The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
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Shaking Up that body

Malta Independent Saturday, 26 July 2008, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

Think dancing and you can conjure up so many different ways of shaking that body up, down and around. It all depends on your mood, your origins, your concept of body movement, your flexibility and your preferences. Dance is pretty subjective stuff and contemporary dance is particularly demanding. Maltese dancers and dance teachers were recently treated to a one-time contemporary dance workshop with leading UK and international dancer cum choreographer cum teacher Michael Joseph, also artistic director for Union Dance Company (UK).

The theme of the workshop was Dance for Camera and evolved out of Michael Joseph’s own personal experience in filming dance. I meet up with Michael Joseph for an early morning chit-chat over breakfast.

“This isn’t my first time in Malta. I was first here in 2000 when I performed with the Union Dance Company at the Manoel Theatre. Then again I collaborated with Francesca Abela Tranter in the choreography of a piece she was working on with her students.”

What is the scene like here in Malta and what does a seasoned dancer and dance teacher like him think of it?

“Actually it’s pretty good. One has to take into consideration that most dancers, only dance in their spare time and are not full time dancers. That means energy levels are not the same as one would find in full time professional dancers. But there is a lot of stamina and enthusiasm. I enjoy working with Francesca because she is open to the whole concept of contemporary dance. It is so particular because it allows the body to be used in so many different ways.”

He explains how he was once a gymnast and this, combined with the discipline of classical dance, has helped him and his body work fluidly with the feel of contemporary dance movements. “Most dancing is stiff upper body and upright mode. Contemporary breaks up all that and includes distinct elements, such as inversions on hands for instance. It surprises anybody who has never tried doing such things because it takes a lot of balance and body control to turn upside down and back again and keep on the right track of the whole sequence.”

Michael Joseph explains how dance does have an element of acrobatics involved. A professional dancer is expected to do high jumps, long jumps and weightlifting as in lifting up a partner. “In contemporary dance for instance, lifting isn’t something only the male dancer does, but a female dancer can train her body to lift another female, or a male partner for that matter – there are no pre-conceptions. Yes, classical ballet is extremely important and I believe it helps immensely to train body and limbs in balance, co-ordination, flexibility. These are the basics which can then be tapped into when approaching other dance methods.”

We talk about the ins and outs of learning a sequence of movements and as he talks he speaks of the spiritual element. I quiz him about this, surprised that spirituality comes into it.

“There are two stages to learning a dance. First there are the studio rehearsals which demand the dancer to learn a sequence, putting phrases together. As a choreographer it can be an immensely frustrating and joyful episode because you frustrate when the dancer cannot get the gist of things and you rejoice when the dance is working out the way you visualize it. As a dancer, you frustrate when you cannot quite get a step and you work to perfect what may, in your eyes, seem incomplete or incorrect. Then you rejoice once you get hold of the essence of what needs to be done and can move with the rest of the music. For me as a choreographer, I have a step further to make – I have to let go of my choreography and leave it up to the dancers. There is a fine line at which I just have to let go and allow them to become at one with my teaching and interpret it well.”

That is when the spiritual element comes in – Michael Joseph describes it as a release after rehearsals are over and done with, when the dancers manage to get the feel of the dance across to the audience, projecting their feelings through their movements and expressing sentiment so it can be perceived visually by all.

“Dance is a struggle – you have to force your body to move in ways it’s not used to. But the satisfaction comes when you conquer your body and convince it into performing the way you want it to.”

Speaking about his own training in the UK, he admits he was lucky to have trained at a time when dance students could actually be paid during their training. On the contrary, today’s scenario at a time when funding has been greatly reduced, demands prospective dancers to pay their own way through their training. “London is still the best place to learning dance – it’s still the hub for anything connected with dance and the theatre and performances. And London has also got good funding to help promote dance productions. Newcastle which is called Dance City, Yorkshire and Cambridge are also good locations to take up dance. I was personally lucky, that when funding issues came up, I could go freelance and still earn a living through dance.”

He shows me a recent film he helped produce. Entitled Suburb Attack, it involves 16 students from Woolowich Polytechnic in the UK, and was produced after one week of intense training. The young boys, all adolescents, had to audition for their part but the choreography on stage included elements of martial arts, street dance and hip hop. Filming around the school precincts also included staggering elements of Parkour. Although the chosen dancers all had some experience of dance, Michael admits all had aching bodies by the end of the experience.

“It was all very intense and we only have just one week of training to do before the open-air filming and the on-stage performance. This work was part of my involvement in Dance Physics 2008, where I work in collaboration with Joyce Gyimah and Garry Benjamin. Dance Physics’ policy is to promote participation in dance and other forms of physical activity as a stimulating and creative pursuit within schools and community settings.”

Definitely, his work responds to the contemporary influences, energy and aspirations of youth culture. That is ultimately the element which also came through his Malta workshop wherein he provided young people the unique chance to learn new and relevant skills reflecting their own cultural experience.

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The recipient of the 1998 Arts Council Dance for Camera Traineeship Award, Michael Joseph has worked widely in dance cinematography, choreographing Union Dance’s production of Dance Tek Warriors (inspired by the Play Station revolution) and creating a work for Nubian Steps at the South Bank Centre. Other work involved performing and teaching for Union Dance in Barcelona at Dies De Dansa XII; co-choreographing a new work commissioned by The Henley Festival of Music and The Arts performed on the River Thames in 2004; choreographing Are you right, and I’m wrong? for Contact Dance Company in Malta 2004 , a dance performed extensively throughout Europe; choreographing for Union Too at the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A Couture Fund Raising event; and dance work for the English National Opera. Michael Joseph was hosted in Malta by Francesca Abela Tranter, Artistic Director for Contact Dance Company workshop was held at the premises of the Dance Workshop, National Pool.

For further information about the Union Dance Company (UK) check out

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