Interview with Nick Power
Jodie McNeilly in conversation with Nick Power
For our TanzConnexion readers, can you tell us a little about how you started dancing and describe the kind of Hip Hop that you do.
I grew up in Toowoomba, a small City in Queensland, and started watching hip hop on T.V. I began training to dance at school socials, but had to teach myself breaking because there was only about 10 people who took it seriously in the mid 90s; I was one of these people. I’m a B. Boy, a breaker. I was also a graffiti writer, and ran a radio show. Hip Hop is not really a dance it’s a culture and includes rapping (Mcing), Djing, graffiti writing and breaking. After growing up in Toowoomba I moved to Brisbane, joined a crew—which had its own energy. My history has been being in breaking crews and battles, and so the adventures in that culture has informed my work as a choreographer.
Can you talk a little about the genesis of your show CYPHER
In a breaking jam a circle starts, the dance circle is the ‘CYPHER’. People go in one after the other to dance their set; it’s an exchange. CYPHER is very different from a ‘showcase’ or ‘battle’. In Europe they are big grand-stand events where you have about 10,000 people. I was at one in Paris in this arena where the Rolling Stones played. At first I thought it was amazing that all these people were watching, but after a while I wondered: where are the CYPHERs? Usually you would have some battles and the floor would fill with circles in between. My experience in hip hop culture has always been very participatory, so I felt this weird sense of removal. A day after this event, I was invited to a jam on the outskirts of Paris held on a basketball court; they didn’t want any audience, just community. There were circles popping up everywhere, some were heated, some celebratory and some just feeling the funk. Then I realised that this is our ritual as hip hoppers. No one gets paid to be in a CYPHER, no one wins a prize; it is a sharing and about community. A public audience cannot push to the edge of a CYPHER because there is all this ‘stuff’ going on in there; it’s not really shared, but is a closed ritual of ours. So I thought, that’s what I want to make: give the audience a real taste of the culture of breaking. Have them in the space, use the elements, etiquette, symbols and gestures that are in a real CYPHER to build that work.
There is something about my culture, being a white fella from Toowoomba, then working on a project for over 10 years with Tracks Dance Darwin in the remote Warlpiri community of Lajamanu. I watched the mob out there dance their ‘Dreamings’ and sing their songs, and started to think: what’s my culture, what are my dances and rituals of who I am? They were the seeds that grew into CYPHER.
What is the significance of stepping into the CYPHER as a human being? What is the cultural significance of this? Is it a transformation, rite of initiation?
It’s a scary thing to do, to stand at the edge of the circle, even after 25 years as a breaker! Pushing to the edge is a statement in itself. It has taught me community, sharing with peers in all kinds of exchanges, and the courage to take the step. The circle creates the opportunity for that sharing that can be a celebration or sorting something out with someone else. In that, you have a voice; you are a member of that moment, that community and you are able to do what you need to do, either sorting out some ‘beef’ with someone else, or just enjoying the ‘great feeling’ that comes over one’s circle when no one is really trying any big moves, just feeling the beat and the funk. A CYPHER gives you what you need to get out of it.
How was your time at Tanz im August? How did you find the audiences for CYPHER?
We had a fantastic time in a fantastic venue, the Sophiensaele. It was in a big hall with a high ceiling, so there was a great feeling of space and openness that worked dramaturgically very well. The audience were wonderful, and even though the show was sold out, the audiences got bigger every night.
Given your experiences with Hip Hop from all parts of the globe, do think there is a universality to the movement language, or strong cultural differences?
Hip hop has become a little bit more homogenised because of the Internet, but it used to be very specific. I used to be able to tell which state someone was from. Australia has an interesting mix; everyone has to have a broad range of skills when it comes to breaking because there are these different segments: power moves, spins and footwork. Each state’s style has a definite historical lineage: Brisbane –power moves from LA in early 80s; Melbourne – traditional ‘Rock Steady Crew’ from the Bronx; Sydney – a mix of power, footwork and funk, and Darwin developed its own unique style. France has funk and soul in their movement that just drips out of their style. Korea has precision, power, excellence and virtuosity in what they do.
Why do you think Hip Hop connects with such a broad range of people, in particular, new migrants arriving in big cities? How can Hip hop respond to the global crisis of dispossessed mobilities?
In fact, during Tanz im August I did a workshop over three days with four young refugee women; it was really fantastic. Two young women from Africa and two from Berlin. We made a five-minute dance piece that they performed in the foyer just before CYPHER. It was a great exchange between the girls and the guys doing CYPHER. It was wonderful that Tanz im organised this; it gave my experience so much more depth during a European season: to have an experience with community members, and a direct understanding of what is happening there, like the issues you mention.
I think hip hop has always been that ‘voice’ for people who otherwise might not have the opportunity to express themselves. It is born out of the South Bronx when the cops couldn’t go there because all the buildings were being burnt for insurance and it was run by gangs. Breaking just screams: “here I am. I’m doing this and I’m in a tough place and don’t mess with me”. Same with rapping; it can talk about shoelaces or “don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge”. It has that spectrum. That’s what hip hop offers to people. Who needs that the most? Minorities and refugees. It has that self-starter aspect about it. You don’t need any money to be a breaker. You just need a floor, basic equipment.
How would you respond to Tanz im August 2016 Director Vivre Sutinen’s statement from an earlier interview: “Choreographers are not trying to invent the wheel again in pursuit of the new. Rather, they are breaking out of the obsession with rawness in order to create new knowledge within the framework of dance history”
For me, always the first question is, when you are taking Hip hop out of the streets, out of its context and into the theatre is why? Why are you doing that? And then after that it’s the how? For me, in terms of history, CYPHER is how Hip hop started, really at a block party in New York where you got all these different people (Afro Americans and Hispanics) with all those dance styles. The dance is getting wilder and wilder, then somebody went down and stayed down and the circle formed and that’s how breaking was born; it came out of that. CYPHER is taking that history of our dance and reimagining it. In Europe I saw B Boy showcases, dynamic and virtuous, while another direction is contemporary breaking, that goes into contemporary dance. I wanted to come from our culture, and our history of breaking. I felt like the context still had to be there: you can’t ‘rip it out’ and put it on a stage. If it’s in a jam on the outskirts of Paris then a public audience is going to struggle to move to the edge of the CYPHER. This was my reasoning: give an audience the opportunity to see our real culture.
Can you tell us a little about your newest development Between Tiny Cities with Aaron Lim (Darwin) and Erak Mith (Phnom Penh) that will be heading soon to Melbourne for Dance Massive.
The work started back in 2014 when Producer Britt Guy brought back some breakers from ‘Tiny Toones’ (tinytoones.org) in Phnom Penh to the Darwin Festival where I was working with the D-City Rockers a Darwin Crew. We had a 2-week exchange, swapping skills and moves and a little 5-minute show that we’d perform at the Festival. CYPHER also premiered that year, and the festival culminated in a big block party that I put on. After that we went to Tiny Toones for two weeks to talk about what we could do. Two of the dancers were keen, and we did not want to take 5 dancers from the school as there would be no one left to teach. The whole process has been very organic. There was no: “who are we going to pick to do the show?”, the collaboration just grew out of the process and the community and friendship around it.
The voyage of the piece from this final stage of development, here at the moment in Darwin will be Dance Massive in Melbourne, Phnom Penh in April, Helsinki in August and then back to Darwin for the Festival.
From watching the footage of those first eight days in Darwin, I detected some influences of contact improvisation and was wondering about the role of ‘personal/signature style’ in this choreographic process, and whether you are challenging the conventions of exchange that you would normally find in a CYPHER, or battle?
There are elements of both ‘coming together’ and the ‘connection between two individual styles’; it is really about the differences that emerge, and their similarities, but I think the differences are more interesting. It is what happens between those two personal styles when you bring them together, in their finding a way to communicate beyond the battle exchange and seeing where that takes us. Since we are only at the end of the first week of the final stage, they have to sort some cultural stuff out in order to get there. This ‘stuff’ will still be in there, but it will progress on from that to a different place. Tiny Cities has grown out of a lot of improvisation, and zeroing down on the movement language, improvising it more, then growing it. It feels like I’ve got all these ‘potentials’ for these great styles of movement language, but when I take it into choreography, I’m taking out the potentiality that makes it great. There is a structure so that the dancers keep that potentiality; not every step is choreographed (like CYPHER). It is more interesting for the audience because they can ‘feel’ that potential.