Benji Reid: The Art of Reinvention

Photo: Benji Reid

From popping to contemporary dance, mime, hip hop theatre, and photography – Benji Reid on breaking cycles, drawing circles, and the art of reinvention

I started as a popper. The first time I saw anyone dance that way was Jeffrey Daniel from the group Shalamar on Noel Edmonds’ Swap Shop. He did a segment and said ‘what I’m doing is called popping’, and it was like a beam of light had come down from God or Jeffrey Daniel or through the TV. I thought, ‘That’s what I’m gonna do.’

At the time there was a breakdance crew from Manchester called Broken Glass, the pre-eminent breakdance crew of that era. They’d been featured on Look North, our local TV programme, and I’d seen them dancing in the Arndale shopping centre and busking in town around ’83. I knew I needed to join, but the only way I could do it was by getting a name, and so I went around dancing and battling against everyone I could find until I got their notice and eventually joined.

It was quite special, that time of early hip hop and b-boying and breakdancing and popping, because it was a really wonderful way to unite young black men. That’s what it predominantly was back then. It was about the camaraderie, and it was a safe way of being able to work out where you were in a pecking order. Because becoming a popper was my first movement into performance, but also my first time realising the power of performance. Up until then I’d been bullied quite a lot in school and I was dyslexic, not particularly academic. I was creative but never really had any outlets for that creativity. So there was an immense thing about the power of performance and becoming known for something – being seen.

With Broken Glass we toured all around the country, to places like Birmingham Hippodrome, Clouds in Preston, Wigan Pier in Wigan, Legends in Manchester, Rock City in Nottingham – all these prominent clubs in the Midlands and the North. We toured to traditional spaces as well, or put shows on in sports halls, as part of a triple-bill with a BMX crew and some singers – this kind of three-genre outfit. We did that for about two years, from roughly ’85 to ’86, and entered competitions at the same time. In 1985 we won the Breakdance Championships in London, organised by the GLC.

By 1986 the club scene had started to change. In the early 80s electro funk brought in this real electronic sound, propagated by groups like Art of Noise and Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa, and with that you had this absolutely huge wave of breakdancing. Then in ’86 club music started to move towards house, and with that came a lot of ecstasy. Suddenly people didn’t want to listen to electro music or watch breakdancers spinning on their heads anymore. Before, you’d have all the good dancers on the dance floor and all the people that couldn’t dance watching, but now all the people that were full of drugs were on the dance floor and all the people that could really dance were on the sidelines.

So it became very clear to me that if I wanted to continue dancing I’d have to change – to evolve. Luckily my dad’s friend had advised me to go to dance school, so already, when I was still doing popping, I was doing some contemporary dance classes at Manchester Youth Dance, and in 1986, on the same weekend I won the UK championships for popping, I auditioned for Northern School of Contemporary Dance. I got accepted, and so I left Manchester and moved to Leeds.

Learning a form

I still say now that the School was the best consecutive three years of my life. It was all-encompassing – you were completely immersed in the culture of performing, learning, applying, watching, doing. You lived and breathed it.

It was also a massive shift in emphasis. As a popper, when we danced we danced to get girls and notoriety, mostly. And a bit of money. But we wanted to be famous and ghetto fame was the thing. How you got that was by beating people that came to your city. So somebody came down from Nottingham and he was in a nightclub and there’d be a big battle – you’d vanquish these guys on the dance floor, and then you were lauded for it and you’d have this type of ghetto fame. At dance school there was this different emphasis on art and lyricism and musicality. The goal wasn’t to have people clapping and cheering; it was to provoke emotion and to engage with the audience on an emotional and political level. You had to engage with them on a historical level in terms of what dance was and how it developed.

Because of that history there was a different type of formality when you went into ballet and contemporary. When you were learning form, you were learning a tradition. You were learning set shapes and lines, and those lines were applicable to everybody, whereas the lines I was learning as a popper were applicable to me and my style. But I didn’t find that so alien – I actually found it quite comforting that there were clear things I could aim for.

Alongside the technique we were seeing and studying a lot of work, and one of the big influences from that time is I got introduced to the Market Theatre and to South African protest theatre from the 70s. It was total theatre – using song, dance, mime, storytelling. It was also a poor theatre because they’d be doing it in people’s front rooms, they’d be doing it with one source light. On VHS I watched shows by people like Simon Barney and John Kani, and they were absolute classics. More than that I was looking at them and thinking ‘these are my classics’. I related to them immediately because they were black people telling a story in a way that was unique to them, their situation and their bunch of skills. And it was underground theatre with high stakes. You got caught doing this stuff they’d fucking throw you in prison, they’d kill you. It was high stakes, and there was an energy behind that.

“I haven’t come to watch a concept. I want to get moved, I want to clap, I want to cry.”

It made me very excited by the idea of bodies telling stories that had weight and meaning, because at that time, in the mid 80s, dance was starting to move into release and Merce Cunningham, and what you started to get was this very white European strand of abstract dance that didn’t mean shit to me. It was a bit like minimalist art: conceptually it might be great, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t come to watch a concept. I want to get moved, I want to clap, I want to cry.

So I was still thinking about performance in a very literal way. That’s the thing about protest theatre – it was very literal, it was telling you an actual story, and that for me was very important. But then while at the Northern School I also got introduced to Jean-Michel Basquiat, and I saw what happens when you can be less literal but equally as fiery – saw that you can express emotion in these colours and rages and teeth and skeletons and bones and bits of anatomy and words that are written and then scratched out.

So it was like a gumbo mix, those three years. I wouldn’t say that I achieved very great heights as a contemporary dancer in terms of learning the form, but what I did is I understood it as a tool. I understood how to analyse movement, and how to take an idea onto your body – or transpose it onto somebody else’s body. That wasn’t something I was doing in popping, and learning ballet and contemporary gave me the building blocks, in terms of technique and structure, to facilitate my creative work. Some people came out of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance as dancers; I came out as an artist.

Stepping into mime

After school I wanted to do physical theatre and I wanted to work within mime and storytelling. I auditioned for David Glass to play the part of Popeye in his adaptation and didn’t get it, but then got a job with Soul II Soul instead, and ended up doing a world tour with them.

When you joined that group you felt like you were part of the family. I had funky dreads, the whole look. I was a dancer and what they called Chief Boy, so I co-choreographed a few of the numbers and rehearsed the dancers, but what was interesting about doing the world tour was seeing the world from that vantage point. At the time ‘Back to Life’ was at number one and that album was the biggest album of the year. So we did the Soul Train awards show, we did a world tour, the Grammies. We were playing to audiences of 15,000 - 20,000 people.

It was an amazing time, but there was something empty about dancing at that kind of scale. You never got any nerves because it was so impersonal. It’s actually hard to put into words what that wall of screaming voices feels like. There’s an energy you get from it, a kind of buzz, but you’re in an altered reality, and you feel present in a very different way to doing a solo show in front of thirty people (something I wouldn’t experience until years down the line).

I knew that as soon as it was over I wanted to pursue physical theatre, and so after Soul II Soul I auditioned again for David Glass, and this time ended up joining his ensemble for the show Bozo’s Dead. At the Northern School my only regret had been not going to Lecoq – because I’d known there was a link between mime and popping, and that they were very similar in terms of how they use isolation and tell stories with the body. During the year or so that I spent with David I felt like I got my Lecoq training, or the basics of it, and a grounding in terms of what physical storytelling could be.

Around this time I also found out there was this mime group called Black Mime Theatre, and so after Bozo’s Dead I was badgering Denise Wong, the director of the company, to take me on. I ended up working two seasons with Black Mime, on the shows Heart and EDR. It was a rounding of the circle for me, because Black Mime and protest theatre were doing exactly the same thing – they were using song, dance, mime and linear narrative. They were mixing comedy and tragedy, but they were also populist shows that reached a black audience.

Black Mime gave me a real understanding of what I was attempting to do in dance school, but was just one piece of the puzzle. There were so many active companies back then doing really interesting work – and their doors were open. One person who was very pivotal for me was Amani Naphtali. Amani ran Double Edge Theatre, an activist performance group that had taken over an abandoned church in Camden. They squatted it and refused to move until the council gave it over to them, and so they were one of the first black theatres in the UK that actually had a building (and Soul II Soul did some of their first gigs there).

Another company that influenced me was Trestle. I’d seen them in Edinburgh back when, while still at dance school, I did a season performing there in Alan Lyddiard’s adaptation of The Tempest. They had a show called Ties That Bind, and I remember that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: I saw a sofa turn into a fairground carousel. It folded out and folded out and built up and lights came on and it started rotating on itself and it became a fairground carousel. I’d never seen anything like it, so when they were doing workshops in Deptford I had to go along.

When I look back on that period now I think I did exactly the same thing as I did with contemporary dance: I took myself through the training – with David Glass, Trestle and Black Mime being three of the core teachers.

In ’94 I finished with Black Mime, and I was at a bit of a loss because I had all of these skills and I had an agent but all that was happening was I was getting put up for dramatic reconstructions on Crimewatch.

Then one night I’m dancing in a club and I meet a guy called Jonzi D – and we go on to make hip hop theatre.

Birth of hip hop theatre

Jonzi came from a dance background and emceeing, and I came from a theatre background and popping, so the amalgamation of our skills made sense. The first piece we did together was Aeroplane Man. Jonzi asked me to be in it, but when he read the script out I said, ‘Nah, I’m going to direct you’, and started pulling out the characters that were living in the piece. After that we did another performance called Silence da Bitchin. This time I was actually in it and I came up with the concept of turning the words into characters, or of becoming the words, as I had a very animated style of popping and it made sense to give Jonzi’s work a physical form. After some weeks he said, ‘You know what, I’m going to call it hip hop theatre’, and I had a real big debate with him saying we didn’t need to put a prefix in front of it and we should just call it theatre – but he said, ‘No it’s hip hop theatre’, and that’s what it became.

During the mid 90s hip hop theatre was actually happening simultaneously in the UK and America. At first there wasn’t a connection. In the US you had people like Danny Hoch, a writer a political activist, a move-maker, a storyteller; or Will Power, a phenomenal performer and writer. You had powerhouses like Sarah Jones, Baba Israel’s company, Playback Theatre, who’d started way before hip hop theatre but started to work with rap and emcee artists like Mtume Gant. Then you had The Universals who were more poetry, and Full Circle who were more b-boy. You had a huge amount happening. Later on, the two scenes came together when me and Jonzi played the Hip-Hop Theater Festival in New York.

“During those early days hip hop theatre was really a phenomenon. Everybody wanted a bit of that magic.”

In the UK, the bedrock was Manifest, hosted by the Ovalhouse – a poetry platform that put on some of the first performances of hip hop theatre. The artistic directors were Khefri and Vanessa Richards, themselves amazing poets, and every month Ovalhouse would give the space over to them, at a reduced rate, because they wanted to get black people through the door. And there’d be this party night where you’d have eight or nine really top-flight performers – people like Roger Robinson, Malika Booker, Jonzi and myself, Pogo, Breeze. It was primarily a poetry night that dabbled in a bit of dance and in performance and live music, but out of that came the idea of hip hop theatre combining all these different disciplines.

During those early days hip hop theatre was really a phenomenon. Everybody wanted a bit of that magic. And anyone who was interested in getting young black people into theatre was really excited because not only was there this raw hip hop energy on stage but that was then reflected in a strong hip hop audience. It was a whole culture, and we were like, ‘My god this is really vibrant.’

It opened a lot of opportunities, and in 1998 I directed Avalanche at Nottingham Playhouse. That was the first time I was at the helm of a big, big theatre show (it had 26 people in it), and it felt like I was getting to put all my training into practice. I was becoming my own artist – and it was after that that I moved back to Manchester and was invited to start my own company through Yorkshire Dance. That became Breaking Cycles.

Breaking Cycles

Right at the very beginning of Breaking Cycles I was really prolific. I had a solo triple bill: The Holiday, The Pugilist, about the rise and fall of a boxer, and then an improvised performance called Style 4 Free. Of all the pieces I made with Breaking Cycles, The Holiday is probably the one that I would bring back now. It was exploring suicide and was the first time that I started to work with my own personal narrative. It was a really simple piece, but for me The Holiday was the moment when I arrived; you didn’t have to be part of the hip hop theatre thing to get it – it was just emotional storytelling.

The other bill I had early on was Be Like Water, where I was suspended from a wire at the centre of the stage, with a quarter-pipe at the back so I could run around the ramp and fly out over the audience, and then a piece called 13 Mics. I think 13 Mics was the last thing that me and Jonzi worked on, and what was special about it was it was the moment when I pulled together my band from Manchester and formed a quartet – drums, bass, a DJ and myself. That show was everything I’d been taught by Black Mime and David Glass but it also had a really strong musical element – it was this mix of a concert and a theatre show, with social commentary and comedy and dance. The stage had thirteen microphones and each one of them had a voice. The central question was, What is the state of hip hop, and what is happening to the culture of hip hop? And these different characters were going to answer the question. So you had your old school poet, your newscaster, the emcee, the young child – and it was a conversation between them but also involving the audience. It was dirty, it was raw, it was funny, it was energetic, and it took me right around the world. It was a show for its time.

Alongside touring those pieces with Breaking Cycles we were trying to train up the next generation of multidisciplinary performers. We ran a big training intensive, Process, three times. The first one, in 2006, was really pivotal. For two weeks we brought over international hip hop practitioners like Will Power, Ken Swift from Rock Steady Crew, and Karena Johnson, and then 120 b-boys and b-girls who did this two-week intensive course. The idea was we took people who were b-boys and put them in drama classes, and put people from drama into dance or improvisation classes.

We wanted to give people an understanding of the skills you needed to have, because there came a point where hip hop theatre was getting really saturated as a form. Looking back, I think everybody and their mum wanted to do it, and there were very few people that were skilled, and so it became diluted. For me hip hop theatre really was about black identity; it was dealing with that first and foremost, so there was a sense of it losing its identity. Looking back on it now I think hip hop theatre was a phenomenon that burnt very brightly. It had about ten good years, or maybe a bit less, when there was some really good stuff coming out of America and the UK, but it was another wave – and a lot of the artists in that movement ended up evolving out of it.

Towards the end of that wave we found with Breaking Cycles that theatres only wanted to have one black hip hop performance per season, and it became really fraught. We were hearing ‘no’ more than ‘yes’, and having trouble getting the money together to put things on. What was really mad about it is what gave us freedom – calling ourselves hip hop theatre and setting ourselves apart from everything – became what trapped us.

And then about seven years ago now we lost the company. That was a huge blow because I didn’t know what to do. When you lose your company it’s almost like you’ve lost a sibling. And not only that – it was my only form of income, and by this time I had a mortgage and a young child. Shit had hit the proverbial fan.

Another pathway – choreo-photolism

It took a good couple of years before I started doing photography. But one of the things that I’d taken from the company was a camera that I’d bought for archiving. Taking pictures became an act of revolution for me. It was an act of defiance that I was still going to continue making work without getting funded.

It all started in my own front room; I was asking myself how can I condense everything I do into this thing that has a budget of £20, doing it in one room, on my own. So there were real life restrictions to the task I was setting myself, and at first I fell back on the natural tropes of theatre making. What I was doing was what came naturally – which was to get a beautiful black background and to put these bodies in space. The early photos were kind of one-shot performances.

Now I’m starting to move out of the studio and away from the black backdrop, in order to bring in more of a sense of art design. What I’m working on now I call choreo-photolism – it’s the amalgamation of choreography, storytelling, dance and photography. Alongside that I’m still making some performance work, but I’m doing it now around the relationship between photography, storytelling and theatre – in a way that feels very singular to my skills and my history.

What I have now is an independence that I didn’t have when I was doing Breaking Cycles, and what’s really beautiful is I’m five years in and I feel like I’m only just now hitting my stride. Sometimes you can’t plan for these things, but I think I’m set up now in a way that I have a lot more opportunities than I ever envisioned before.

Recently I’ve been thinking that I really want to do a piece on the art of reinvention because that’s all I’ve ever done. I’m still that body popper. Deep, deep inside there’s still that popper who wants to be seen.

If I was to look at the core of what I do I’ve always followed the things that excited me. And I’ve never really let them go. I’ve just found ways of reinventing.

For more on Benji Reid’s current work visit his website. To see his latest photography work follow him on Instagram.

John Ellingsworth interviewed Benji Reid via Skype January 2019.

Referenced Artists