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Dancing & teaching: with & without a ball

Interview: Ahilan Ratnamohan, SDS1

Ahilan Ratnamohan Ahilan Ratnamohan
photo Olympe Tits
The number of performing arts-associated workshops is burgeoning, especially when associated with touring productions (see for example Nick Power’s hip hop Cypher tour). Partly it’s to do with the desire by artists to connect more expressly with audiences, partly a strategy to develop those audiences and partly the result of pressure from arts funding bodies for artists to stretch sometimes limited resources to service communities. Some artists and organisations simply love doing it: it brings them into contact with Indigenous people, refugees, prisoners and school students. Some workshops are extensive, some just a few hours, but either way artists meet new audiences, influence the ways people think about art and possibly change lives.

Ahilan Ratnamohan, maker and performer of what he titles “football dance theatre” sees his career as having two dimensions, if overlapping: his own performances and those which he calls socio-political.

After starting out with Sydney’s Urban Theatre Projects (The Football Diaries, 2009; toured to South Africa) and Branch Nebula (Sweat 2010), Ratnamohan has built a successful career in Europe. Returning to Australia, he’s currently touring SDS1, a work made in Belgium with dramaturg Kristof Persyn and reworked here with Branch Nebula’s Lee Wilson as dramaturg and Mirabelle Wouters as lighting designer.

A fascinating dimension to SDS1 is the pre-tour program of workshops with a variety of locations and participants. It’s aimed, says Ratnamohan, at “engaging with new audiences. Because it’s a work that relates to football, or soccer, there’s an opportunity to reach an audience that doesn’t usually end up in a contemporary performance venue.” Each workshop is two to three hours, “introducing the participants to some of the stuff that I use in my performance. I’ll teach abstracted football skills—not what you’d use in a match—and then depending on the skill level of the group, I’ll try to get somewhere towards choreography.” He’s conscious of attention spans and the word ‘choreography’ being potentially off-putting. “I sometimes think, I trick them into making choreography.” He recalls visiting a secondary school in Katoomba for a week and half: “by the end, the kids were making their own sequences and really enjoying it,” even though, he adds, they weren’t big soccer fans.

Soccer has its own brand of ‘poetry in motion.’ For his workshops Ratnamohan uses as a foundation “ground moves”, a street-style offshoot of soccer which started in Holland. “Instead of playing a match, guys take the ball and basically show off and almost dance with the ball. Through that, what were for me quite amazing movements with the ball started to evolve. The styles I’ve come up with are quite different from what I’ve seen from guys over there.

For workshop participants it can be quite difficult so it can take a while depending on how naturally it comes to them. A less literal example is something called ‘fast feet ladders,’ pretty much a ladder you put on the ground and you perform a sequence on it. It might be two feet on each rung or one foot in each rung and three steps on the outside—you get all these patterns. In training you do it to improve your agility and the speed of your footwork. When I started working with Branch Nebula on Sweat (2010) we first looked at that exercise to come up with some more interesting movements. They’re all quite rhythmical; they all have a count. If you look at it from another dimension it almost takes you back to the waltz or the foxtrot where the foot patterns are drawn on the floor and you can learn the dance just by following that sequence. I teach this to the kids, then I introduce some new moves where their feet start twisting in different directions. It results in a style of movement that is really quite idiosyncratic and interesting.

What kinds of people are you working with in your workshops?
The interesting thing is that the groups have been quite diverse. I was invited to run a workshop for a summer school for a week and a half and it turned out to be fairly young guys and the other half of the group were middle-aged women, who also took to it really well. With refugee kids the good thing is that there’s not much necessity for language and, as the cliché goes, you know, football is ‘the world game’.

How has your work developed and what role did West African footballers play in it?
It’s developed really well. SDS1 is my third football-dance theatre production. The Football Diaries was quite autobiographical, addressing the audience directly and taking the first steps in trying to get this idea of choreographing football moves into a show. Michael Essien I Want to Play As You (2013), which we made in Belgium, was an attempt at doing a similar thing but with an ensemble—a group of West African footballers who had migrated to Europe but hadn’t made it to stardom in the big leagues. That was a challenge developing this new form and working with a group of non-actors—although I didn’t find that a real problem because they’re professional footballers. It was also the first show I was directing and it turned out really well. I stayed in Belgium because of that show. I felt like if I stayed, there would be a better chance of pushing it. It went to Germany a couple of times; it went to the UK for LIFT in 2014.

Do you perform in it yourself?
Once in an emergency. It wasn’t my preference. The touring was quite difficult. We were dealing with players who sometimes didn’t have their documents in order. That was the subject of the piece—these illegal trips to Europe which African footballers undertake in the hope they’ll get a massive contract, and the reality of that whole thing. We had to deal with that constantly as we were touring, especially when we got to London because suddenly a lot of our main cast couldn’t come and we had to replace them with other guys who had similar stories but who were a bit further down the line and had managed to get documents.

Another issue we had to deal with was the fact that they were still aspiring footballers. I was close to cancelling a show in Belgium because the day before we were supposed to start rehearsals, I found one of the guys was in England because he’d suddenly got a trial with a club; another had gone to Spain for a trial. That was the show when I ended up performing because we were so short.

What’s different about SDS1?
When I set out I wanted something that would go much further into dance and I set myself the rule that I didn’t want to use any text in the show, for it to be pure movement. I broke the rule, not with monologues but little exchanges with the audience. I think of SDS1 as a bit of an experiment. I decided not to apply for funding. I felt more comfortable just developing it in my spare time. I was keen to involve the football dance vocabulary both with and without the ball. I really pushed myself to find new ways of moving but still derived from football.

How are you going as an artist in terms of survival in Europe?
It’s going really well for me I’m surprised to be able to say. I’ve had a few years where I’ve had to work very hard to establish myself, especially when we decided to stay in Belgium to keep working on Michael Essien... I’ve benefited from being in Europe in a number of ways. First, there’s just a multitude of opportunities there. Part of that is geographical and part of it is appreciation of culture. I’ve had the luck of finding a production house in Belgium that’s given me very strong support—the Monty Kultur Factory in Antwerp—but my choreographic work doesn’t interest them so much as my socio-political projects. I know that I have a home there if I need to get a project off the ground. And the Flemish government has also been quite good to me. It’s a bit strange actually being there and hearing all the negative stuff that’s happening in Australia. I feel in some ways a bit guilty.

You shouldn’t.
People say that but I can’t help it. For a long time now my partner and I have talked about coming back to Australia but all the signs point to staying in Europe. It just seems like it’s easier. It was always the goal to set myself up so that I could have a practice on both continents. But we’ve got two kids now so the travelling is becoming more difficult. I still haven’t worked out what the best model is.


Jiva Parthipan, the Community Cultural Officer for STARTTS—the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors—told RealTime that the participants in the 27-28 July Blacktown workshop with Ahilan Ratnamohan came from STARTTS’ youth sports program. Other participants came from an African youth arts group who perform a mixture of traditional and contemporary African dance at Blacktown Arts Centre. We’ll have more about STARTTS cultural program, as well as Blacktown Arts Centre, in a coming edition. RT

Mobile States, Ahilan Ratnamohan, SDS1, Arts House, Melbourne, 10-22 Aug; Vitalstatistix, Adelaide, 26-29 Aug; Blacktown Arts Centre, NSW, 2-6 Sept; Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, 17-19 Sept; PICA, Perth 23-26 Sept; Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, WA, 20-22 Oct; Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre, NSW, 20-22 Oct

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 10

© ; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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