We speak to the Olivier Award-winning choreographer and Guest Artistic Director of NYDC about giving young people a voice through dance.
“It’s just a massive privilege,” says choreographer Botis Seva on his recent Olivier Award win. His talent was spotted early through his participation in Breakin’ Convention’s artist development programmes; it was here he was introduced to our wider artist development team, and later invited to curate an evening in the Lilian Baylis Studio. This led to Sadler’s Wells commissioning his first main stage work, BLKDOG, which premiered on our stage in October 2018. The piece received huge acclaim and, only a few months later, the ambitious young choreographer found himself collecting an Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall.
“It felt very weird because I wasn’t expecting to win,” he says humbly. His fellow nominees were all illustrious names in the world of dance, including the Royal Ballet, Ballet British Columbia and the mighty William Forsythe. “It’s quite weird being up against him – someone whose work I’ve seen and been like ‘wow’,” says Botis.
So how did he celebrate his success? Sipping champagne with theatre royalty at the after party? He went straight home for a cup of tea and biscuits. “I had no time to let it sink in because I was working with NYDC on another show. That’s my job, innit!”
The next morning he was back in the studio to continue rehearsals with the 38 young dancers of National Youth Dance Company (NYDC), of which Botis is this year’s Guest Artistic Director. “Everyone started clapping,” he says, “I think they were in shock.”
NYDC, a project run by Sadler’s Wells, auditions the brightest young dance talent aged 16-24 from across the UK each year for the opportunity to gain experience of working in a professional dance company and collaborating with a well-established choreographer on creating a new dance work. Previous artistic directors have included Akram Khan, Jasmin Vardimon, Damien Jalet and Sharon Eyal.
Botis’s creation, MADHEAD, is a piece that reflects the experiences of the young dancers. “It’s about their generation and what the future could look like. That is the question that I have for the piece. What’s the future for young people growing up in this kind of society?”
“It was a weird process because we had a short amount of time to make the work,” he says. “For me the process started by questioning myself: how did I feel when I was 17 and where was my brain at?”
It was also a collaborative process with the company, which involved Botis interviewing the young dancers. “They felt like they didn’t have the same respect or teachers didn’t give them the same kind of respect. There’s a concept in that which we’re exploring. A lot of them feel frustrated at being called young people and how they get treated.”
This experience of working with a young company echoes his own experiences of getting into dance growing up. He started going to classes in Elephant and Castle after Tony Adigun, founder of Avant Garde Dance, ran a workshop in his school. “I had nothing else to do so I just went to these classes that were happening.”
Botis cites Tony Adigun as an early role model. “Meeting him was kind of a big revelation,” he says. He encouraged Botis to audition for his youth company and “after that,” Botis says “I started to take it seriously”. It wasn’t until later when he started teaching at a local youth club, that Botis began cutting his teeth as a choreographer.
Tony’s influence can be felt in Botis’s own style as a choreographer, which is difficult to define. “I call it free-form hip hop,” he says. “There’s a mix of contemporary and African dance. I can’t really give it a title, but I use free-form hip hop as a base. I can’t really label it anything else.”
As a young, black choreographer with influences from hip hop, he feels he hasn’t escaped certain associations. “That happens all the time. Sometimes it’s not even about my blackness. I don’t use that excuse. I’ve made that work because I feel a certain way,” he says. “Maybe because it’s labelled as hip hop or it’s seen as hip hop, [people think] oh it must have something to do with knife crime. BLKDOG wasn’t really about that. For other people it seemed like it was about that. Technically the hoods don’t really mean it’s about gangs.”
So how does he feel about the future of hip hop? “It is changing because there are loads of artists taking it in different avenues, but I don’t know if it has the same respect. I think people might appreciate it more, but it is going to take some time to land.”
His movement language exists somewhere at the centre of a Venn diagram of contemporary, African and hip hop dance – but there is something else uniquely Botis that comes in to play. There is a darkness, both aesthetically in the stark, dimly lit staging, and thematically, tackling subjects such as mental health, the responsibilities of adulthood and the struggles of being an artist.
The trailer for MADHEAD feels straight out of a dystopian drama like Black Mirror, which coincidentally Botis is a fan of. He credits cinema as a big influence on his work. “I’m into psychological thrillers, mind-bending stuff. I love that,” he says. But for Botis, the most important thing about MADHEAD is the opportunity to hear what this generation has to say.
“It’s a new voice within young people and I think they’re trying to say something. People need to be there to witness it. They’re trying to communicate some of their frustrations about today’s society and they should be heard. We should feel the power of all of them on stage.”
National Youth Dance Company performs MADHEAD on tour, concluding at Sadler’s Wells on 19 July. Visit www.nydc.org.uk for full information and tickets.