Six hip hop artists enjoyed a week of experimentation, creation and refinement of their practice under the mentorship of leading choreographers, theatre makers and dramaturgs as part of the latest Open Art Surgery course this month.
Delivered by Sadler’s Wells’ Breakin’ Convention team, the artist development programme involved hip hop artists from a diverse range of backgrounds, from dance and physical theatre to spoken word and design, in a series of intensive workshops to devise and develop new work.
With no pressure on them to come up with a finished piece as an outcome, the artists presented their work in progress at a public sharing at the end of the week. This unique format invites the audience to get inside the mind of the artists and to give them feedback, while offering artists a platform to take creative risks and test out new ideas.
We speak to hip hop choreographer and Open Art Surgery mentor Ivan Blackstock, delving into a day in the life of the artist development programme.
What does a typical day at Open Art Surgery look like?
A day in the life of Open Art Surgery sees the artists in the space. Mentors usually pop in every two to three hours just to see how they’re doing. It also involves giving artists the time and space to just be, which is very rare for a lot of them. What Breakin’ Convention tries to do is give the artists enough time to get in a good mental space before the mentors, come in and add, influence… or disrupt (laughs).
A lot of the artists are at different artistic stages: you have professional makers who are creating work already. Then you have the street and hip-hop dancers that have never touched theatre before. Then there’s this added layer of different artists, who range from beatboxers to emcees and writers. It ends up being quite a diverse lineup throughout the week. Where we come in is we see where they’re at, and how we can get them to where they need to be. When they need any guidance, we’re here.
For a lot of the artists, Saturday [the showcase day] can seem like doomsday, but we just have to remind them that everything’s going to be alright; the nerves, the uncertainty, it’s all part of the process. The truth is that even on the day of the performance it’s still a work in progress. I always say there’s ‘Phase 1’, and it’s completely up to you how many phases you want to go through. There is no rush to finish great work.
How would you describe your approach to working with the artists?
The thing that’s amazing about Open Art Surgery is that there are different mentors for different needs and wants. I like to approach the work when there is something to look at. Aesthetic and design – those are the things I love to discover and seek out. Then you have Anthony [Ekundayo Lennon, another mentor] who deals more with the drama and conflict. Jonzi [mentor and Artistic Director of Breakin’ Convention] obviously has multiple skills. We now have new mentors joining, who are also bringing new areas of expertise.
My approach is quite simple. I don’t like influencing the artists too early. I want to see where they’re at and what they’re saying for themselves, and then penetrate the layers. I’m not trying to make the layers for them. Each time I do it, it’s a thing where I come in as ‘bad cop’ – I think you need the mentor who is gonna be a little bit harder. That’s what helped me progress as an artist. We don’t wrap anyone in cotton wool because in our eyes, everyone is the same. Everyone is equal.
What are the ingredients for a strong piece or performance?
Technique is important. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the obvious technique we know sits in that particular style. For me, it’s more about skill. How sharp is your pencil? That’s what’s really interesting to me.
I think performance is equally important. How much are you willing to go and discover? How much are you willing to excavate a character? Performance can be seen as one-dimensional, but as human beings we have many different flavours within us. I personally get excited when I see more of an emotional journey in a performance.
Another thing I always say to the artists is to “make it lit”. What I mean by that is this X factor, this thing that isn’t explainable, that makes the piece go above and beyond. The more you make and explore as an artist, the more you start to find that thing, that language. Sometimes I don’t even need technique – I just need you to be within the work and show me how you can tell this story by being raw as hell. The way you execute a strong performance is finding a way to incorporate all of these things into one. That’s what’s really going to tickle my chakras (laughs).
Is there anything in particular that you’d like to see brought out of the artists and their work this year?
Confidence. As artists, we all have self-doubt. Sometimes we don’t believe in our work or believe that it’s good enough. It can be quite lonely. As a mentee on the programme, you’re not by yourself. Likewise, as mentors, we’re not telling them what to do. We’re saying: “Let’s find a way to take the idea out of your head and action it.” Write it on paper. Record your voice. Record a phrase. Whatever it takes. It’s about putting your concept or your idea in different parts of your being, beyond the cerebral. When I’ve seen artists open themselves up to the process and start to build something, I’ve watched their confidence grow as a result, because they start to see their work from all these different angles.
What are the best aspects of being a mentor?
With Open Art Surgery, so many different types of artists walk through that door. Hearing all of their stories and perspectives and seeing how they approach and grow from those stories. Or seeing people who have never done hip hop theatre before, coming out of the process like “this is what I want to do.” Or someone who might be autistic, who never really had an opportunity to say how they feel or the platform to express themselves. This is why I do it. It humbles you: you realise that it’s not about you, it’s about them. Working on projects like this helps me look at the world differently, you know? By the end of it, I’m so chuffed and pleased for everyone.
What, if any, are the challenges?
Making sure I have enough tools and using them wisely to help an artist. Sometimes an artist might need help in an area, and you don’t really have an idea of how to approach that task in that moment. Also, I’d say knowing how to problem solve both inside and outside the room. As mentors, our brains are still ticking over, long after a session finishes. We’re trying to figure out how we ease the artists’ process. What’s really interesting and fun is that we’re all going on a journey. There’s much learning and community in that process.
How do you see the relationship between hip hop and theatre?
Hip hop and theatre – the relationship has always been there. You see it in old school movies like Breakin’ – at the end of it, it’s a theatre show. You’ll find that most of the newer dance films end in a full theatrical production. You can see the lineage throughout the eras, from jazz to the Harlem Renaissance. There is no debate. Personally, in my work, I like to give people the energy of hip hop and street culture, because I think both are very exciting. There’s something that hip hop does – I call it ‘edutainment’ [education and entertainment]. It’s exciting, it’s new, it’s fresh, but it’s also saying something.
Why are artist development programmes like Open Art Surgery important to hip hop in particular?
Not everyone from the hip hop dance realm wants to battle, or dance behind an artist. For most hip hop artists, our first port of call is to make a little show. It’s really important because we don’t have any conservatoires or vocational schools for hip hop. When I started out as a professional theatre maker, doing Back to The Lab [another artist development course delivered by the Breakin’ Convention team] and Open Art Surgery was the best thing for me. I got to schedule my own time, meet some great people and bring mentors into the process with me who understood my vision, ideas and helped me get to the next level.
That’s another great thing with Breakin’ Convention: once you become involved in their events and projects, you become part of the family. Then you realise that the family is a lot wider; they’re connected to the battle scene still, they’re connected to theatre, advertising and TV. You can take all the skills and ideas from the programme and transfer them to other areas.
Open Art Surgery is for people that are interested in going down the long-term route. With hip hop dancers, we’re in a constant rush: you only have a space for two hours, or you don’t have a space, so you’re doing a quick session in the street before it rains. This is an opportunity to experience an actual creative process.
How would you describe Open Art Surgery, both the process and the final sharing, in three words?
Thought provoking. Insightful. Raw.
Header image: Owen Ling
Images throughout: Dave Barros
Breakin’ Convention is an integral part of Sadler’s Wells’ artistic programme. Open Art Surgery launches its first-ever programme in Wales in collaboration with Avant Cymru, which takes place in Wrexham on 10-14 February. Find more information here.