Narratives in Dance

Narratives In Dance

This website sits a place for artists to share their practice through a range of traditional and non-traditional interview techniques. As such it is doorway using interviews to look from outside into the lived experiences of artists’ practices.

Anita Gonzalez interviews H Patten

Image credit – Evewright Studios,

April 16, 2016

You’re in Jamaica now. What are you working on?

I’m at home in Jamaica with my sister who is also doing research.

How does that feed you?

As an artist I have always been focused on practice and the performances, but the end result is to educate and make a difference. To enable some change. It’s not enough to just get them to be aware. You have to do something to change the situation. Originally it was to get the knowledge out, now it’s about sharing the knowledge and leaving a legacy so history and processes do not get lost. It’s about what we are passing on for future generations and making changes so that we can strengthen our changes in terms of African and Caribbean dance.  It’s a whole way of life, a mode of survival and a survival strategy.

In Jamaica, Charles Mills and Rex Nettleford talked about “smaddification”, to become and be recognized as somebody and not only somebody, but someone of worth with value and agency. It comes from the commodification and dehumanization of Africans when they were not treated as people. It argues: I am smaddi because I am an adult, not a child children, not nothing. Mi a big man. I am an important person for myself.

Within our culture, we do a lot of things that underscore that. That’s why in the dancehall, people are bigging up themselves. Calling up people of importance. What they are really doing is creating history. Forcing and archiving a history.

When did you decide to go to school and why?

I originally started as a visual artist, painter and sculpture. The Upstairs Downstairs Gallery on Harbour street, I used to exhibit there, and at other places.  When I did my bachelor’s degree, I came to the cultural training center (The Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts). Having all the arts around me. There were doors you could slide them open and see the amphitheater and people would congregate in the middle and all the arts could impact you at once. That’s when I started looking at the performing arts.

I started with African drumming first and to be a good drummer you have to have a knowledge of the dance. And they said why? They were planning a trip to Ghana. That was the carrot current that got woke me. I had always dreamt of having Having a chance to meet the Massai and go home, and the chance of going to Africa for a six-month training with the Ghana national dance company. It gave me a solid grounding and we had to do an original project. And that opened up the door to me. The Adzogbo Adjebo dance. I did a deep research and was able to access the person who brought the dance from Dahomey to Ghana.’’ I got into research.

Then my MA was on documentary filmmaking. I needed to move out of the dance field and look at dance through another lens. I could have done dance for the camera, but no, I wanted to do straight documentary. Then I was choreographing for Stella Maris Dance Ensemble a company and Monika Lawrence was doing her Ph.D. and she asked me a lot of questions in relationship to her PhD.  Talking to Monika and asking her questions I thought Ok, I will I do it, I will try. She didn’t warn me about what it is really about. Not that you have to take so much of other people’s ideas before you could put out your own ideas. I started 2009 or 2010. I started at the University of Surrey, and did three years there. But during doing those years I didn’t do any researcher development courses, and they had me teaching and so I thought let me just do it there. During those years I hadn’t really bitten into the body of the work. And my supervisor left. So I stopped for a while and looked around to see who I would use instead. Who would be a good supervisor who would understood my research project? At the time Robert Beckford was leaving one institution and going to another. He’s at Canterbury Christ Church University, so I followed him there. He has been acting head of department. Now he is concentrating on teaching and research.

What do you do to keep moving forward?

With all this moving around, there is a cutting and a mixing.  It’s bringing together all of these elements, dancers, DJs, selectors, informal workers, peanut sellers, nail technicians, dress makers, taxi men man. There is this whole informal structure that gets to be fed in the dancehall Dance Hall.

What I am looking at is how the body brings everything together because it connects the present with the history. Everything manifests within that dancehall space. And when they all come together they point to the new direction as well. Connecting the present with the past and pointing to the future.

My career is like the dancehall space. Visual arts and telling stories, then telling stories and well verbally, and then through my body and through my dance. I began to tell stories through the music and then the music and traditional structures of call and response. And then a dancehall chant or rock that I developed that was traditional. I needed a song that was about necessity, drawing on the proverb, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention!’ so I create one. Daughter, I thought of Kumina cumina. (he sings)

Necessity come to all of we.

A The mother of invention aaooiy.

Necessity  –

The Mother of Invention of aaooiy.

Then I took it to the dance Hall:

The mother mother of invention all.

We livin’ this life, striving trying to be free,

Trying to retain our dignity

I tell the whole story using the dancehall style, but I started it with the traditional Kumina rhythm. I start started with the traditional and then I take it into the contemporary forms.

But I always have a connection with the spiritual

Me working with dance and storytelling and film I am bringing together various mediums to reach each other where we are. In traditional practices we communicate with the ritual ground.

You can’t square the circle so you are circling the squares. So my work is about squaring the circle, circling the square and building new communications.

In a circle there are physical partners, the one in front and the one behind and you can turn and face the one in front and then the one behind. You can also face the musicians in the center and you get a connection with the musicians from anywhere. Proscenium makes them detached, not a constant third partner anymore as and you only communicate when you pass them or when you turn to them. You are getting the information from behind. When you choreograph traditional dances, so many conversations are going on. With the person in front and and back and an side partners and the diagonal partners. It was almost like a communication overload.

In a circle the audience is around you. You just have to keep going. On the proscenium you can perform out and to the musicians and the dancers. You are also communicating with the ancestors. So when you turn, it’s It’s fast and you are tired, but energized enough, and you break the cosmic cosmos communications.

What about your work in the media?

Through film we can reach them audiences. Dance maps

In the editing I work to bring together and recreate the notion of the ritual that you would see on the stage. When you look at a film the engagement is different.  If you are watching it on a screen you are in a dead space just engaging in a screen that separates you from the performance. In my dance on camera work I explore ways we can re-engage you. So I use a lot of edits so that you can see the dancer above, below, from the on side, all at once. So you cheat a lot and extend the movement so that it can really be seen. I show you from the beginning and then I reverse it a bit to show the top and I reverse a bit to show you’re the side. The viewer feels as if you are seeing one spin. Then it’s getting to the point where the viewer can be a participant in the dance and start to feel the transformation they might feel within the space.

If the dance is energetic, they feel tired with you.

What keeps you going?

I want to develop the arts. Not art for art’s sake because we have never had that luxury and our dances they weren’t created for that purpose.  They were created to be functional to help us find where we are, and who we are and where we are coming from. I don’t think just physically, but with a spiritual connection, and the arts are the way we make, we make that connection and keep ourselves grounded and through that spiritual connection, we can find ways to keep ourselves connected for survival.

I’m working in a way we have always worked. The ‘haaal a pull-up’ (haul and stop) in dancehall Dance Hall, rewind and come again and going come to something else, but the haaal a pull-up builds to a climax that takes the dancer, the artists, the participants, everyone gets to a point where transformation can take place. This happens visually, through dance movement, through the coding of the fashion and the dress. It comes through the music, because there are spiritual underpinnings in the music. You start to listen and hear the pastor’s voice within the selector. You hear the pastor when they are speaking on one level and then it gets gruff and they start to give it to you in a low tone, and you hear the voice in the selector and as the selector starts to give that, the artists, the DJ, the artists who are the dancers and the singers, they start . They started to service the whole thing. The They are part of the serving of the dancehall dance hall. They are creative in pulling it together and they are able to take you them along the journey.

You start to see the geographical space being moved. The truck or lorry-top, the bonnet of the car. The vehicle might be moving forward. We undulate and there is a pulsation. The dance is bubbling bobbling and the vehicle is pushing forward. And you are getting the pulsation. The mixing and matching. Body and music, body and the crowd.

Then there is the video light when it turns onto the dancer the dancer automatically turns gets into gear and they have an opportunity to ‘buss’ (burst) and get a name and become recognized. And someone can see and say who is that dancer, and out of that they get a that tour. It’s economics as well. Now they are going to work when they get that call. They are working the dancehall space. They are selected to go come on tour.

Even within the dancehall you see our location.

How does family support you?

I collaborate with my sister, Dr. Patricia Noxolo.  My family is my community. As a dancer, there is the community that the dancers form onstage, and they are your family as well. Artists and ‘those other ones’ are all part of the family support. Those with foresight will know what I mean.