Nick Power has been breaking for much of his life, and using it not just to explore the world but to also build community and create full-scale dance performances. Dance Informa caught up with Power just prior to the Sydney run of his second full-length work, Between Tiny Cities, to discuss how a little known street dance style can have such a big impact.
Tell us a bit about your dance background.
“When I started out, I was sort of intrigued when I saw hip hop dance styles, like breakdancing and house dancing and things like that. The first time I saw it, I was in early high school, and I started practicing the style at home in my rumpus room because there were no classes at that time. I’m from a regional town, Toowoomba, and I’d train every day — get ‘old school’ breakdancing videos, put them on in slow motion so I could learn the moves. That was how I kind of started out dancing; then as I progressed, I eventually moved to Brisbane to keep going with dancing and broaden my horizons. Then I got into a dance crew called the B-boy All Stars. At that time, they were famous worldwide. I was probably there in the latter end of their time in the sun, and they schooled me as a young person coming through. They were particularly good at power moves.
I then formed my own crew, Gravity Warriors, and I slowly started getting opportunities to perform in battles and opportunities to teach breakdance at dance studios that taught jazz, tap and ballet. So the first time I was in a dance studio was me teaching a class. I was thrown in the deep end!
Teaching gave me opportunities to connect with a number of organisations that worked with the underprivileged, refugee and indigenous communities. That really gave me this whole other practice of community cultural development, using hip hop as a tool to connect communities and young people. That was something very different from what I had experienced in hip hop, because straight hip hop was basically just breakdance battles and teaching in the studio.”
Why do you think hip hop has such an appeal to these communities?
“Well, I guess the thing about dance, especially hip hop, is that it’s born out of the black and Latino communities in the 1970s in New York’s urban wasteland. But they can still create something; they have rapping, DJing, breaking and creating graffiti art. There is this sort of ethos of making something from nothing, and I think that appeals to those communities around the world. With breaking, you just create with your body and music; there’s nothing to spend.
In most dancing, you learn in a structured class to copy the moves, but with breaking it’s about originality, it’s ‘What can you bring to the table? What is your innovation? What is your style?’ When you develop a strong foundation and individual style, that’s respected.
It also really appeals to boys and young men. In Australia, there is this stigma attached to dancing and young guys. I think hip hop has helped, especially legitimising dance as an activity for young men, although its acceptance has been a bit slow, but more and more people are becoming involved.
When I used to teach in school, the dance teacher would say we have one boy in the dance class. But there are actually all these boys who want to do hip hop. And so they get me, and these boys come out of the woodwork and want to be part of the dance classes. We tap into that energy and give some structure and foundation that they can kind of build on. When we work with the NSW Schools’ Spectacular, we end up with 400 young men and teenage boys from around the State wanting to audition!
The other thing with the hip hop community is that it is so positive and so inclusive. I’m always blown away when I go to a jam, by just how lovely the people are. Breakdancing also gives a competitive outlet for young guys. So while it’s serious and heated, there is no violence, and outside of the commercial competition, it’s a lot of fun. So they get to improvise in the moment, to a piece of music, on a performance that they have worked and honed and made their own.”
When did you realise that breakdancing could be more than a street-cred thing and that it could turn in to a career?
“I guess when I started, I always thought, ‘This is an incredible game!’ But breaking is so physically difficult and so technical; it’s not an easy dance to learn and perform. There is an affinity to learning and performing the moves that is really appealing, so wanting to do it full time made sense.
I just saw the potential in teaching, and from there it was always this thought around this idea of creating a show that is done well. I always thought, ‘Wow, you know, this is a really incredible dance form that’s universally appealing!’ I just always believed in it.
From teaching, I started doing shows and festivals and nightclubs, and travelling and just getting all these bits and pieces of my practice to create an opportunity to make a living. I did all the stuff — music, video clips and all different things that sort of got cobbled together — and living through that, I thought, ‘Okay, well, I can make a living out of this.’
And then, I started getting opportunities to dance professionally, so you know, I get a contract as a dancer, and then they get me to make a show. Tracks Dance in Darwin got me to make a number of shows with a youth dance company. And so I just started getting thrown into these situations where I had to make choreography. And I sort of knew how to make up routines from doing nightclub shows.”
Unusually, for any professional choreographer, you’re predominantly self-taught. How did you develop your choreographic style?
“I got thrown in the deep end. I knew how to put dance routines together, and how to utilise the skills of the dancers that I was working with and showcase them. But it was really about instinct and a sense of entertainment, because that’s all I knew about. I started progressing in contemporary choreographic techniques and working with contemporary dance performance artists and all these different things so as to get a more well rounded view of what it would mean to take this form into the contemporary dance sphere.
I was exposed to other choreographers and processes, and I also had to get away from making it like a set dance routine that ‘looks’ really good with everyone in sync. To me, that’s like a jail. If you’re going to make an hour-long show, it can’t be an hour-long dance routine. And so I started thinking, ‘How do I crack this open?’ And I think that ‘breaking’ isn’t really meant to be this really structured routine. I feel it’s better when it’s taken apart and performed like it exists where everyone has their own style. And so yes, I was really learning through dance peers and colleagues.”
How did your Australian Arts Council residency in Paris influence your work?
“Well, the great thing about it was that I had time for the first time in my career, time and space to reflect, think, observe and learn. When you’re trying to cobble together a living as an independent artist in Australia, you are just running from gig to gig. It was the first time I had the time and space to see what other people were doing in the field and for me to really think through what my practice was and what did I want to create? That’s when my independent practice really took a big leap forward, because I had a clear vision of what I wanted to create as a choreographer.
The other thing with the residency, was experiencing how strong and vibrant the hip hop culture was in France and Europe in general. In Australia, I was pretty much the only person doing this stuff, so I was mainly learning from mainstream contemporary dance artists but not from the hip hop community. In Europe, hip hop culture is really recognised and well funded with bands and companies that are just focused on hip hop; it’s their world. It’s everywhere, it’s in the theatres, it’s on the street. You can spark up a conversation about hip hop with someone in a bar, and it’s part of what people talk about. It’s so refreshing and validating. When they have festivals and battles, they can draw up to 16,000 people; while in Australia, you will get a couple of hundred people, maybe 500.
But when I went there, I got to learn, especially from a woman called Anne Nguyen. She’s worked with everything from, you know, and she talked to me a lot about the reasons behind why she did things, and my work. But it was just great to get that insight and see the level that it’s on in Europe and see the level that people are achieving. And then to come back to Australia and think about, you know, what do I want to create as an Australian hip hop performer?”
A large part of your career seems to be involved with community cultural development in Brisbane, Sydney, Northern Territory. Can you outline which organisations have been the most important or the most influential for your career?
“I think Tracks Dance Company in Darwin has been very important, because they gave me an opportunity to work in the remote Lajamanu indigenous community and also to create different dance works with their youth dance company. I really relate to their vision as a company. A lot of dance companies, want to create, you know, big stuff — works that tour and impress the world.
But Tracks wants its work to be about Darwin and the Northern Territory, and the company wants to do works that create that sense of place, and a sense of community and also their long term vision. That really hit home for me. They engaged with me not just to do a show but also develop a community, and for 10 years, I kept going back to the Lajamanu and the remaining community in the desert.
It was there that I found my way forward as a choreographer, you know, like, I kind of connected the dots in Paris, but when I was out there in the desert, and I was watching, the women and the men singing the dreaming and dance, I started asking myself, ‘What’s my culture?’ I started thinking, ‘Well, hip hop’s given me this voice in this ritual, in this dance, in this community.’ I started thinking of it more from a cultural perspective, as a, you know, a culture with its own songs and its own rituals, its space as a ritual. That’s when I started going, ‘Okay, I’m going to come from that perspective and bring the audience into the space, just like how it would be at a hip hop jam.’ I just started making these creative choices that linked the ancient traditions with modern hip hop which was a from a uniquely Australian perspective.”
When you were in Paris, you mentioned that the European hip hop scene seem to be divided to fit into two different aesthetics. Which aesthetic do you see your work falling into?
“What’s interesting is that I saw a clear line with what people were trying to achieve, and I felt like it’s great having an incredible showcase if you like seeing that sort of thing. But it’s also you sitting outside of that and it feels a bit like cheerleading. I felt it was kind of ripped out of its context and placed on a stage in this way. So when I came back, I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make work that rang true to hip hop culture. I would probably say my work falls more into the contemporary realm, but I draw from both those cultures.
In Cypher, it’s about our ritual, where everyone stands in a circle, and there’s etiquette, and there are really specific rules about that circle. As I come from a B-boy battle background, that’s my history, so I want to carry that forward with me into the theatre.”
In both Cypher and in Between Tiny Cities, your work is performed in a circle on the dance floor. So, for you, does hip hop performance belong on the participative dance floor or on a more elevated stage?
“I think that both can work for me. The first two works I’ve done as an independent have definitely been in a circle with people actively participating — a standing audience with members inside. We open the circle up right at the end. And yeah, that participatory structure feels like home to me. And so that’s why I use it. Also, it puts it in a really specific context of hip hop. I just feel like it wouldn’t have worked if it was transposed onto a square stage with a seated audience.”
Who has been your most important influences shaping your work?
“As I mentioned earlier, Tracks Dance is definitely one and them Stalker Theater has also influenced me, especially its musical theatre practice. There’s also a company in Sydney called Branch Nebula which focuses on the underground street art, and their influence is pretty strong, too. If I go back to specific hip hop influences, I’d say a B-boy called Ken Swift who had an influence on me. And also a B-boy called Storm, he’s a German guy. He’s one of the old school dancers, one of the best ever.”
Can you tell us a bit about the development of Between Tiny Cities? Where did the idea germinate, and how did it develop?
“Between Tiny Cities emerged because I had a really strong connection with the D-City Rockers, which is a crew from Darwin. So I worked with those dancers as well as using dancers from another crew, Tiny Tunes, a crew from Cambodia. Tiny Tunes was also a non-government organisation, based in Phnom Penh, which gives young children and young adults the opportunity to access education through hip hop, while also learning English and Maths. Those young kids wouldn’t have access to any education otherwise.
So the first thing that happened is that the teachers and some of the students from the organisation all went across to the Darwin Festival to meet the D-City Rockers, and Cypher was premiering there as well. And so they kind of had this exchange, then went back, and then we, the D-City Rockers, went over. And then I went over for two weeks and hung out there and talked a little bit and understood what their organization was all about. And then after that, it was really about the project. Just the hip hop cultural exchange, which was set up by the creative producer, Britt Guy.
And after that, we started talking and thinking well, maybe there’s a work in this. There were two dancers who were really keen to move forward with it, Erak Mith (from Phnom Penh) and Aaron Lim (from Darwin). When we started developing the work, we had this really strong foundation of cultural exchange and international collaboration that builds on the friendship and trust. After initial development in Darwin, we had a three-week residency in Phnom Penh, and we made sure there was a continual exchange between both cities.”
From there, how did you end up in the Sydney Opera House?
“My last work was also in the Opera House. And this work, Between Tiny Cities, has been to some of the marquee contemporary dance festivals around the world — in Vienna, Budapest, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Hong Kong and Malaysia — so it’s been all around the world and sold out throughout the world.
I just wanted to bring it to the folks where I live! But really, it just comes from being persistent and just keep on at it, and you know, now I can’t stop, I don’t really have any choice in the matter; I’m really proud of this work. I was saying to Aaron and Erak the other day, you know, this thing that we’ve created? They hadn’t had any experience in this sort of contemporary area, creating contemporary performance at this level before. We made this work that just seems to resonate around the world. And so we’re just so proud that people want to keep seeing it, and that they want to keep booking us.”
You’re not performing in this work. Do you still perform?
“No. I don’t really perform professionally anymore. It’s weird, because I used to be desperate to be on stage, and now I have zero ambition. Hopefully with a bit of age comes wisdom.”
By Elizabeth Ashley and Michael Jarque of Dance Informa.