Robert Hylton's left of centre approach to Hip Hop, theatre, film and contemporary dance choreography has carved an original artist, whose work is ground breaking accessible and thought provoking. Alongside being Artistic Director and producing work for his company Urban Classicism, Robert works in Film and TV and delivers educational outreach work.
Here, Robert speaks about his current work Swan Breaks, Fresh: a Spaghetti and Fried Chicken Western, his educational projects and future ambitions, in conversation with Anja Schall, Administrator, Dance UK.
Your new work Swan Breaks which has been describes as ‘a dance story of love and betrayal between the natural world, humans and technology’ has recently premiered at LABAN. You have written, directed and choreographed Swan Breaks. Which aspect did you most enjoy and which role did you find most challenging and why?
I find the whole process to be challenging and in many ways the challenges and my role becomes compartmentalized from the beginnings as writer and researcher to the end as performer and all the bits in between. I enjoyed the writing, as it was a new skill a new adventure for me, however the detail of story telling is a big challenge, let alone figuring out how I would interpret the original choreography. As a dancer I set myself a mammoth role and bringing myself the company, the story the music, the lights, the robots, the costumes and the audience into the same space at one time is always the most challenging. Aspect of making theatre.
Swan Breaks reinvents and cross references to the original ballet Swan Lake. What was your interest in the original storyline as a vehicle to develop your own original idea? How did the technology aspect and your personal movement and choreographic style feed into the production of the work?
The base of the piece came from myself and Billy Biznizz bantering about classical ballet names and changing them into hip hop themed names. It was all off the cuff chit chat, Billy said Swan Breaks and that was it, from that single name I set my self on a pathway to reinterpreting it into the original RHUC style. My first task was to study the original ballet of which I watched many versions and sourced a lot of reading material. The biggest task from then was how to set it? Should I ham up the original, mix up the music put b boys in tu tus, my answer was NO!
I looked at the world around me relationships and love. My growing intrigue in the future, evolution and the human relationship with technology, and what seems to be developing some what under our noses, is an almost science fiction version of life like robots that can walk and talk. Our future friends and partners? This is where the love and betrayal would come from technology and nature and their growing relationship good or bad.
As a company we have a vast movement vocabulary, contemporary, breakin, poppin, the robot, ballet and a thirst for abstraction and I knew that the piece would both challenge and compliment all the aspects of RHUCs dance and choreographic vocabulary.
You developed Swan Breaks in collaboration with Jerwood Award winner Karena Johnson (dramaturgy), DJ/Producer Billy Biznizz, the RHUC performers and students from Middlesex University (robots) amongst others. What interests you in collaborative work and how do you create and work within the network?
It can be a mind field but the simple task is same page thinking does everyone understand the initial mission. This is where the strength of the story comes into play, read through’s, debates and early dialogue etc. Karena was fantastic in that she challenged my early ideas in the initial stages so as that the idea was tangible to everyone and not just a garble in my head. The team took to the task and we were able to maintain our mission and goals. Everything then is leadership, collaboration and communication. The robot systems were a great risk as they literally came together in the last seconds of the performance day after months of work. In a working collaboration, trust must be paramount, the ability to give people space, when to push, how to be critical to everyone else and still be able to accept criticism yourself is something you must always be willing to accept. Directing is ultimately about setting goals and tasks and more importantly making the right decisions from then on in.
You are currently producing a short film for Channel 4 titled Fresh: a Spaghetti and Fried Chicken Western to be screened in December based on trainer culture and featuring a full western set designed by Emma Wee. Could you tell us a little more about this project and your role as a choreographer working in film?
Trainer culture and hip hop has always worked hand in hand and walking into a room full of you piers or other trainer enthusiasts with an exclusive pair of trainers on, can silence a room as everyone ogles and envies your footwear and hope fully rears the ultimate question ‘where did you get those trainers from?’ Just like in the westerns when a lone stranger comes into town. I basically twinned those two visions together and thought I know lets have all the characters as feet and build a mini cowboy set.
I had done a couple of screen writing courses in the early part of the year so was better prepared to write the treatment which took a couple of hours, Channel Four and the Arts Council really liked it. I had spoken to Emma Wee about the set design and said can we make a mini cowboy set, she said yes. Billy Biznizz is always ready for a new musical challenges and along with 5 members of RHUC company and some of the members of Boy Blue including Kenrick Sandy their director, we was able to make up the numbers with a final cast of thirteen. MJW productions did a great job in producing the film and I have to say I really like the end product.
Once again I wrote, choreographed and directed the film, which was a big task. Leading a film crew especially one as skilled as these guys was a high pressure job. Ed the cinematographer was fantastic as was everyone. A growing theme in my life is a lot of prior research and reading about the film directors role and home work is constant part of my working life, but it is those challenges that I set myself, driving my passion.
Outreach work is a further important part of your work as a Choreographer and you are currently running projects and workshops with the Royal Opera House, East London Dance and The Place. Which aspects of teaching and education work do you most enjoy and does it inform your artistic ideas?
Outreach work is a great way learning your craft as a dance teacher the ability to break down movement at any level or social group is a difficult task. As a choreographer making curtain raisers in one day with people you have never met is at times a mind field. This is what I call, the frontline of education you really have to go in their with your tools sharpened and ready, as unpredictability and potential problem solving is always in your face which is no different to making professional work.
As regards to Royal Opera House, East London Dance and The Place this is less frontline as I am fortunate to be able to work with the talent of the future, young people who take no persuasion to take on the tasks of performance. Being part of someones early inspiration to go on to be a performer with our industry is always an honour. What ever I teach I always bring a hip hop mindset of, “each one teach one” and the sharing of knowledge and the importance of lineage and however how much time I spend with them I try to engage, inspire, pass on skills and nurture. This then gets reflected as a big part of outreach is about your own personal generosity and how you open yourself up to any participant, this is a community mindset, let them see beyond the technique beyond the plie or six step and show the drive, the intention and motivation which I believe to be an important part of outreach and creative thinking.
What are your future plans and where would you like your choreographic interests to take you?
My future plans even though RHUC are currently at the beginnings of a new 5 year plan are at the moment in jeopardy as RHUC as an ACE RFO company. We as everyone else are waiting to see if that financial stability will be there from April 2008, which would be a very serious dark cloud for future possibilities on any future for the company. Our destiny will be framed mid January 2008 giving us not much time to react or even shut down, everything maybe okay we may get a further deal from ACE, it’s still a very, very grey area.
Our plans though would be to continue touring Swan Breaks, 2008/9, with 09 seeing RHUC’s 10 year anniversary, for which we will bring back some old rep along with some new.
2010 we plan to make the sequel to Swan Breaks which will be another observation on our relationship with technology as well as a couple of more films in the pipeline. As always the continued outreach work including Symmetry a lecture demonstration package focusing on street dance demonstration and another short film based on the same followed by dance based workshops. We have just started this educational campaign called the Symmetry a 50 schools campaign in South East London co-funded by the Jack Petchey Foundation. JPF has allowed matched funding so that that each school only pay fifty percent of the actual cost. This will be all in between further planning and constant touring, nationally and internationally. As we have always worked closely with the British Council so there are is always the possibility of an unknown experience in a far distant place, RHUC is a big wheel and one I hope to see it keep turning.