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Photo by Conal Jones

The Story of Ragtime to Grime

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Though we first started formally working on Ragtime to Grime back in 2018, the idea of creating a production that celebrated and recognized the roots of jazz and the impact it had on society and culture, had been simmering for quite some years prior.

Ever since I had started to look deeper into the cultural roots of jazz, there was a growing realisation in me that this knowledge was a treasure that would change my whole perspective on self and the world I lived in. I was starting to discover an interest in history, to find out about the social and political significance and legacies associated to the experiences of the people who were the original creators behind this artistic heritage, enslaved africans and their decendants. I realized that there was a whole wealth of human achievement that I should both celebrate, own and be proud of.

Myself and long term dance associate, Sunanda Biswas, had often talked about developing work that celebrated this rich heritage of music and dance, and in 2010 we created a short duet called Lindy Break, that explored the common ground of dance and expressive language between jazz and hip hop styles. It wasn't the first time we delved into this area of work, but it was the first time we focused solely at the potential blending of forms and expressive dialogue between these artistic cousins. We both had also been very intrigued and curious by the lack of general knowledge or awareness in society, ourselves included, about the roots of these artforms. It became apparent to us that there was clearly widespread amnesia about the forebearers behind this rich culture, the connections this history had with much of modern day industry, commercial and creative, that we all benefit from today, and the creative voice it gave to the human suffering, endeavour and social change that these pioneers are all a major part of.

In 2013, after bringing together an eclectic mix of performers for the NHS segment of the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony - tappers, lindy hoppers, acrobats, breakers, contemporary dancers and arialists - we had the idea to invite some of them back again to work on a new idea for a piece. This piece was Alien States, and marked the beginning of a new company, Grounded Movement. Drawing on Tap, Breaking and Lindy Hop, Alien States explored the subject of power-plays between different social groups and sticking to your own. After further research and development in 2014, we had accumulated a wealth of new material, creative ideas and dance language, and a platform for training others in these forms and foundations. In retrospect, I see Alien States as the precursor to Ragtime to Grime. It took a couples more years before we were in the right place, but in 2017 discussions started around the subject of creating a piece that in some way would document the lineage and legacy of jazz dance and music.

These discussions translated to an Arts Council application for project funding together with a commission from the Crystal Palace Festival. The proposal was to develop material, language and writing for a new production idea Ragtime to Grime. The main body of this project was to be a 2 week research and development workshop in November 2018. I had to bring together a creative team, including dancers, a rapper, composer and a writer to collaborate with. My ideas started to revolve around stories of young people, either angry or self-obsessed with life, characters who under the surface were troubled, lacking a connection with the past, culturally adrift from history. I myself had felt this growing up in London. I began to look at music and history as the antidote. That exposing these characters, through music, to our past, a reminder of the challenges of a people struggling to survive, thrive and adapt inspite of the suffering of the atlantic slave trade and social repercussions following emancipation, that their human spirit and achievements, cultural and political, could inspire us all to change.

The stage was all set for us to start preparations in Spring of 2018, we held auditions for dancers, I set up meetings with writers and composers to talk about my work. Four lovely dancers joined the team, Adrian Falconer, Daniella May, Lindon Barr and Lauren Stewart and also Sunanda Biswas was to be the rapper. Through a good friend and musician, Laurence Corns, I was introduced to composer Nick Ramm, who had a background in jazz, west african music and also creating beats for dance music, and he came on board as the composer. I was convinced I wanted to work with was poetry and spoken word, and through Lisa Mead of Apples and Snakes, I was blessed to be introduced to an amazing hip hop artist Ben Chijioke (aka TY ). We met at the Southbank Centre, both were passionate about creating conscious and informative work and hit it off immediately. This project culminated in a 25 minute sharing of our work to industry and artistic associates at the Brixton Community Base.

I had planned to bring the team back together in Spring of this year, but then Covid-19 and lockdown hit, also we heard the devastating news of TY’s death in May. I couldn't believe it, so sad and such a loss. It took a while to get my head around the madness of this time, but I became increasingly committed to making sure that our work together needed be heard and seen. Noreen Meehan, director of the Crystal Palace Festival, had already secured funding to do a follow up to the original project, and after an emotional Zoom conversation, we decided to go ahead with the work, and include it as part of an event within the festival called Their Lives Matter – a Ragtime to Grime Jam, that would also be a celebration of the many artists who themselves inspired us as artists, creators and educators. The performance and event was filmed and broadcast live as part of the Crystal Palace Festival Live Show, an amazing experience to be part of. Following that, we were fortunate enough to be commissioned by Greenwich Dance to create an outdoor based performance that could tour, Ragtime to Grime – Bring it Home Tour.

To be continued.

Photos by Jen Jenny B Marquis-Brown