Thoughts on ‘Session’ by Still House, Steppaz and Empire Sounds

“When i go to the dance, i go hard to the dance” (Empire Sounds lyrics)

From appropriation to collaboration

Equal parts of excitement and anxiety tinged my approach to Still House’s new work ‘Session’; a collaboration with Tottenham based youth street dance company Steppaz and Empire Sounds. A. Were the skies finally going to break and if so, could it happen at a suitably cathartic moment, please? and B. How would Dan Canham (Stillhouse AD) handle hip hop and street dance?

Two of Dan’s previous works have left me appreciative but uncomfortable. ‘Ours was the Fen’ referenced folk dance vocabulary and ‘Of Riders and Running Horses’ worked with house dance. While both worked as theatre and as experience, I was left wondering about appropriation. Conveying ‘the essence’ of a movement is a worthwhile endeavour that each work delivered. But what differentiates borrowing from embodying? Is it possible for contemporary trained dancers to do different dance forms justice with limited time for immersion? And how much more could the choreography fly if the company worked with artists who specialize in the forms? Does being able to see the improvisation exercises matter to anyone but other dancers if your aim is to take wider audiences on a journey?

For ‘Session’ though, Dan collaborated. And what a difference that makes. Growing out of an Associate Artist role at Bernie Grant Centre, Dan was able to spend time, listen and absorb the culture surrounding Steppaz and Empire Sounds. A long gestation, weekends at dance competitions, real time for conversations and a whole lot of trust building underpins ‘Session’.

And so, to a Friday night at The Station (Creative Youth Network), in producing company MAYK’s hometown of Bristol. Seated alongside the audience in the horseshoe of chairs in The Station’s courtyard, Steppaz members peeled into the central space – individuals, duos, trios and flocks, each taking their turn to physically announce their presence and assert themselves. Both feeding and feeding from the audience energy and live music from Empire Sounds, they staked the whole performance territory, collectively claiming each tarmac inch as their own.

The beautifully mixed sound bounced off the courtyard walls, lifting the young dancers to expressive, energetic heights. Tempered with exquisite vocals from a young company member, two dancers and then pairs slowed the dynamics down with a tender section remembering the freedom of younger years, before building us back up again to a climatic ending exploding in contagious energy.

Throughout, the company sustained a sense of friendly competition, each determined to dance their best and determined for others to too. ‘Session’ had all the spirit of the best cyphers and the hip hop ethos of ‘each one teach one’. Were there occasions when arms and limbs of the youngest members flew a little too wildly without a good core grounding? It hardly matters. Not when the joy and the passion are talking so loudly and the audience are willing each single dancer on. Part of the beauty was imagining other young dancers I know having their moment like the ones we were witnessing. I’m no one’s mother, but it doesn’t take a parent to imagine the universe of other children and young people they are calling to freedom through dance.

Google the word ‘Session’ and alongside definitions of court and legislature you get “a period of time during which a group of persons meets to pursue a particular activity. ” Search the hashtag outside of Still House performances and you’ll most likely get music sessions. (And some x rated stuff, fair warning). My personal synonym for StillHouse’s ‘Session’ is 6am in the Inkerman back yard, the morning after the olden days curfew-less St Pauls Carnival. When everyone’s edges were worn away by dancing into the early hours and the sound bounced off the walls ‘til your ears were ringing. That type of collective freedom came from the delirium of duration, beginning with dancing through the daytime masquerade. Steppaz’ conviction took us there in less than an hour.

That’s artfulness right there.