Interview: Dancer’s Turn

I’m sitting with 32-year-old British choreographer Vicki Igbokwe in the café at The Place, a contemporary performance center in London that nourishes creative dance work. I’m thrilled to be in the company of a dancer who markets herself as a choreographer and an Olympic mass movement coordinator.
Igbokwe’s “urban contemporary,” choreography melds house dance, waacking and modern concert dance. She’s just returning from the Sadler Wells Summer University, a think tank for dancers, artists, and creators. As I watch her eyes, Igbokwe’s mind tumbles over new thoughts and ideas. This artist, now well situated in her career, realizes that her early life experiences directly influenced how she created opportunities for herself and others. So how does a life story manifest into dance practice?
If I go back to come forward, the dance for me is all about a release.
Personal history, her father’s passing and her mother’s illness, shaped Igbokwe’s spiritual passage as a dance artist. She speaks of dance as release, reflecting back upon personal challenges she faced as a burgeoning teenage artist.
My dad was a barrister. He practiced here and in Nigeria, and my mom was a  councilor for the Labor Party. We had always danced in my family. Coming from a traditional Nigerian home there is always music, Sunny Adé, Fela Kuti… music and dance was always in the house. She (my Mom) would go to these traditional weddings, or African women’s association meetings. They would bring the kids and, after the meeting, there would be the food and the music and the dancing.

Igbokwe’s mother passed away in 2009 following an extended illness. As a teenager, the choreographer grappled with challenges of taking care of her mother while developing her own independence.

My Mom became really ill, and I ended up becoming her caretaker from the age of 14 and looking after her and my three younger sisters. I was coming home from school and making sure that mom was OK and making sure that my sisters were OK, and it was a very tough time. I feel like a fifty-year-old woman in my mid-teens, and I need something that is just for me to do. And at school I was always choreographing on my friends. A teacher told me about a summer project that was happening here at The Place. She said, “this would be something just to do for you.” I would learn technique classes, and I absolutely loved this dance thing, this creative thing. And from there I got the bug. 
The bug of dancing helped Igbokwe to feel young, and most of all happy. Later she attended college. Choosing an art career over a law career disrupted family
expectations. Although she first concealed her arts degree from her mother, she later confessed that she was pursuing her heart.
I found the hobby was something that just kept me sane and made me a bit whole again.
Igbokwe’s most recent work, Our Mighty Groove, draws from her early experiences of house club dancing. Zoe Anderson describes the September 2013 performance at Sadler’s Wells’ “Wild Card” series.
“A woman in an extravagant hat cuts through the crowd, clearing space by sheer force of personality. Delicately taking the hat off, she starts to dance, with rippling shoulders and slicing arms. The crowd presses in for a better view, and then falls back again to give her more room.”
In the work, Igbokwe immerses audiences in a house dance environment and lets them observe multiple characters entering a 1970s club. The dance fully utilizes the personality of each of her dance artists.
I’m doing what Mommy did and the ladies of the African women’s association.
Igbokwe attended primarily white universities that challenged her sense of self. The buns and tights she had to wear for classes felt, to her, like alien outfits. Outside of the university, she worked with Hakeem Onibudo of Impact Dance. He encouraged her to improve her teaching by becoming an exercise teacher at fitness studios. Before the exercise course, she was “really engaged but rough round the edges.” Hakeem advised her that, as an African girl, she should work on her smile and people skills.
He was the key figure back then, a big brother, and he came from Nigeria as well. He understood that transition.
Even though she softened her classroom demeanor, Igbokwe held onto her cultural grounding, naming her company Uchenna Dance. Uchenna, the Nigerian first name given by her parents, means “God’s Will.” She honors her parents by choosing this as her company’s name.
Igbokwe established the company in the middle of the recession. Her goal was to create a company that had an identity separate from Igbokwe as an individual choreographer. It was a precarious time.
I thought, “give it a go” rather than “what if.” I wanted to create something bigger than me–or that will be bigger than me–that can add to the British dancing that we have here, right now. This thing of seeing myself within dance as a Black woman as an African woman, as being a woman, as someone that absolutely loves dance and ballet and also likes house dance and waacking and knows the history and the technique behind these styles.
Waacking and house dance are popular dances with poses, explosive kicks and fast arm movements performed to driving urban music.
To promote social dance as contemporary choreography, Igbokwe started Cultural Explosion, an annual event showcasing artists working with urban vocabularies. Because of the “knock back” against her own work, she created a platform that is experimental, vibrant and infused by street, social, African and informal dance styles. Cultural Explosion invites choreographers from around the country to experiment with hybrid styles.
For me this work is about finding the similarities in those forms, the get down, the essence.
There have been three “cultural explosions,” each opening up networks for sharing ideas and practices. Open classes invite artists to exchange styles. The event aims to build artistic languages and bring the underground to the British Dance scene.
If we don’t do it, it won’t get done.
Igbokwe’s deeply imbedded ideals of fusion come from her heritage and from her experiences with training across disciplines. She wants to merge multiple dance styles.
I know about each of them in their individual forms. But what excites me is when they come together. When you’ve got a dancer that has the aesthetic of a contemporary dancer but the essence of an African dancer and then the rhythm, that punch of an urban dancer, that’s what gets me going. That’s what really excites me. To find bodies, dancers, I’m excited. That’s what my passion of merging these styles together is. I love the use of the back and the spine. I love the groundedness, but at the same time I love the lines. If you can get your leg up there, I’m yours.
When I first met with Igbokwe, I wanted to know more about her involvement with sports. She was a Nike Athlete and UK Master Trainer as well being part of the creative team, at the 2012 Olympics, working on all four of the opening and closing ceremonies. Her title was Mass Movement Coordinator and her team worked with a cohort of choreographers, dance captains and creative directors. Each team developed their own choreographed movement and the vision for their segments. The Mass Movement team lead by Steve Boyd worked to make the choreography and vision a reality.
As we chat, I realize the woman in front of me sees the athleticism of training and the invention of dancing as similar processes. Whether she works with large-scale movement or with individual artists, she views the process of dancing as coordinated release. I consider her earlier statements.
I found the hobby was something that just kept me sane and made me a bit whole again. When I’m dancing I feel young, I feel happy, I don’t think of the stress that I’ve got at home.
 
Igbokwe finds happiness through the physicality of dancing with others while bringing a unique aesthetic to the British dance scene. Her work encourages experimentation with styles, values precision in practice, and honors personal relationships.
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