Below are Robert’s considered and ariculate ideas about the influence and importance of ballet and contemporary dance, dance in general and hip hop in particular as a force for social change, and issues of race within a hip hop artist’s identity. Plus a few words about his latest work Verse and Verses…
Donald Hutera: What’s your take on classical ballet and its relevance to contemporary British culture? More directly, what impact has ballet vocabulary had on you and how do you integrate it into your work?
Robert Hylton: Contemporary British culture is a swell of multi-cultural, multi-faceted mutations of theatre, art, cinema, curiosities, spectacles and peculiarities. We’re familiar with ballet, whether we identify with it or not. But does its artistic pomp and ceremony have relevance now? In my opinion, no. The classics are classics, but people grow and society changes. Ballet has washed itself into a corner. For me, the constant references to its own tradition and its snail’s approach to inventiveness have left it in the dark.
As first and foremost I am a street dancer, ballet was always like “Urrgh…” But watching Nureyev and Baryshnikov on TV spinning and jumping was a great inspiration which, in turn, we would emulate in the clubs. So off I naively went to college, where I was thrown into the tights and put next to the ballet barre. I have what I can only describe now as a disorder: I’m a “movement junkie.” It’s necessary and imperative that I study, react to and practice movement and dance every day. So three dance classes daily was to me like a crack house on Giro day. I was constantly getting my hits from the dealers [teachers, that is] Namron, John Travis and Cathy Burge pimpin’ their vast skill and knowledge.
My enthusiasm for learning bypassed the stereotyping, as I knew how much these studies would add to my turns and elevate my jumps. But there was, as with any addiction, a crash. A glitch. Although my body would respond, my mind would not. I was floating in and out of a daze. Through training I had gained a foundation, a good technical knowledge of the shapes of ballet and modern. And I had the movement prowess to execute them. But I was not and would never be a ballet or contemporary dancer. My own social boundaries, upbringing and education had not led me to that hierarchic point. It just wasn’t me! As a self-confessed “movement junkie,” however, I started, at first privately, at home, to mix body popping with ballet with breakdance with contemporary, then all of them together with some sprinkles of theatre. After a few overdoses I began to work out the recipe: one-tenth theatre, four-tenths modern, five-tenths bodypopping. That’s urban classicism.
As a company my philosophy is and always will be street dance. The classicism in urban respects the tradition and history of street dance. Bringing together theatrical knowledge of composition and time and space is the next fix in the formula, allowing me to celebrate my fractured history and look forward to opportunities to invent the future.
DH: What about that great big entity called contemporary dance? Does, or should it, matter to audiences? Does it matter to you?
RH: Does the word contemporary mean modern dancing? Bodypopping and b-boying are modern dances. But within the arena of theatre in its formal sense, they sure as hell ain’t contemporary. That’s because the English system is to barricade itself from and belittle what it does not understand. Information matters to me. I would like to encourage people to inform themselves of other dance forms, street or otherwise. Only with an informed opinion can judgments and criticisms be made and pigeonholing be done.
DH: To what extent does “the race card” impact on your work? More specifically, I wonder what it meant for you to be lumped under the label ‘black arts’ at 2004’s British Dance Edition.
RH: My placement at BDE was a concern to me, as this was my third visit. Previously I had shared bills with Protein Dance and Fin Walker as a contemporary dance theatre artist, and now I was as seen as a black dance artist. Not so long ago I performed in Lithuania as part of a British Council showcase amongst some of the most celebrated of our current modern British companies: Random, Russell Maliphant, Fin again and so on. There I was a British artist, black or otherwise but without the badge.
I first and foremost am an artist, and one of dual heritage, although my work personality is grounded in black culture and I have previously and admittedly taken part in black dance platforms. But does this mean that as I metamorphose from ballet to contemporary to popping I am going from white to white to black? Am I presenting a schizophrenic movement base, or I am moving from an informed physical base built through study? I was recently described as “a limber white performer from Leeds” (but raised in the Sunderland area, thank you). I am one pale-looking brother. My mum is white. I have a white heritage and was raised in a white area. So what if I were to “re-adjust” myself and “play white”? Or denounce my street dance identity and just focus on my formal training? Then we’d have a young-ish white artist who encapsulates the fusion of street dance within a formal
contemporary idiom. Would the white artist approach perhaps dispel any confusion for dance programmers? “Oh no, Robert Hylton. Where can we put him? Aaargh!”
I would ask that I be placed on the merit of my work, which I acknowledge throws some people into dismay. Still, some directors and programmers as brave and patient as myself encourage the potential of my work and my company. But if the dance sector chooses to focus on my heritage, then please be more informed about it. I’m a northerner with northern values. As stated, I am of dual heritage with a cultural upbringing of both black and white values, but led by hip hop philosophies. All of which should now tell you that I, Robert Hylton, am about all people, all races, all colours, and my concerns are the understandings of humans and humanity.
DH: Do you want to say a little something about Verse and Verses?
RH: Having completed three full-company national and international tours, I’m looking forward to this new one. It will simply be an abstract link between dance and musicality built from my experiences. Here I celebrate my dual heritage and the mixed mediums of dance and communication. It will not be so off-centre that it confuses the viewer. It aims to intrigue and inspire whilst pushing artistic boundaries. I’ll be focusing on the work because that is my drive.
DH: One last question: can dance, of any sort, function in any way as a force for social change?
RH: Yes, I believe dance is a force for social change. A two-minute clip in the film Flashdance brought breakdance to the world, and hip hop, DJs, MCs, graffiti and subsequently a billion-dollar business. Ballet, to my mind, doesn’t offer a voice for social balance and change on a global front. Whereas hip hop offers a culture that also brings politics and political leaders. Hip hop in its purest form is a cry for personal growth and understanding within yourself and your community. global or otherwise. It’s peace, love and unity. You’re encouraged to be a creative, independent individual well-placed in a meaningful social group with life-building values. So everyone, let’s start with your dopest freeze, please!