, but would never usually talk openly about sexuality. They were having arguments among themselves about being gay after the piece – it was very powerful. When we went to main stages, I had no idea it would get all the attention that it did! People seem to find it very refreshing to finally see a gay storyline in urban dance.

CM: How do you begin to create something like this? Do you work with dancers from the start, and devise things as you go, or do you arrive in a rehearsal room already knowing what you want?
AW: A bit of both. There’s some intense ensemble choreography pieces in ‘Smother’ that I created prior to getting into the rehearsal studio, maybe on the tube, the bus, or even just walking – most of my choreography starts in my head rather than starting with the body. But other sections were created more “naturally”, devising movement with the dancers. We have wonderful dancers in the company, some of whom are choreographers in their own right, and they had a huge input, especially on solos and duets.

CM: You mentioned both ensemble and solo pieces there – so both feature in the show?
AW: Absolutely! The show has very intense ensemble sequences, but also beautiful – and funny – duets and powerful solos. One thing that was very important to me with 201 was to not just have a team of typical dancers all dancing in the same style. We encourage people to have their own style. All of our team come from different backgrounds – some more contemporary, some more street – and they all have their own way of moving. And I think that uniqueness comes through in the piece.

CM: Is there much staging involved?
AW: The show has no set and minimal props, apart from a rather shoddy mattress which makes for some fun dance scenes. Everything is created through positioning, transitions and lighting. We were absolutely blessed to work with Louisa Smurthwaite and Norvydas Genys as lighting designers. Louisa is a world class designer – currently doing lights for the world tour of Florence And The Machine. She’s worked with Kylie Minogue, Goldfrapp, Bloc Party, Grace Jones… You get the feeling being around her that she is a bit of a genius, and it’s incredible how she’s managed to make light such an atmospheric presence onstage to complement the movement of the dancers.

CM: ‘Smother’ was at the Fringe last year, of course, and received very positive reviews. What made you want to bring the same show back again this year?
AW: The show is so personal to me and we were completely overwhelmed by last year’s response! In 2015 we were on a smaller stage, and it’s always been a personal goal of mine to bring ‘Smother’ to Zoo’s Main Stage. It feels that the show has finally come of age at this year’s Fringe – with seven dancers it belongs on a big stage like this. James from Zoo has been really supportive, and was very encouraging of us taking the show back up for the main stage.

CM: Has the show changed or developed in any way since the 2015 run?
AW: Yes, the production is bigger: we have a mostly new cast who’ve brought a refreshing new flavour to the show and the company. We’ve also adapted lighting and transitions to fit the scale of the stage. In a couple sequences, the stage is so much larger that we literally have to sprint on to hit our marks, but I think this only adds to the pace and energy of the punchier sections of the piece. The story hasn’t changed, and of course 201’s trademark way of moving is still very present.

CM: Tell us more about the 201 Dance Company.
AW: I founded 201 in 2014, straight after a year of extensive training in New York City. I am the company’s Artistic Director, and 201 is also hugely supported by the Patrick Collier Production Company, who’ve produced ‘Smother’ from it’s conception. My aim is to create sexy, funny, daring dance work with real emotional power that people can understand and relate to. ‘Smother’ is a cathartic experience for me and, I think, for a lot of people who’ve seen it. It’s important to me that people get something cathartic – some kind of emotional response – when watching our work, rather than just appreciating something for being pretty.

CM: How were you drawn to dance in the first place? What made you want to pursue this kind of career?
AW: I grew up watching MTV and music videos. My focus would always be drawn to the backing dancers – I’m a secret Britney Spears fan! – and I found myself day dreaming about what it’d be like to be one of them. After dancing for several artists I realised I was the happiest when creating my own work, and so 201 was born.

CM: Where do you see yourself going next?
AW: I’d love to keep creating work that has the emotional response and power ‘Smother’ does. The past few months we’ve been back in the rehearsal studio developing a brand new project. I also want to work towards building bridges between dance styles and between different ‘types’ of audiences. I feel that the dance world can be quite inward looking. I’m sure many will disagree, but I don’t think enough is being done to bring in audiences who might not normally see dance. I would like to work toward engaging young people in dance, and collaborating with companies and theatres to bring in new audiences who might normally only see theatre or comedy. We’ll see though – it’s early days. Right now we’re just focusing on the next piece. so sit tight…!

CM: And what’s next for ‘Smother’?
AW: A UK tour and possibly a few international dates. The touring schedule is being finalised as we speak! It’s very exciting times here at 201 headquarters.

‘Smother’ was performed at Zoo Southside at Edinburgh Festival 2016.

Photo by Kat Gollock