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Animated, Autumn 2000. Is it jazz? Is it contemporary or even Afrikan? Kwesi Johnson reveals how he is expanding body language and dynamics into physical text

I am sitting at my parents home, with my fingers hovering over the keyboard, I am thinking where I should start. It is quite appropriate that I should ask that question because this is where my performance and choreographic career began. I include the endless performances that I would create for family and their friends as a child. All in all I have been creating movement and performance for about 25 years. I think winning the disco king at my junior school, and 'B-Boying' through secondary school, opened the doors and my mind to dance-floor jazz and jazz-fusion and of course, jazz music. For that I give thanks to a DJ, Tony Minvielle. This is where I discovered, for me, true expression on the dance floor - the 'all dayers' of the 1980s and local jazz clubs. My professional dance training was at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

Since leaving college I have performed with Lloyd Newson, Phoenix Dance Company, Black Mime Theatre, Companie Duroure, CandoCo Dance Company and Badejo Arts as well as commercial credits. Working with such a diverse range of companies and styles has obviously influenced me, I have learnt a lot, how to do things and how not to do things. I never look on any experience as a negative one because I have always learnt valuable lessons.

What I do with my work is tell stories - narratives usually - with a message, hence the name of the company, Kompany Malakhi (pronounced Malakeye) meaning 'my messenger'. Malakhi was allegedly a messenger in the Old Testament.

The vocabulary I create and direct draws on my many influences of theatre, contemporary dance, jazz, poetry, B-Boyism, martial arts and physical theatre. I like to look at situations be they between people, objects, interactions... and suggest and devise questions for the audience and for myself which in turn inform future work. I combine these mediums. For example, in my current piece Under the Influence, I have devised a section using martial arts with rap and poetry; another using salsa with physical theatre, and one using body popping to support a character's movement and the text he uses. Some styles I utilise can be seen as commercial or 'display' dance. I use them to support the narrative by giving the dynamic of the movement style a part to play that goes beyond one's first impression or perception of that particular form.

I create movement that has a meaning. Some may argue that movement will always mean something to someone at sometime, but that is splitting hairs. I will not include tricks, splits and high kicks without a reason. The movement I use is created to tell a story. If a performer's character is confused, then the dynamics of his or her movement has to have that energy of confusion. I suppose it is expanding body language and dynamics into physical text. I think it is important for dancers to undergo a theatrical training which enables them to really connect with the source of movement emotion? how, for example, does something like your toe move when it is angry? This way you embody the movement. Once that connection can be made the movement flows naturally.

When working with other people it is obvious that their experiences using emotion will be different from one another's, so the challenge is to find a point where the performers feel connected to the emotion, but is not so abstracted that it fails to portray that emotion.

I enjoy so many different movement styles because they trigger such contrasting emotions within me. For instance, I cannot access certain feelings using classical movement, that I can with Afrikan dance movement and vice versa.

This is reflective in my work which I see as jazz music, because the music draws on so many musical influences, classical scales, Afrikan rhythms, syncopation and nowadays, 'turntableism' (Djing pioneered via Hip Hop culture). Jazz speaks many languages to create its own, some understand and appreciate it, and some do not. The styles and methods I use are those languages, the same rule applies, I create my own language, some understand and appreciate it and some do not, that is not a problem for me. I have a passion for the energy of Hip Hop, the intricacy of jazz, the elegance of ballet, the grounding of Afrikan dance... What interests me mostly is the diversity of movement dynamics.

I use commercial as well as artistic aspects, there is no reason in my mind why the two cannot work together. For example, the advertising industry has a good formula. Many adverts that are broadcast on the television are the best things on it, when it comes to artistic content. My work is a meeting ground of commercial and artistic genres. Opening peoples minds to artistic content that they may not be used to, and hopefully opening the minds of the purists who only regard contemporary and classical as genuine dance forms.

The reason why I have so much respect for dancefloor jazz, is because it demands that you create a style of your own, it demands innovation. Within that environment everyone contributes and creates in their own way, some more than others. It has also stayed true to its origins of improvisation. The secret is to discover how this movement style can transfer from a club setting to a theatre space. It is the same for any vernacular dance. Maybe it does not work in a theatre space? But there is much to be learnt from its aesthetic.

I believe there is only so much life in using vernacular and social dances in a theatre setting, there has to be a deeper investigation into the movement capabilities they can offer in order for dance to evolve. I tend to use the word vernacular or social dance because 'street' dance is viewed within our funding and theatrical system as something that is a 'bit of fun', or undeveloped, its beauty and intricacy are not taken seriously. The choices that it can give a dancer are many. As we know, classical ballet began as a social dance form, I hope 'street' dance does not become as formalised or how will it evolve and be relevant to the larger percentage of the population. I think there exists a snobbery and what I call 'movement fascism' regarding dance styles and who, how and what choreographers use them. I have been utilising these styles for many years, but it usually takes the European establishments to use 'street' dance, then it becomes high art, or innovation, something that it has always been.

I feel that the tools one is given as a formally trained dancer do not always give the ability to express and move as one could. Dancers should be introduced to a more diverse variety of style such as Afrikan dance, B-Boy, body popping, Capoeira, etc. as they would offer them a whole new range of movement possibilities. These are the possibilities I attempt to discover. I look for performers that are multi-skilled, and are open and willing to explore themselves and their prejudices.

I think if funders and promoters really want to encourage new audiences they need to look at offering a choice and gain an understanding of the different forms and trends in dance. I think things will change because more people like myself, who have experience of these dance forms, are gaining positions of influence and do not see audience development as an opportunity to spend the allocated 'black dance' budget on a token 'black company'. This may upset some, but only if they are guilty of it.

If you ask me to classify my work I would not be able to. An audience member may say it is jazz, it is contemporary or even Afrikan dance. My argument would be, how many undulations of the back do I have to do before it becomes Afrikan? Or how many layouts do I do before it becomes jazz? I know these are stereotypical movements but I want to make the point easy to understand, when I ask what amount of movement defines a performance style.

I just want to create total theatre. If I feel a piece of poetry would work better than a movement section, or the dynamics of Hip Hop style movement is more accurate for what I want to say, than a release based movement, then I will obviously utilise the more accurate one. That is part of my working method. The best way to experience this is to come and see a show.

I believe that with Under the Influence I am well on the way to refining my style, it is a constant evolution. What makes me tick now, I may hate in a year's time. But that is the beauty and the thing that keeps me going, the cultivation of myself that manifests in the work I create.

I am also looking forward to the possibilities and what my discoveries will create for me, both artistically and commercially. But above all, I welcome the lessons I will learn in order to make my work go from strength to strength.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001