Roberta Jean on Movement, Mindfulness and Musical Collaborations

Poetry and intimacy can be found in Roberta Jean’s latest dance work, Brocade, performed by an all-female ensemble in our Lilian Baylis Studio this spring. Taking inspiration from historical and contemporary notions of craft and physical work, Roberta fuses sonic textures and catwalk style staging for her London debut. As a choreographer and dance artist, Roberta’s work is influenced by her practices in yoga and mindfulness, as well as fusing live music elements from her experience as a singer. We spoke to Roberta to find out more…

Tell us about your style of choreography.
This is born out of an exploratory process whereby the dancers and I collaborate to investigate what movement can be and how we collectively understand it. Development through repetition is also a key aspect of my work. My influences are drawn from many art forms and creative disciplines, which I think comes through strongly in my work, but I would note the work of Rosemary Butcher, Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk and Meg Stuart in particular as having a deep impact on me.

Where did you draw inspiration for your latest work, Brocade?
The ambition for Brocade was initially born out of a desire to explore a certain kind of alchemy between movement and sound by bringing sound-based practitioners and dancers into the same space. In relation to the physicality of the work, I was interested in how we as dancers, can relate to different types of dexterous and physical labour/work. We aren’t trying to mimic these physical actions, but due to our research into these subjects, these actions become ghosted through our bodies in the performance.

For this latest work, the audience will be seated on two sides of the stage in our Lilian Baylis Studio. Why have you decided to configure the performance space in this way?
Brocade is choreographed as a loom of movement weaving by and around an audience. As an audience member, there is something joyous about experiencing these fleeting moments on a continual loop that stretches down a catwalk. You can feel us move the air around you.

The production features live music by Angharad Davies. What can we expect it to sound like?
Angharad is a violinist and improviser whose craft has had a huge impact on the way we worked as dancers. Her precision, attention to detail, the expressivity and range of sounds she can generate, and the way she gets to the core of an idea was incredibly inspiring for us. Having worked with Angharad for some time now, I’d like to think that we – the dancers – have in some small way informed aspects of her approach to music making. Collectively we have a shared language, which by degrees, reveals itself during the performance and includes my own looped vocalisations. I am a dancer and a singer and happy to be working with voice for Brocade. You can hear an example of this in our latest film work based around Brocade – Lace.

You are open about overcoming depression and anxiety. Do you think dance has a role to play in improving mental well-being?
Absolutely. I think there is a real value in dance practice for non-dancers, and strictly in terms of physical and mental well-being, I believe dance can offer people something similar to yoga. Although somatic based practice has mostly been experienced by a niche group of people to date (mainly dancers), I predict more spaces for movement exploration will open up alongside gyms and yoga studios. Gill Clarke’s call for traders of mindful motion is becoming a reality. Negotiation of a career as a dance artist can be difficult, especially if you struggle with anxiety and depression. Depression runs on my father’s side of the family. He was a contemporary/jazz dancer, we became estranged when I was a teenager, and he experienced depression and bouts of homelessness but kept it all hidden. I’m relieved to be living in a time where people can be more open about their emotional setbacks and afflictions. I think about the renowned photographer, Francesca Woodman. She committed suicide at the age of twenty-two, and it is believed that the depression she suffered from was exacerbated by a lack of recognition surrounding her work. One part of a complex recovery process for me was about learning how to cultivate a sense of peace outside of perceived notions of ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, Rome, Italy, 1977-1978

You are also a trained yoga teacher! How does this influence your work as a choreographer?
There isn’t an alternative to sports psychology in professional dance, so incorporating mindfulness and yoga into my practice has been crucial for me to be able to continue as a professional. Practicing with empathy and care towards others and myself is really important to me. I don’t think about myself as some kind of ‘guru director’ with all the answers. I need to be able to be vulnerable in front of the people I work with in a studio, making mistakes and contradicting myself, just as a visual artist would do working in isolation.

There is a meditative quality to Brocade – we are practicing with mindfulness strategies, it’s an extremely cardiovascular focused work, and we’re close, vulnerable, and exhausting ourselves right in front of the audience.

Brocade runs in the Lilian Baylis Studio on 31 May & 1 June. Tickets are available now priced at £17. Call the Ticket Office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.