Thomas Michael Voss
Michael, I first met you in rehearsals for an Oxfam charity event at the Astoria, London in November last year. You had cast the diverse mix of 31 performers of various backgrounds and ages, at any stage of their training, career or lives. You choreographed and devised 4 contemporary dance pieces for the charity night over a short span of time. I was amazed to witness your sheer craftsmanship, enthusiasm and ability to communicate your ideas to such a broad range of performers, producing a set of 4 pieces each unique in its style.
Do tell us more about this project, the casting, rehearsal and the performance process.
The project was a very ambitious idea of two young ladies Aliya and Dzera who run an events company called "art-s-talker". They approached me and asked, if I was interested in collaborating with all sorts of other artists to create one arts piece/event. There was no brief at all, which I absolutely loved, because that means creative freedom. It simply should be about “diversity” that was all they demanded.
This enabled me to project that idea onto many levels and integrate the thought when casting and choosing the music!
I utterly believe that “Dance Performance” is far more than just steps and movement/stillness. For me it has to integrate and mirror personalities and reflect any kind of life experience. There is so much more to dancers than just arms and legs. I need to see that in my work and in my dancer’s/ actor’s/ model’s performances. I cannot separate the two! What I always say at this point is: You can watch the most perfect and amazingly equipped dancer and it still can be boring to watch!
My dancers have to have character and personality as well as dancing ability. That also is a strong key to any performance and the ability to work with them overall. I don't want machines who deliver my steps, I expect much more in return than just my own steps. I could go on and on.
The project was very interesting, but also very ambitious in regard of size, budget, time etc. plus I made it even harder by using a total of 31 dancers (laughing). It was the Event company’s first of this kind and they had never put a show on before. It was a learning curve and a challenging experience which I always love as I work best under pressure. It stretches me and I often come up with ideas, material or solutions in a tense climate. I think we still asked for the impossible, but if you don’t ask you don’t get! In the end though we had a fabulous and unique two hour evening program including live music, animation projections, a fashion show, a vocal performance, exhibited art and photography, “light” design/art (which also was used to light my pieces), even food design and of course dance and lots of it!
The hardest part for me probably was getting all 31 dancers aged 11-57 all together at the same time for rehearsals. I worked with whoever was there and made it work. It worked out very well in the end. I promised myself not to stress out about the peoples attendance and create for the people who were there. The dancers who missed a lot of rehearsals danced less in the end or had to catch up real fast.
The most amazing and rewarding aspect of the cast for me was that they were all ages, all shapes and sizes and from all sorts of different backgrounds, training and cultures and if it had been for me I would have even pushed it further, but time and budget didn't allow. Maybe another time.
I believe the secret is in the communication and respect for each other. No matter who you are and for how long you have trained and danced/ performed for, there is nothing stopping you learning from others. I am sure that 57 year old Joy in my cast has learned something from 11 year old Lewis and vice versa! There are groups just with children, or just professionals or just elderly people. Sometimes I even find that discriminating and isolating, that isn’t really integration, is it in my eyes it’s just making a point that these groups exist and very often the audience then reflects the appearance of the groups.
This was different, there were people now working with each other in the same room who under any normal circumstances would have never ever met, talked to each other let alone dance and work together.
The elderly dancer/performer has so much to give and they have so much experience and so many stories from which we all can learn, but sometimes no one bothers to talk to them. I have had a cast like that on several occasions now and I am always urging the youngsters to talk to the older cast members for advice, stories and so on. You cannot learn what they can tell you at any college. So make the most of it if you have someone in the cast who looks like your grandfather, but as a matter of fact Basil Patton was in the original cast of Cabaret in the West End in 1968, long before you even were born and has never stopped working in the business ever since.
Nothing ever is what it seems, like 57 year old Joy who has had at least three different careers and then started dancing and probably is one of the strongest performers I have ever worked with - Priceless !
But we are living in times where people prefer to hide behind books and computers pretending they are so educated because they read, rather than communicating and learning any real skills by interacting with each other!
I believe that all shows in the performance. Real people, real life, group harmony. That is why I sometimes like to work with non trained dancers and actors. They find it easier to let go and explore, to try out and most importantly to listen. Dancers can be very self - conscious about everything. They were drilled at college and of course it’s important, but there is more to things. Don’t stop there, use it and grow, move on and find new things. Your dancing will become much richer and more real and less institutionalized. In the end we are not robots and no one likes watching one!
The Oxfam event was very organic in that way. No judges, no academic tests with passes and failures, no goal, meaning, story or anything limiting. The audience didn’t need to look for a hidden, dark secret, story or deep meaning and therefore it didn’t need to judge if I / we succeeded or not, therefore could just sit back and enjoy just watching the performance for what it was. And so that is what happened. Just dance for the sake of moving, performing, music and people. Well that is what I call real luxury and freedom and it showed. Let me just say it again - Thank you to all my lovely unique dancers for their hard work.
What are you looking for when you audition performers?
They have to be nice! (laughing) I mean it! - You would be surprised. I think I probably re-decide that for each job individually, but generally it is safe to say that I am always looking for dancers with personality, character, energy, and they have to be able to take directions.
That then tells me a lot, in particular if I can work with them or not. Dancers who find it difficult to let go of their habits, not listen to corrections or directions I can’t use at all. I find it very frustrating and I would become impatient. Again, it’s not just about the steps it is how you do them and what else you have to give!
I am very much after passion and emotion. That is where the audience gets involved and starts ‘really’ watching, it has to do with storytelling. In a casting situation a lot becomes very evident immediately the minute someone walks through the door, long before the dance steps!!! It’s very telling!
I have a philosophy and my own way how to cast and partly it’s inspired by something Martha Graham once said:
'Movement never lies!'
I cannot tell you how true that is. I am observing people all the time wherever I go on the street, tube, and in restaurants and shops.. interesting and fascinating. Martha said something so profound, I totally agree and take my hat off to her!
Which aspects do you enjoy most choreographing for live performance?
I don’t really differentiate between choreographing a live or filmed/TV performance. Primarily I love working with people, I love that in whatever I do and I would never change that. Then there is something amazing about seeing your choreography on other people and something else happens with it. In a live performance you obviously have the immediate response of the audience which is amazing, but I don’t really need that as a choreographer.
As a dancer I did, I loved it, but now whenever I watch my own work I am my toughest critic and because I am so hyper critical with myself and because I always want the best results, I want perfect and that makes it very hard. Even when people said it’s great or everyone was happy afterwards and all is delivered - I often still find a few things I wish I had done differently; HIGHER, BIGGER, BETTER, FASTER.
But that sometimes is impossible, because very often there are limitations like the brief, time, budget, dancers, costumes, music, space, set up and you just have to work around all the obstacles and make the most/best of it.
You have a broad training background spanning the range of ballet, contemporary dance, ballroom and latin, jazz, flamenco, african, which gives your movement vocabulary an eclectic mix and individuality. Your versatility enables you as Choreographer to easily adapt to the working environment and brief. A large part of your work is currently found in the commercial sector. At times, contemporary dance artists may find it difficult to establish working relationships in the commercial sector, what do you think has helped you to link across having originally trained in contemporary dance at the Laban Centre?
I could answer this question from many different angles and points of view, but I probably would upset a lot of people. What I can say is that I never made a conscious decision to work in a specific field. A bonus definitely is that I am truly versatile. A lot of people say so when they are not, good luck to them, but at the end of the day you have to deliver what is requested, and in the commercial world very often on the spot and under pressure I have no fears or limitations there.
I have always been very versatile and open minded even as a dancer and it just seems a natural progression. I don’t function with just one technique or style. Dance is movement/stillness in space to music or silence. That’s it. There is no label on anything and I am not prepared to put one on. I would find it limiting. When I choreograph it is down to what the brief is and says. Within that it becomes very clear straight away what the context and the situation is. Once you are familiar with the whole set up you then put the required movement to it, and I mean movement, not ballet technique, contemporary technique, jazz, ballroom or Latin technique - that belongs in colleges. Unless of course, that is what the client wants. It helps to learn what is what when you are young, but no one is stopping you from moving on from that after college. This is also strong advice to all the dancers out there who want to be found busy working! Don’t cut yourselves short of options! You cannot rely on only one technique these days and hope for the best. Even ballet companies are now looking more and more for new influences to create something new and exciting. You don’t want to lose out, because you as a dancer are stuck in a technique see yourself as a mover, a dancer.
The principles of those techniques are very overlapping and similar anyway. I could show you a “pas de bourre”, “tendu”, “plie” or a “chasse” in all of those techniques, it’s the same steps, just done in a slightly different way and possibly given a different name! But at the end of the day it’s the same steps and that’s what matters. I always say - “There are only so many positions and movements the body actually, physically and naturally can go through and into, if you have two arms, two legs and a head.” It’s the ways and the order in which we move which are different.
If you are versatile you can select, make decisions and choices, mix and match, if you are not you have to work within what you know, that can be limiting, too.
Overall, I would say what I expect from my dancers I’ll expect from myself as a choreographer. That’s half the rent even before it gets to the dancing. Communication is the most important factor, you need to be able to come up with goodies very fast and you need to be able to deal well with a lot of pressure and working in a rush, and it helps to have a very good eye for detail.
To answer your question about the cross over - Where should I belong? I used to compete in Latin American and Ballroom Dancing. From the view of a contemporary dancer probably the most commercial and cheesiest thing they could think of. Let me tell you, it’s very technical and fast. All I needed to know about performing in my career I learned from that - no doubt. Then I trained for three years at the Laban Centre and that is so different, but it is also in my blood now. But then there is Dollie Henry’s fantastic jazz which leans much more towards art and contemporary dance than ‘commercial’ besides the fact that there is much less money involved. I also have to tell you that a lot of contemporary dance is less art than a lot of people assume and it can get very boring and repetitive... So where do we go from here. I believe the more you do the more it becomes obvious that it all comes down to the same thing.
I keep myself free from all those accusations and politics, because I have done them all and love them all for different reasons. There is real beauty in all of them and you only know if you have done those styles deeply enough, and only then can you judge, but then you don’t. People sometimes often judge or misjudge because of not being able to understand or their own insecurities. It’s all best left alone. I do believe that the terminology “art” and “commercial” are wildly abused, misused and misunderstood and it all gets very misleading. In the end doesn’t it just mean paid and non paid? But then I`m sure people like Matthew Bourne are doing financially well. Plus who says you only can do one or the other, it’s all dance, all movement, and I have seen “commercial” work which was more artfully done than a lot of contemporary dance I have seen in the past. It takes the same skill to choreograph both…
Talking about commercial work, you choreographed the Moben Kitchen commercial that is currently being transmitted and with it you manage to bring some contemporary dance flair onto national television. Which aspect did you enjoy most working on this commercial, what were the challenges? Were you as Choreographer involved in the casting process of the dancers?
Yes, the overall feel is contemporary, yet to me it’s not how I see it. But you are right, it’s great to have that sort of dancing on TV. I really enjoyed doing this commercial, because I had immense freedom to create whatever I liked and thought was right, it shows and it works, for that it takes someone who actually gives you the space to do that and trusts your expertise - thank you Jim Canty !
These jobs don’t happen very often, sadly hardly ever. A whole commercial with full on dancing and nothing but dancing, plus the dance is integrated, I actually should say the kitchen is integrated into the dance. The dance is used to introduce and demonstrate the features and functions of the kitchen. In college we would have called this a site specific project, because we had a real kitchen to dance in/with and I do believe I made the most of the space in 30 seconds. I am very proud of this job, as the original routine was actually absolutely fluid and seamless and the 30 seconds were all done in one take, meaning no cuts at all! That is a very tall order keeping in mind it is dance, a big space, plus you have to take the light, camera movement and the operating people into consideration.
But after all it was a commercial and not a short film, so they needed to cut in “sale” signs and featured kitchen details. There is also a light story line, but done through the movement. So dance is absolute priority and paramount in this commercial. Wonderful! I loved the challenge, I loved the dancers and I loved the whole team. The biggest challenge was that I had to choreograph the routine without knowing or having seen the kitchen (it was still being built). You think it sounds mad, - it was. How it all worked out and fell into place? I don’t know. I just guessed. Of course we adjusted little things once we had the kitchen, but it’s pretty close to the original rehearsal routine. The real challenge was to then compress everything into 30 seconds. I think the result really speaks for itself.
Of course I was involved in the casting process of the dancers, as at the end of the day they had to be able to do what I needed them to do. I had to put them through major choreography at the casting. We also had older contestants at the casting and I thought at one point I almost have given them a heart attack!!! They all came out sweating and the following candidates were mortified to come in next! (laughing)
I did chose the cast but obviously the client and agency plus the director agreed with my recommendations. But when dance is so predominant and specific as it was in this case the choreographer really takes on a very important role in the casting process. The director of course is in overall charge of everything. I staged and choreographed the dancers with total freedom and made sure they did exactly what we wanted them to do, in that space, in that time - each and every time, in the exact same way. That takes very careful watching on my behalf and a lot of patience on behalf of the dancers, and don’t they know it (laughing), I wore them out and they literally walked away with blisters and bruises. What do you mean it all looks so light and easy…?
You have very recently choreographed two music videos, Mark Ronson’s Just and Craig David’s song Officially Yours. I enjoy the originality, sense of humour and movement quality of Just.
Thank you. I loved doing it. Again, I was given the space and freedom. And again thank you Jim Canty. But the style of contemporary movement goes perfectly with the whole story/set up/ mood of the video, which was inspired and taken from the original Radiohead video and then taken that much further through movement. Again amazing dancers, especially their professionalism and attitude towards the situation. It was raining and freezing cold and they had to start each take lying on the wet pavement.
In what capacity can you as Choreographer contribute to the brief? On set, are you working as part of a creative team or are you individually responsible for the movement direction and content? How do you approach creating choreography for music videos? Is your stimuli the music itself or are there other factors you would look at?
Normally by the time the company hires you as a choreographer the brief is done and approved by the record company or advertising agency, you don’t really contribute at all to the brief or treatment that is the director’s idea. But saying that very often there will be discussions about the brief, more in form of an explanation of the job though. But movement wise normally it is totally down to the choreographer. Each job is different, sometimes they need a mood, or a specific style, or a feel/look, or it’s a storyline, or the movement needs to fulfill a function, it varies. The final total execution of the movement is then down to the choreographer of course.
On set everyone has got their job and works within that area. If you are hired as a choreographer then you are only looking over the movement, within a creative team of different fields, like make up, hair, wardrobe, light, sound and so on. But we all obey the director who pulls it all together.
There are two different kinds of directors, one who likes to do everything himself and is very hands on and another who is more laid back, but quietly making sure all is done as he wants it but perhaps giving a little more creative freedom to others involved.
The bottom line is that as a choreographer you are responsible for the content and execution of movement. The director tells you when and where it happens. The stimulus for the choreography can be all sorts of things. First of all there is the brief and treatment, probably having a storyline or context. Then of course the music, but it could be costume based or to do with the environment.
Your choreography also has been featured on various catwalks including this years London Fashion Week. How would you describe your role creating movement for the catwalk? What are your main focus points as a Choreographer when working with models?
My job is to make sure the models enhance the outfits/ the looks, by poses and movements and by making use of the clothes - showing them off the best possible way. They are not just walking down the catwalk as they like, you know. There is much more to it than meets the eye and they do need to perform as well. It’s all about projecting energy and communication. I am normally doing two jobs at once when working on a hair or fashion show /shoot, one is obviously as a choreographer, then hand in hand with that I do performance coaching for the models, surprisingly many of the models can’t walk, project or pose properly, in terms of just not being aware, not using their full potential or having little habits. I love working with models. It’s so different to working with dancers or actors. It takes longer to warm them up / breaking the ice period, but then the rewards are amazing and I think I can actually improve a model’s future career.
They are cool, despite the general public’s belief that they are full of attitude and lazy. I don’t agree. I always have a laugh with them and I think they are "wicked" and always ready to do anything and throw themselves into the work whatever it takes. Amazing! Sometimes they can be a bit young and inexperienced though…
Looking ahead, where would you like your career to take you? Would you like to draw your focus closer into a particular area of your work or branch out into new challenges?
I never thought about where I want my career to take me. I guess the only way is up! To the top! You see when I was young my only goal and dream was becoming a dancer/performer. I did that and turned choreographer. I am living my dream everyday. I am very happy as long as I work. All I can wish for is to work as much as possible as I love working. I get bored very easily so I hope to do lots of different things all the time, new challenges and new fields to explore and learn. Of course I want to become very well known, respected and trusted for what I do. I love directing and coming up with concepts for shows. Who knows, that might be the next step up. But at the moment I feel I am only scratching the surface of what I do, there is so much more I could do, if people only let me.
Whenever I hear music, I see movement. I would love to conceive and choreograph a concert show for Madonna, maybe her farewell show, who knows? I would make sure she goes out with a Bang - and I am sure she would as well. (laughing). These days I find people are far too easily pleased. There is so much more potential in projects, but then there is so much of the same out there (especially in the commercial sector)
I really want to try and keep the balance of both sectors - commercial and the arts. I love both. They are different, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t separate them. I have trained and danced in both, and now I choreograph both!
I create whenever I need to create, often on the spot, often following a brief. I need a reason, purpose to create. But that doesn’t mean my movements are less meaningful, less artistic or less sophisticated. They are still coming from deep inside of me.
Artists created because they needed to create, they felt inspired, they just had to do it. No reason and no goal. Then much later it became their style and they created something new over time, different and unique. But it wasn’t the purpose of creating in the first place it was the result of creating.
My love, dedication and thanks for inspiration go to my Mother, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse and Gene Kelly. And yes also to Bjork and Madonna. They are all inspiration for different reasons.
You are currently teaching Ballroom and Latin at Dance Attic. Could you still accommodate a few more keen bodies?
Yes, of course. If someone wants to learn how to dance, I am more than happy to share my knowledge with them. I find it inspiring; rewarding and challenging dealing with non dancers, absolute beginners and new comers and see them grow and change. That must be the father instinct in me. I get like that on jobs a lot as well. Daddy Michael, can you imagine… (laughing loud).
I only can recommend to all professional dancers taking up Latin and ballroom dancing. You will learn a lot which will help you for your career, not just stepwise! Don’t rely on a day’s workshop at college and put it on your CV. That can seriously backfire at a casting and with all that strictly come dancing business there are quite a few jobs out there now for that sort of thing. And movies always need people who can at least Waltz, Tango or Cha Cha Cha a little. Knowledge doesn’t hurt or as George Orwell puts it:
'Knowledge is power'
I am teaching every Wednesday (beginners) and Thursday (advanced) at 8.30pm at Dance Attic, in Fulham. Everyone is welcome!