Meet Project O

Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small are London-based dance duo Project O. This May they bring the UK Premiere of Voodoo – an 8 hour durational work in 2 hour sequences – to the Lilian Baylis Studio. We talked to them about Voodoo and the process behind creating this unique and powerful show.

Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind ‘Voodoo’?
Voodoo was what happened when we got back into the studio to work on a performance for our own bodies rather than choreographing SWAGGA, a dance for Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt. We were asking what would happen if we stopped trying to fight misrepresentation and the projections of the gazes of others and instead, assumed them, and started thinking about ourselves as all of it, everyone. ‘Black’ is a historical term that unites an unimaginably vast and diverse groups of people under one singular identity – what if we can summon all those people into the room? Traversing geography, time and even death.

We were thinking about history and trying to respond to the reality of underwritten and/or purposefully suppressed histories and of dancing as a live re-writing of experiences that unfold over time.

What is the relevance of the title Voodoo?
It’s evocative, no? It is also purposefully appropriated – a kind of active mirroring back to the sense that racist structures both take from other cultures and assume that nuanced cultures can be condensed into one symbol, object or thought. In using the word to conjure senses of ritual, and shifting through physical states of ‘communion’, but not directly drawing on or researching voodoo cultures, we comment too on the impossibility of knowing a history or practice our ancestors were purposefully and violently displaced from.

What can the audience expect from the performance?
For their own bodies to be implicated, moved and moving. Voodoo is an immersive ritual where the roles of everyone involved shift throughout the show. Audiences can expect to enter another world, shaped by an amazing original soundtrack composed by Verity Susman.

Had you always intended for Voodoo to be a durational, 8 hour performance, or did the idea arise through the creation process?
We started with wanting to make a long work, we wanted to dance for a long time, to know what that would feel like. The first iteration of the show was late 2015 at Chelsea Theatre and Cambridge Junction and this was a 4 hour performance – it didn’t feel long enough! So we thought 8 hours might feel long. So far we have only performed for 4 hours, the 4-8 hour stretch is excitingly unknown!

What do you think the 8-hour durational nature of the performance adds to the experience for the audience?
The 8 hour duration is there for us, our bodies, our dancing, our experience – it’s important not to forget that performance is not only about the performers giving, serving an audience but an exchange. It’s also a process of exploration for us. We do want the audience to know, to feel, that the work has a history, that they are not the first, that the show is a ritual that they contribute to but that isn’t necessarily ‘about’ them. Themes of the work include ideas about time, memory, history, place, dimension, state and bodies shifting, clashing, transforming, morphing, merging, blending.

How do you imagine each ‘2 hour show’ will differ from the next?
The structural changes between each 2-hour segment are very slight but this is an immersive work, dealing in improvisation and our bodies and decisions within each sequence will be responsive to the shifts in energy that the different timings and audiences will bring. We are anticipating that at the 6pm show, us and the audience will feel very different to the 12am show! And the history that gets built up during this time in the LBS, over the course of the evening, will transform the space so that each performance will begin from a different place.

What is the process between now and the performance dates?
More days in the life of being a freelance artist – preparing ourselves for this undertaking through various dance rehearsals, listening to the sound and working with the assistants who are also part of the work – Fernanda Munoz-Newsome, Malik Nashad Sharpe and Katarzyna Perlak – each one is a practicing artist whose concerns overlapped ours in various ways and whom we asked to help form and sustain the world of Voodoo.

We self-produce but with Voodoo we have had input from project manager Toni Lewis, so we’ll be working with her on the logistics and other practicalities.

What will be the next steps for Voodoo, do you plan to develop the piece, or the durational nature, further?
Following the premiere at Sadler’s Wells we would like to tour the show.

Click here to discover more about Voodoo.
Watch Artistic Programmer Eva Martinez talk more about Project O in this Sadler’s Soundbite.