Poetry in Motion meet the creative team behind Alphabus
One of the originators of FlexN, a dance form embraced by the likes of Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, Reggie has long drawn on disparate influences to create something new. FlexN has its roots in Jamaican dancehall and the block parties and dance competitions of East New York, but also in anime cartoons, The Matrix and Dragon Ball Z. ‘Pauzing’,a signature move, was inspired by a VCR glitch that caused a few seconds of footage to be reiterated again and again.
The poets from leading spoken word organisation Young Identity are similarly eclectic, working with artists such as Amiri Baraka, Saul Williams and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze but also taking influences from the wider world: ‘Wintermute’, a word used by writer Jardel Rodrigues to express the coldness of a language that’s been partially withheld, comes from survival videogame The Long Dark. For Alphabus, the idea was to combine spoken word with dance in an amalgamation that’s less arbitrary than it might seem. Although flexn is characterised by feats of physical mastery, it has storytelling firmly at its heart. Equally, the tongue is, after all, a muscle.
A new myth
The story Alphabus tells is of Alphabus himself, a curious young man who uncovers a book of negative words that his godlike father has hidden from the world. Before he finds the book, Alphabus and his community have no way of describing wrongdoing, difficult emotions or even death.
‘Alphabus feels like that is… not wrong,’ explains Reggie, ‘but because it’s been hidden, there’s no choice. And because there’s no choice, there’s only this one way of living.’ The father–son debate that follows is about the importance of choice versus the destructive power of language.
Reggie describes Alphabus as ‘a new myth’, a paradox that signals the ambition behind the project. ‘We were talking about the story of Icarus, and then we started talking about African myths,’ he explains. ‘The whole story came out just from that thought.’
Two years in the making
The development of Alphabus has been informed by Breathe, a FlexN and Young Identity residency for MIF at Contact in 2017. Building on the success of FlexN Manchester, a transatlantic dance collaboration directed by Reggie at MIF15, Breathe was an exchange of ideas between Young Identity poets and UK dancers that then sparked competitions between dancer-poet pairings elsewhere. ‘This has actually been a two-year process,’ explains Goodsoul.
Although there has been some rivalry between the forms, commonality quickly became a theme in Alphabus. ‘Dancing itself is poetry, just with the body,’ says dancer Quamaine ‘Virtuoso’ Daniels. ‘And poetry is just dancing, but with words,’ nods Jardel.
Reggie was also struck by the similarities. ‘Poets have stanzas, in the verse – dancers have that, also, but they have it in a movement sense. There are small dialogues, small movements in dance, and poetry has the same.’ This is at the heart of how the story of Alphabus is told and what the audience sees on stage.
‘They’re very abstract art forms, and we want to respect that,’ explains Billie. ‘There are abstract elements, but there are also elements where we directly tell story. It’s more about taking the audience on an emotional journey.’
The urgency of now
Reggie has encouraged the cast to draw on their own experiences, asking: ‘what’s happened in your lives that will allow you to create this myth?’ For Jardel, Alphabus is a way of contesting mainstream education. ‘I wasn’t in school, so the studious yet rebellious child is something that I related to,’ he says of the character of Alphabus. For dancer Shameer Rayes, the father-and-son dynamic came to have particular relevance. ‘For me, especially, it’s kind of like closure,’ he says quietly. ‘Two months ago, my Dad passed away. Parts of the show represent the beauty but also the pain in mortality.’
It’s this emotional resonance that lends real potency to the themes of choice, freedom of speech and self-discovery that the production grapples with, while current events lend these preoccupations heightened urgency. ‘The world is in such a sensitive place,’ says Reggie, deploring the lack of support he sees from the upper classes for the rest of society. ‘It’s all about perceptions. It’s about finding out something, or it’s about someone keeping something away.’
Among the poets and dancers, there’s a real appetite for change – and for rebellion, or ‘breaking the ordinary to see what’s available,’ as Goodsoul puts it. ‘Alphabus can’t just die – it has to be a living entity.’ On this, they all agree. ‘I want to invite the world to Alphabus,’ says Virtuoso. And so to the people who are reading this: welcome to the revolution.
Polly Checkland Harding is an award-winning journalist and Associate Publications Editor at MIF.