Interview: Avant Garde Dance – 'The company's ethos is Innovate, Never Replicate'

London-based hip hop/contemporary company tells us about its new show, Fagin’s Twist

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Q&A with Avant Garde Dance

Inspired by Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, the new work from Avant Garde Dance explores what made the infamous villain Fagin the man he is. Artistic director, Tony Adigun tells us all about the show, Fagin's Twist, and his company’s inimitable style.

When you set up Avant Garde Dance in 2001, what was your vision and ethos? What kind of company did you want it to be?

The company's ethos is ‘Innovate, Never Replicate’. I wanted to challenge whatever the norm might be. The company brings together a group of like-minded dancers to explore unusual, abstract and artistic ideas.

I love strong images, and the artistry of bringing together different elements to achieve this; costume, music, movement, voice, lighting, set. And I have always been interested in blending different movement and musical vocabularies and influences.

What are your hopes for how an audience receives your work?

I want our audiences to feel something. I'm not necessarily about the clear narrative, I'm more about the emotional narrative. I say to my dancers: 'your job is to evoke an emotion from the audience, whatever that may be.' The worst thing is for someone to be at a show for an hour and not feel anything. I've made a piece, but that doesn't mean mine is the only way it can be interpreted. Everyone’s different interpretation and what people get from it are as valuable and as important to me as my original reason for it.

Fagin is one of Charles Dickens' most interesting characters, often painted in a bad light but with a good heart. Exploring his younger years, and what made him the man he is, is a fascinating idea. What prompted you to do that?

When I first started creating this work and had finally settled on the story of Oliver Twist, I thought about the different characters in the book and how it would be good to re-imagine some of them. We started off with the idea of re-telling the original story of Oliver Twist but in the end, we agreed that it wasn’t the direction we wanted to take – Oliver’s character was too simple, he was too nice and everything just fell into place for him. It seemed too easy.

Oliver, Fagin, Bill, Nancy and the Artful Dodger are the most prominent characters in the story so we delved deeper into their individual characteristics and examined the relationships between them. We created backstories for each of them if they didn’t already exist, so that the dancers playing these dynamic people could be engrossed by them and really embody the roles.

Fagin was the last person we looked at. I’m a believer in the underdog and I was very interested in his personality, the one that everyone knows from either having read the book or seen the movie or the musical. I wanted to take his journey before he got to the point where he’s most recognisable and look at his past, at his childhood and see what parallels I could make between him and Oliver.

Avant Garde Dance has only performed in Scotland once before – at British Dance Edition in Edinburgh when you delivered an incredible short section of your work, The Black Album. Was that indicative of the kind of work you do? Can we expect the same kind of power and energy from Fagin's Twist?

Fagin’s Twist is a very different overall experience, its narrative exposes some timeless societal themes, helping us to think differently about people’s situations and actions. We have a new and exciting creative team on board; a fantastic set and costumes that we’re getting great feedback on. And lighting that also helps to create the dark and evocative atmosphere we were after.

What remains though, is my movement language and particularly the strong relationship with music. So yes, you can definitely expect power and energy, but alongside softer and more emotional moments. You can expect to see a lot of different movement influences. I work with contemporary dance but am heavily influenced by hip hop culture and my work in the commercial dance world. Our eight incredible dancers also bring a variety of backgrounds, training and styles into the mix.

How would you describe Fagin's Twist?

I have always been excited by the idea of re-telling a popular tale. I wanted to add a mischievous twist that would play with, and challenge, audiences’ perspectives of a much loved classic.

It’s a show that you can enjoy with or without any previous knowledge of the original story. The relationships between the characters are really strong – Oliver and Bill; Bill and Nancy; Nancy and Fagin; Fagin and Dodger; Dodger and Oliver. I want the audience to sit up and take note of what’s happening but there are also moments that are just light and fun, that people can just sit back and enjoy. The movement style for each character is very distinct.

Text is a really important element of the show. I previously worked with Maxwell Golden, who is the writer on Fagin’s Twist, on Romeo and Juliet and I really liked his style of writing. I make dance pieces all the time and I’ve used text a few times before but I really wanted to push it this time, as it’s such a big production. It brings another layer and I enjoy the complexity and the simplicity that text can bring to a moment. It’s a third element which helps to infuse what’s going on and explain what’s happening.

The eclectic score for the show is made up of music meticulously selected by myself, with sound design by Brian Hargreaves. It includes original compositions by Benji Bower and Seymour Milton and tracks by underground artists including Mika Vainio and Tisme.

A couple of your company members have connections to Scotland but apart from your brief stint at British Dance Edition, this is your first show in Scotland. How does it feel to be finally playing here?

Lisa Hood, who is a long-standing and integral part of the company and plays Nancy in Fagin’s Twist, grew up in Scotland. She started her dance journey at Edinburgh’s Telford College.

We’re delighted to be performing a full show north of the border for the first time. The tour is vast: we’re visiting seaside towns, major cities, new places and theatres that already know us well. We’re able to do this with this show as audiences come along to see it because they love dance or music, theatre or Dickens; because they’re interested in contemporary work, traditional literature or hip hop culture. So I guess it has quite wide appeal, but still it resonates with people on a very personal level.

Avant Garde Dance: Fagin’s Twist, Tramway, Glasgow, Fri 27–Sat 28 May

Avant Garde Dance And The Place Present Fagin's Twist

Tony Adigun's mismatched contemporary hip hop piece about Charles Dicken's infamous villain, re-imagining his youth in the face of overwhelming poverty.

Birmingham Hippodrome

Thu 20 Oct

£12; £7 disabled (£9) / 0844 338 5000

Fri 21 Oct

£12; £7 disabled (£9) / 0844 338 5000

The Place, London WC1H

Wed 28 Sep

£18 (£12) / 020 7121 1100

Thu 29 Sep

£18 (£12) / 020 7121 1100

Fri 30 Sep

£18 (£12) / 020 7121 1100

…and 13 more dates until 15 Oct

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