Project O choreographic duo on racism, sexism, patriarchy and disrupting dance

Project O cutting edge artists Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley have rocked our world!

This creative, hard hitting, eloquent, deeply honest and immensely relevant choreographic duo’s words are a must read, and their new work Voodoo, being presented at Sadler’s Wells Lilian Baylis Studio on 12 May is a definite must see!

(Yes it’s long, but I beg you, read it to the end!)

Jamila & Alexandrina you established Project O in 2010, what was the inspiration behind your collaboration?

AH: We started developing a friendship and realised that we shared similar experiences of racism and sexism (everyday, micro, systematic). We fostered a place to share our laughter and outrage. We backed each other up and worked together as a way of articulating our concerns. Concerns that were individual to myself or Jamila, overlapped with one another and were results of the world we found ourselves in – London, contemporary performance scene in London, born in the late 1980s…

JJS: After finishing EDge – the postgrad company at London Contemporary Dance School that myself and Alexandrina were both part of – I had no desire to be a dancer, to be a body that articulated the desires of another, I felt the power and the vulnerability of my body and I didn’t want to give those things up to the control of another. I couldn’t trust anyone else with that role of crafting representation. So the only thing to do felt like it was to make collaborative work where we would be both performers and choreographers.

Your work has been described as ‘tearing at the edges of contemporary dance’, what can audiences expect to see and experience with your choreography?

AH: Ha! Yes, I think we and our producer at the time Charlie Ashwell described ourselves as that – says something about our ambitions! The edge is a neglected as well as productive place to be – if you’re on the margins then you can look into the centre and enjoy/offer up alternatives but it can be lonely. Also, as our ‘careers’ have progressed, we have moved more into a centre and its complicated! Is it ok I am there? Will I get kicked out again? Do I even want to be there? Can you sustain a experimental, critical practice with integrity…? I digress..

The forms our choreography takes shift from project to project – from works for a stage, a book, public interventions, teaching and performance lectures. In terms of expectations I’d say it’s different every time. We consider our audiences a great deal in the making of our work – how it might be viewed, what meanings may or may not be read and experienced.

JJS: But this with the understanding and expectation that no two people are the same. We think about the different ways that things might be viewed from different positions (in terms of identity, geographic location, spatially) and play with this layering up of multiple meanings that we can and can’t anticipate… There’s a question about responsibility in here, and to be honest, I think I feel that it’s our responsibility to make people, who might often feel comfortable, feel a bit uncomfortable during our performances – to tip the balance and shake up the situation.

AH: I’d like to think that audiences will have a full on time!!  An invitation into a time and space that feels as dense, multi-layered and evocative as the dancing bodies they will also see. In most of our stage shows, there is a degree of what is traditionally called ‘audience participation’ – but I think we frame any physical contact we have with our audience or anything we may ask them to do as a way of highlighting an audience’s implication with the work and any thematics.

Your latest work Voodoo – being presented at Sadler’s Wells on 12 May – is extraordinary as it’s performed over four consecutive times in one evening. Tell us about Voodoo and the inspiration behind the work.  

JJS: Perhaps more extraordinary within a dance context than a Live Art one, and for years we’ve often found ourselves working and performing in Live Art spaces and festivals. Sometimes the conventional 90 minute contemporary dance show format can be dulling for both the performers and audience, this 8 hour thing is in part a way of disrupting people’s habits of watching and our habits of performing. We’d been asking ourselves what happens when our shows turn into repertoire, when we perform the same work that felt so urgent at the time 6 years down the line? How could we make a show that could hold our bodies over time?

AH: Voodoo is an immersive work lasting 8 hours with audiences entering for two hour slots. The work sees us look again at how dance can heal and challenge the systematic white patriarchy. We ask what if our bodies could become or channel all the brown people there ever were in past, present and future? It’s become a vital imaginative framework for our bodies to retain a sense of agency, movement and representations on our own terms (as much as possible). This feels particularly important when our agency, movement and the way brown bodies are represented is so often proved false by prevalent colonial frameworks and oppressions. Yesterday an unarmed black teenager got shot by a police officer and the story had already been replaced in my newsfeed when I tried to search again for his name – Jordan Edwards.

Being a London-based duo, how do you work together to create new works and how does being a ‘duo’ shape your choreography?

JJS: Being two means that the first relation is to one another, there’s space for an easy complicity that the audience picks up on, rather than the immediate, potentially adversarial audience-performer relationship that can be there in solo work, particularly if you are a black female alone in front of a largely white contemporary dance audience…

AH: Double trouble! HA! Double the backup. Double the individual points of view. Double the support. (More than) double the length of time it takes us to check diaries and answer emails. Double the investigation, stress and laughter.

JJS: How we make work changes though, has been changing, who knows how we will do the next thing…! There is a lot of responding, to briefs, to life, to spaces…

Your work doesn’t shy away from tough topics such as racism and misogyny, how do you see dance as a vehicle for discussing these critical subjects?

JJS: Ha! I am wondering how I could shy away from racism and misogyny in general! I definitely do not feel like these are things that can be sidestepped, in life nor in the work. And, you know, there’s a question about how we frame our work – because whether or not people choose to say they are addressing issues of systematic oppression, they are, there is no neutral and everything is guided by ideology – we make these statements as the work is created as part of a project to dismantle these things.

Dance is interesting because it doesn’t pretend or attempt to simplify, only make more complex. As an activity for me to do, it’s a relief, open-ended and something that holds me and my experience in all its complexity, hybridity and contradiction.

AH: It kind of makes me angry that racism and misogyny are seen as ‘tough topics’. I mean, life is tough. And racism and misogyny impact all of us. Some have the privilege of detaching from these impacts or the privilege of thinking or pondering them and others are knee deep in the shit of them digging themselves and others out. The words and actions I encounter in the world frequently make racism and misogyny feel inescapable. They are present and woven in permanent thread. I don’t know how to shy away and still retain a healthy and necessary engagement with myself and with the world. Sometimes I get jealous of those who don’t see or don’t need to see and so I try shying away for a moment and do feel a perverse relief. But then, I step out my door and someone  yells ‘cheer up love’ or ‘I love your hair. I love you as well but I especially love your hair’. And then I curse myself for getting complacent….Need eyes woke.

And dance as a vehicle to be in amongst these things, to physically shift them and to shift through my own feelings and desires about/for them.

 There’s a lot of debate about the challenges facing female choreographers in the UK, can you tell us about your own experience?

AH: I can only speak from my experience as a cis-woman and I’ll say it’s exhaustingly bad. It isn’t just choreographers but an under representation of cis and trans women that is globally epidemic. In terms of choreographers in the UK, I think so much around wealth distribution, ageism, not equating scale of the work with quality, not applying the same measurements of success to any artist however they gender identify, noticing if the white man is speaking more and/or being listened to more attentively…the list goes on. I don’t know what else to say. Choreographer Hannah Buckley is currently reflecting on on the questions ‘do men need feminism?’ and ‘does feminism need men?’ in her work S/HE. Her and other female choreographers are finding a way to affect change.

JJS: There are challenges facing female people in all jobs, this is patriarchy no? In my own experience, the people I have around me, my peers, collaborators, colleagues, are often female and there are very few existing models for the sorts of work and lives these people (myself included) want to make.

What impact would you like to see from Project O and the work that you create?

AH: Hmmm something about answering this question feels egotistical…but here goes… I’d like to see an increased visibility for the voices and experiences  of people of colour living and/or working in the UK. I’m glad to be a part of a whole host of other works and artists who are steadily and admirably questioning the status quo. I don’t think Project O might do so alone and I can’t predict the impact we do or don’t have.

JJS: It’s important to me that other PoC connect with the work; things often leave me feeling crazy alienated and if we can dissolve that alienation – even momentarily – for someone, that’s huge. I do think about how we might go further, deeper, with our work and challenge in more complex, nuanced and also bold ways this entanglement we have with the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Finally, what advice would you give to other young female choreographers?

AH: You are facing the beast of patriarchy. Trust yourself.

JJS: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Trust yourself.

Learn more about this incredible duo, visit Project O’s website.

Follow Project O on Facebook