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Meet the Artist: Dickson Mbi

a portrait of dickson mbi
1 Apr 2021

In a new interview series, we get to know some of the performers, artists and creatives from our programme. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your practice?

My name is Dickson and I’m from Dagenham in east London. I started dancing around the age of 18 or 19. I only started because I was keen on a particular girl and she was a dancer at Pineapple Dance Studios. I went to class at Pineapple but I couldn’t pick up the choreography and I didn’t want to look stupid in front of this girl so I walked out of the class.  I met a group of guys outside Pineapple who were doing a street dance form called Popping. I watched them and thought 'wow, this is what I wanna do'.  I’d never done any dance before. I was an IT technician at the time, so the real polar opposite.

What I want to do in my works is connect with people and share the human experience.

That’s how my journey started. Those guys taught me a lot. Every Saturday I’d travel up to central London on my own to practise with them. They were great artists - James Painting, Carlos Teta, Alex Peters aka Mechanikool, Becky Hubbard, Adrian Naidas and Zak Okoye. We practised outside Pineapple in Covent Garden and in Trafalgar Square. We never busked, we did if for the love of it, not because we needed money. It was just such a fun vibe. But I was so serious about it. I would practise during my lunch hour at work and then in 2008 I met a guy called Stuart Thomas. Stuart was the person that really changed my life. I was about 21 and had been doing Popping for three years. I’d developed a name for myself winning a few competitions, Stuart taught Graham Technique at Danceworks and came from a lineage of great teachers including the legendary William Louther, one of the founding members of London Contemporary Dance Theatre. I was a bit upset with Stuart at first because he said 'I hear you’re a dancer? Well, I think you’re going to get injured and you’re going to have to stop one day. You need to go to a dance school where you can learn about your body, how to stretch, learn about diet'. I was like, 'nah man – that doesn’t exist'. But he said, 'Yes it does. Come to one of my classes'. So, I went, and we had to sit in a cross-legged position on the floor, and I couldn’t do that. My ego was broken. I was really upset that I couldn’t do it so I just kept going to Stuart’s class. I was very determined. After about three months he said, 'You seem to have a bit of talent but you need to go to school'. He filled out an application form for me and sent it to Lewisham College. He sent me to do a class which turned out to be an audition. A lot of the people auditioning knew me from the street dance circuit and it would have been a huge loss of face to walk out – my ego was so big then, so I stayed, and it was the first time I did a ballet class. I was just copying really. Then we had to do release based contemporary, which was new to me. But the jazz was a bit like street dance – it had a lot of isolation and I thought – 'isolation, that’s a bit like Popping – I get this!' Then we had to do a freestyle improv and I was like – 'Yeah, this is what I do! I’ve been practising this for years'. Lewisham College offered me a place and I had to make a big decision. I had to quit my job. I was there for two years. And then I went to The Place/London Contemporary Dance School where I had great teachers. A lot of people saw things in me that I couldn’t see in myself at that time.

In my first year at The Place I took part in Breakin’Convention at Sadler’s Wells and a choreographer called Russell Maliphant saw me and invited me to join his company. The director of the school, David Steel, tried to persuade me to stay in school but when I told him which choreographer had offered me a job he was like, 'hang on a minute Dickson, sit down' and he showed me YouTube videos of Russell dancing with the principal ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem and said, 'he is one of the leading choreographers in the UK. You need to go' So I left The Place after the first year and Russell had a hand in that.

I danced with Russell’s company for five years and have returned as a guest many times. He taught me a lot about choreography, about looking at the body, about flow, about lighting and staging.

Do as much as you can, be open and be yourself, be uncompromisingly yourself.

Can you tell us about an experience that made you want to become an artist?

When I first went to Pineapple and saw those guys street dancing. James Painting did something with his stomach and I thought 'how can a human being do that?' I was so fascinated I thought 'this is it – this is what I want to do!'

Can you talk a bit about your relationship with the Barbican and what impact it has had on your work and career?

Well, because I’m from east London, I’d known about Boy Blue for a long time. They were cool. Kenrick Sandy and Michael Asante are four or five years older than me. There was a rivalry between their school and my school. The first time I came to the Barbican was to watch Boy Blue. I wasn’t really into making work at that time and I didn’t know much about theatre. Then later on, after working with Russell Maliphant, I started to try my own things. I made a solo piece called Duende, with a small commission from the National Theatre of Korea. I went to Asia a lot for Popping, so they knew my work on and off stage. I reworked this as a Platform piece at The Place. Angie Smith, amazing producer at the Barbican, saw me there and spoke to Ken and Mikey from Boy Blue about having me in their new show, Blak Whyte Grey. I also did the Barbican Open Lab in 2017 which was great for me to try things out.

I really believe I’m just a normal guy from Dagenham trying to do something with himself and I’d like people from my area to feel welcome in the environment I’m working in.

How has the Barbican programme influenced you professionally? Has there been work staged here that has resonated with you and your practice?

I’ve seen so many things at the Barbican. Most recently Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, Peeping Tom and Viviana Durante’s Isadora Now. All these shows just added to the madness of realising what possibilities there are for creating and making things.

What conditions do you require to be creative and make the work you want to make?

Time. I require a lot of time to think. A safe environment that is easy to work in and the freedom not to compromise who I am. That’s really important to me. Sometimes people give you a commission with your hands tied behind your back. I’m like, 'Can we just have a conversation about that? Can I have some of my team because they’ve known me for a while and they know what I need rather than you imposing these people on me'. Not that I don’t want to learn new things or collaborate with new people but I know that my team can support me the best. So, I guess those three things are really important to me. As well as an environment that is open to new ideas, not drastic changes, but a place where it’s open for anyone. I really believe I’m just a normal guy from Dagenham trying to do something with himself and I’d like people from my area to feel welcome in the environment I’m working in. Those are things that would give me the tools to create the best possible work. Of course, I could talk about finances but that’s a no brainer!

Who have you most enjoyed collaborating with and who would you like to collaborate with in the future?

Russell Maliphant. Russell really believed in me and championed my way of expressing myself. I would make a mistake, a big mistake, and the next day he would incorporate my mistake into the show. I remember him saying that I have an instinct for things. When he taught me a movement, it was great, but the instinct got lost. I never really understood what he meant by that. Getting into the psyche to find that instinctive movement gets lost when you have to produce certain steps. I come from the improvisational realm - freestyling, street dancing and big competitions. With Russell it became a thing that I would improvise and then that improvisation would become a form, set material. I was very in tune with the music because in street dancing we do this thing called music visualisation – you have to see the music in you, in your body. I’d learnt that sort of energy. Russell really nurtured me and let me be myself. And that gave me the confidence to want to start to create my own work.

And in the future, Simon McBurney. I’d like to collaborate with him because he has a really interesting mind. He’s not scared to challenge a lot of things. I want to have that bravery.

I experienced a really profound feeling about where I’m from, where my ancestors were from and who I am as a person.

What can you tell us about your new show, Enowate?

In 2016 I went to Cameroon, where I was born, and I visited the village my parents came from. It took us eight hours to get there from the main city Douala. There was no phone signal, no electricity.  My mum was with me and she introduced me to a great uncle of mine. This guy was blind. He felt my palm and told me lots of things about myself that I’ve never told anyone, not even my mum. An elderly person from the village had passed away and we attended the funeral. I saw a tiger walk amongst people and everybody was alright with that. I was so shocked. This is a tiger that comes into the village when a very respected person dies. It’s there for the funeral ritual. Respected elders from the village would call the names of certain ancestors, hit a staff on the floor and the tiger roared. That roar is to raise up all the ancestors to accept the person that has passed away into the next life. I was like, what is this? I’m from Dagenham – this is a totally different world. What is going on? I experienced a really profound feeling about where I’m from, where my ancestors were from and who I am as a person. That day I really understood.

How did that experience begin to crystallise in your mind as something you might want to incorporate into your practice?

I’ve always had an animistic practice. When I danced with Russell I’d get to the theatre early just to connect with the building. It’s something that was innate in me but I never understood it until I went to that village. My experience there confirmed that what I felt wasn’t weird, it was normal. Animistic practice is when you believe everything has a life force. And I was a bit scared about how to transform that into a show. I’m a Westerner, whether I like it or not and I didn’t want to make something that’s exotifying the African experience. Also, I didn’t want to appropriate my own culture and create something that’s a narrative from that journey. The only narrative I want to pursue is of someone trying to find or in search of a better understanding of himself. Whatever that might mean.

I’ve been working on the movement, thinking about the lighting and the music together with my team. I want to explore how I connect the experiences I had in Cameroon with someone who hasn’t been to that part of the world, who hasn’t had my upbringing and doesn’t share my history. What I want to do in my works is connect with people and share the human experience.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to develop a career such as yours?

Practise as much as possible because everything, even if it’s difficult, shapes you. I’d say to any young person wanting to pursue an artistic life, although it’s not so rewarding financially, it is rewarding in how you develop as a human being and in your heart. So, do as much as you can, be open and be yourself, be uncompromisingly yourself.

What does the immediate future hold for you? And how would you like to develop your practice?

I’m going to get my new show off the ground with a residency at the Barbican and hope to get as many people as I can to see it. And I want to do more for the next generation of contemporary and street dance artists. I represent those two styles very specifically – street dance and contemporary dance. It’s like taking two colours, blue and yellow – when you mix blue and yellow together you get the colour green. But you can’t say green is a mixture of blue and yellow so I wouldn’t say I’m a fusion. I’m a coming together of those two styles. A mixture means half of something and half of something else. I’m not half of anything. I am full of everything. That being said, I want to pass this green energy on to the next generation, show that it’s possible to do things. That’s my immediate future as well as developing my company so we can do more touring and more shows.

Can you tell us how you have been affected by the current pandemic? What challenges has it presented you with and has it changed the way you approach your work?

The first wave was like – woah, what’s happening here? I’ve got all the time in the world, this is great! I always wanted more time. But after a while it was like, this is going on a bit too long, lots of people are dying and everything’s locked down. And then things got really heavy with Black Lives Matter and I started looking at myself, my practice, conversations I’d had, and I asked myself, have I been like that? Have I not noticed certain people being racist to me? Have I just let it go? Have artists of colour not had the opportunities I’ve had? I’d never really thought about that before – I thought, you work hard, you get what you get if someone sees something in you, like Stuart saw something in me. He didn’t do it because I was black, he just did it because he saw something in me. But lack of opportunity is real so I had to reflect on that. That first wave was a time of deep reflexion.

And the second wave comes in and it’s like, oh man, what am I doing? What’s happening? But you get time to think about what’s really important. Family. For the last eight years I was in and out of the country, hardly in the UK for two months at a stretch and now I’ve been here for almost two years!


Visit Dickon Mbi's website  or find him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @dicksonmbi.
Visit his crew Fiya House's website.

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