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From wardrobe malfunctions to waacking: A choreographer’s life at Sadler’s Wells

PUBLISHED: 15:22 04 May 2016 | UPDATED: 15:29 04 May 2016

Julia Cheng, founder of House of Absolute. Picture: Vladmir Gruev

Julia Cheng, founder of House of Absolute. Picture: Vladmir Gruev

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For a 13th successive year, Breakin’ Convention, the UK’s biggest hip-hop dance theatre festival, returned to Sadler’s Wells at the weekend. James Morris spoke to one performer, Julia Cheng, and found out her 15-minute piece required 15 days of preparation.

House of Absolute in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Breakin' Convention 2016, with Julia Cheng pictured centre. Picture: Paul HampartsoumianHouse of Absolute in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Breakin' Convention 2016, with Julia Cheng pictured centre. Picture: Paul Hampartsoumian

Julia Cheng is flustered. Just five hours remain until she performs her piece, Warrior Queens, with her House of Absolute dance company. She sits down in the Sadler’s Wells cafe and announces the tech run was a disaster. Her costume came off.

Tonight, Saturday, sees Breakin’ Convention open and House of Absolute, one of more than 30 acts during the weekend, are performing in the Lilian Baylis Studio. As choreographer of the piece, suffering a Janet Jackson-esque wardrobe malfunction isn’t ideal at this stage.

“I’ve just come out of the worst tech run. My costume came off and I couldn’t even dance. But as they say, a bad tech run means a good show...”

Still, 31-year-old Julia is an experienced performer and her frets evaporate as she explains exactly what hip-hop dance theatre is.

“Hip-hop dance is from the clubs, from the streets,” she chirps.

“This is taking the street dance styles of movement and presenting that in a theatre, which is where the ‘breaking convention’ comes from: the theatre being an unnatural setting for hip-hop dance.”

Julia’s sister, Carline, delivers her a bowl of chips lashed with coleslaw. They are devoured. Creating a dance theatre piece is hard work, it seems.

“I’m performing with six other girls, and we’ve been rehearsing all week.

“Overall, we’ve put in 15 days of work into this one performance. And that’s not even counting the amount of hours I spend worrying about it at home. You are constantly reworking it. I’m worried about it all the time.

House of Absolute in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Breakin' Convention 2016. Picture: Paul HampartsoumianHouse of Absolute in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Breakin' Convention 2016. Picture: Paul Hampartsoumian

“But I love it because I am creating.”

Julia, of Edgware, can perform dance styles from waacking and popping to jazz and ballet. She has appeared in TV adverts that often pay more than theatres, and sometimes for far less effort.

But nights like this in Rosebery Avenue are her true calling.

“It’s massive for me. It means the world for this to go well. I want people to be proud of me. I want the audience to be connected.

“For me, Sadler’s Wells is the biggest venue to perform at because it’s specialised to dance.

“But it’s not scary at all. As long as me and the girls all connect, we will be fine. I always look forward to performing. It’s not something to be scared about.”

It goes to plan. Warrior Queens – described by Breakin’ Convention curator Jonzi D as “haunting, passionate and committed” – is the story of struggles, vulnerability and strength.

It features street dance styles like waacking and popping with live vocals and musical score, controlled with Mimu gloves by Lula Mebrahtu. It slowly builds up until frantic tribal drums dominate the theatre.

In Julia’s words, the seven dancers become a fighting force of women physically letting their hair down to rise once again.

Her eyes were watery during the performance. She admits afterwards: “I feel exposed, but I am choosing to do it. My bare soul is laid out there. I am happy with that, though. You have to be open to that vulnerable position, otherwise you will not connect. It would just be empty movement.”


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