A Busy Year…


Photo: Letitia Simpson

Photo: Letitia Simpson

I’m writing this blog from the back of the Boing! touring van as we wind our way through wales on our way to perform at Aberysthwyth Arts Centre.  Now in its 4th year of touring this early-years show about two brothers trying to overcome the excitement of Christmas eve to get to sleep and allow Santa to pay them a visit feels almost as much a part of my annual ritual as the turkey and the xmas pudding. However, Looking back over the past year it feels as if the variety of things ive been up to over the 10 months since my Boing! blog from 2012 has been the most diverse yet.


I started the year with an epic, adventure filled White Caps tour in India (check out the video blogs if you missed them) and an outing to a Dance film festival in Switzerland that left me enlightened as to the final destinations for all the screening copies I’ve been posting out over the last half a decade.


After that I went dark on this blog, embarking on the first major theatrical choreography’s I’ve worked on since White Caps and Boing! The show, Varmints,  was a dance theatre work for everyone 8 years old and above. Based on the Beautiful book by Marc Craste and Helen Ward, the show had been in the pipelines at Sadler’s Wells, Stratford Circus and East London Dance for several years.  Working with Director Sally Cookson we crafted the show out of the darkness this spring with an inspiring Bristol/London creative team: Adam Peck – Dramaturge, Benji Bower – Music, Guy Hore – Lighting, Holly Waddington – Set Design , Yoav Segal – Animation and dancers Mariana Camiloti, Letitia Simpson, and Femi Oyewole.


“There was once only the sound of bees and the wind in the wiry grass, the low murmuring of moles in the cool dark earth, and the song of birds in the high blue sky.”


So begins the poignant tale of a world which is buried under the relentless march of progress. Every day the city grows larger and the noise grows louder, until there is so much noise that no-one can hear themselves think. This exhilarating new dance-theatre performance explores the struggles of one small creature to preserve a world in danger of being lost forever.


It was an intensive process with lots of challenges and as a result I didn’t find anytime to make any video blogs for you in the midst of it all. So the best I can offer you is a transcript from an interview from Londondance.com and the trailer for the show.


In the mean time I will keep on writing to fill you in with what happened between the end of the Varmints tour in the height of summer and where I find myself now, in the back of the van driving through the welsh valleys…

Varmints Trailer

From London Dance.com


Bboy dance artist and film maker Wilkie Branson is the choreographer for a new children’s dance theatre adaptation of Helen Ward’s book Varmints which opens in the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells this weekend. In the midst of preparations he found a few minutes to tell us about it…

What was it about Helen Ward’s book Varmints which made you want to adapt it for the stage..
Varmints is a really special book, it’s so rich in the tones, and moods, it evokes with Helen’s poetic text and Marc Craste’s cinematic illustration. When I first saw it I thought this richness and its touching poetic ambiguity of the story would be well served by dance a dance adaptation.

Tell us about the creative team involved… 
To try and do justice to the epic transformations the book deals with and also the intimacy of the protagonists story we are using a large and diverse creative team. To work with the narrative we have Sally Cookson as director with Adam Peck as dramaturg, both work together often alongside composer Benji Bower. We also have Guy Hoare as lighting designer, Holly Waddington as set and costume designer with Yoav Segal working as projection designer. For a small scale show there are a lot of creatives.

Do you do things differently when you’re making work for children?
It can be difficult to lose sight of who your audience is when your making work for children. So its important to keep them involved in the process, during the creation for Varmints we have had several schools coming in to see what we’re doing and give us feedback.

You work in film – and Bboying is the basis of your dance language – how did the move into making work for children come about?
 The first time I work on a project for younger audiences was when I co-choreographed How cold My Toes for Sally Cookson and Travelling Light. Since then I have worked for Travelling Light, who specialise in work for young audiences, several times.

With your company Champloo you made a small budget show which toured to nine countries – with film screenings in 20 countries. Tell us about White Caps – and was that definitely the last show in York earlier this year?White Caps was an adventure of a project, and some of the stresses we’ve had putting together this show remind me of the ambition we had then. It feels good to be pushing things on the limits of what possible on the resources you have. It all paid off in the end with White Caps, we travelled around the world showing to audiences, which is a massive privilege. But after three years of touring its time to move on from it. I had to keep investing a lot of time into the production to try and keep it going and every time we toured it was a stress to make sure we broke even. In the end we had gone so far and it was time to put it to one side to make way for new things.

You’ve recently become a Sadler’s Wells New Wave Associate – what does that mean for you?
Its a great privilege. Being recognised and supported for what you’re doing is so important for the development of new choreographers. I feel like I have a bit of a second home at Sadler’s Wells now, having spent a lot of time there both performing and taking part in the Summer University, the opportunity to make Varmints is a big part of them investing in and helping me develop.

Reflection on Gaze is a Gap in London


photo by Jean Luc Tanghe

photo by Jean Luc Tanghe

When I began touring my latest creation, Gaze is a Gap is a Ghost, I knew that I was setting myself up for some problems and potential failures somewhere along the line. The set-up is time-consuming: in every venue where we perform, we first have to film a 70-minute video of the performance—with full costumes, decor, and lights—and then I have to edit this video, before we actually have the first performance in front of a public. During the filming, the dancers are wearing a point-of-view video camera that records the choreography from the inside perspective of the dance, and this video is later projected simultaneously alongside the live performance.


As you can imagine, it is a complicated set-up, and many things can go wrong along the way. We often have to shoot multiple takes of the same scene in the dance to get the best shot, and it often happens that I am still editing the movie until a few minutes before the live performance.


photo by Jean Luc Tanghe

photo by Jean Luc Tanghe

An important aspect of this film is that it gives the audience the ability to see things on stage that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see from their seats: the tiny details of various objects and costumes that the dancers interact with. So when we found out that our shipment of material—containing our set, our objects, and our costumes—was stuck in Holland and might not make it to London before the first show, we had to go into immediate problem-solving mode.


The unpredictability was the worst aspect. Would our set arrive in time to make a new film? Would it arrive just before the show? Would it arrive too late? We made three different contingency plans, depending on what time the set actually showed up at the theater.


In the end, the set showed up at 8:00 PM, just when the show was supposed to begin. We quickly assembled it, and the performance went on with an older video that was created in a different venue. (Strangely, that venue, Théâtre de la Bastille had some quite striking similarity of details to the Lilian Baylis Studio…similar dimension, certain pipes and doors and ladders in a similar location.)


Was it ideal to use an older video from a different theater space? No. Did the piece still work? Yes. When I reflect on it, this is kind of how it always feels to present a dance. There are always aspects that fall short of what I imagine to be the ideal version of the piece, and that’s part of what is interesting about live performance.


When we were thinking up the contingency plans, someone brought up the important point that whatever we decided to do should be something that I could defend artistically. That’s true, but at a certain point, don’t we as artists also have to take a kind of leap of faith? We have to just put something out into the world without knowing if it’s completely artistically defensible. During creation, I can often get so much inside my own process, that I don’t really know what I’ve made until after the premiere, or much later. Or perhaps it never happens that I fully know what I’ve made. One has to take the risk and put their work out there before they can know the consequences.


A big thanks to the team at Sadler’s Wells for helping to make the show happen! Once the set arrived, we assembled everything in less than 30 minutes and the show, as it must do, did go on. On the second night, we created a new video for the Lilian Baylis Studio, and it was very interesting to see the two nights consecutively, to see more clearly and specifically the difference between a video from another theater and a video from the same space. My sense is that the video in the actual performance space really allows the audience to go much deeper into the piece. It was good to have this re-affirmation that it is important to follow through with the concept of the piece all the way to the end, and that it does not require us to do a lot of pointless work for nothing!


photo by Jean Luc Tanghe

photo by Jean Luc Tanghe

75 Watt

75 Watt is a new work I’ve collaborated on with Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen (www.cohenvanbalen.com) in which a product was designed especially to be made in China. The object’s only function is to choreograph a dance performed by the labourers manufacturing it.


The project seeks to explore the nature of mass-manufacturing products on various scales; from the geo-political context of hyper-fragmented labour to the bio-political condition of the human body on the assembly line. Engineering logic has reduced the factory labourer to a man-machine, through scientific management of every single movement. By shifting the purpose of the labourer’s actions from the efficient production of objects to the performance of choreographed acts, mechanical movement is reinterpreted into the most human form of motion: dance. What is the value of this artefact that only exists to support the performance of its own creation? And as the product dictates the movement, does it become the subject, rendering the worker the object?


The assembly/dance took place in Zhongshan, China between 10-19 March 2013 and resulted in 40 objects and a film documenting the choreography of their assembly.


Choreographic principles of unison and counterpoint were applied to the organisation of the assembly line as well as employing visual and audio cues to coordinate the actions of the workers in their various tasks.


The design of the object was informed by research we carried out into conventional consumer goods such as kettles, hand held vacuum cleaners and hairdryers, and the movements involved in assembling them.


The hinge on the arm of a portable hairdryer, for example, gave us inspiration to think about how multiple hinges could function to mirror the human arm and how a duet between the human and object could then be created. The use of the body as a reference for measuring and preparing parts of the object such as the internal wiring also functioned to question the relationship between subject and object. tumblr_mhk139JOkp1rjolkwo10_250  tumblr_mhk139JOkp1rjolkwo9_250 tumblr_mhk2crW7gK1rjolkwo6_250

From the research we carried out we identified aspects of the object that would bring about certain movements. For example using long pieces of wire would involve broad outstretched movements as opposed to the more detailed and specific movements involved in tightening screws.

The use of electroluminescent wire in the inners of the object worked as a visual reference to Gilbreth’s images from his motion studies.



Post-tour reflections

BLW tour van


I’m just back from a UK tour of my latest live work, Be Like Water. As I’ve mentioned before it has been the most demanding project I have ever worked on. Reflections on this are ongoing but below are initial ones that I’m finding useful to write down, both to clear my head a bit, and to start to confront or give shape to some of the possibilities for the next step:


  • We had a 2 month gap between the premiere and this national tour – because of this we needed to find a different momentum and excitement to the one provided by the premiere. I have to admit, because of the physically demanding and precarious nature of the tech-heavy set-up, I wasn’t short of anxiety. I was worried about how this would affect my creative and performance energy.


  • Once things got underway I was reminded why I do actually enjoy touring live work – as the touring team got to know each other better, the piece became more fluid and we were able to make changes to it in a satisfyingly collaborative way that felt like an extension of what the piece is about. Audience response everywhere has been incredibly positive. Some of this touching feedback really does make the graft worthwhile. I know art is important but as we all know, sometimes this is hidden under admin and fighting for money/support-  its great to strongly feel it’s benefits sometimes.


  • I think the reason this project has felt like so much hard work is because of the numbers of people involved. We got management and producer support very late into the process so the stress of managing a team of 10 logistically/financially was initially on my shoulders with support from Eva Martinez.


  • I’m thinking now about the different shapes the support model for my practice could take. It might be an ongoing obvious thing to say but I want to change the weighting between being an artist and a business, spending more time researching and making work. The challenge I suppose is that it isn’t always easy to identify what it is that you need. I am starting to get there. More to follow…