The skype interview with Michael Joseph begins with the artist sitting in his backyard wearing a white T-shirt with a logo: WDSA (Wheelchair Dance Association) now called Para Dance UK. Michael is an Inclusive Community Dance Officer with a focus on disability. He sits with his cat Nell in the town of Hitchin, United Kingdom. Every now and then, his eleven-year-old son moves in and out of the monitor frame.
You have worked with several American choreographers like Bill T Jones and Doug Elkins. How did that happen? What brought America to you?
It was Union Dance Company 28 years ago. The company was a rep company and we had different choreographers come in. Doug liked the way we worked and moved. He choreographed for our company, he used different styles, mixing them and matching them and making a piece. When we worked with Bill T Jones, we went to Saratoga Springs for his summer program and he taught us a piece called “Soon” (1992). It was a good experience with Bill T and his company and I got to see them and see how they worked. He used descriptive words to get movements out of dancers, it was imagery based
What makes your work uniquely British?
I think it’s because I use different types of dance from different places. I just do it the way that it moves me. The energy is very different. When I left Ballet Rambert, I went to Dance Theater of Harlem for three weeks. Paul Bailey (who trained at Rambert with me) did classes there and invited me over. Everyone was really going for it and it was a fantastic time. Britain was very technical and placed, whereas in America it was a lot of gumption and go for it. I stayed in Harlem and got a sense of the area, and advice about what to wear and what not to wear in 1985. It was the first time I flew on an aeroplane. It was good to meet Arthur Mitchell and to watch the company class.
How has International travel influenced your work?
I went on a South American tour to Cuba and worked with companies there exchanging choreography and classes. You could see how they came to be, especially Cuba in the 1990s. They have so little, but so much to give.
How did you become connected to street dance?
The connection started with Jeffrey Daniels. Everyone was going “wow” to the Back Slide, and to Popping and Breaking. It started in America and then went to London. There was the Rock Steady Crew, Grand Master Flash, and the NYC Breakers that I saw live when they came to the UK. Back then to learn the moves, there were only VHS videos, watching movies with Breaking in them, and starting to copy them. Play, rewind back, pause, play, rewind back, pause, play. There was no youtube.com then. Then Doug came into Union Dance Company and he used different styles like martial arts, Breaking, Popping. Right now, there is an organisation called Breakin’ Convention. I’ve gone there to do workshops with Prince Ken Swift from Rock Steady Crew. I don’t study new styles. I’m old school. I do more foundations than the new school. We have different teachers and choreographers come and teach us in Union Dance with styles like Capoeira.
What do you do now?
I teach in schools, afterschool clubs, Boys Street Dance, Para Dance Inclusive Dance Officer, Choreographer and Dance Film Maker.
What about your work with boys?
When boys dance they always have female teachers, so it’s good to have a male teacher because they are young, and they respond to a male tutor because of the freestyle circle. They get a bit bored of structured choreography.
You incorporate digital imagery into your work. What does this look like and why does this inspire you?
When I was doing more professional work with Union Dance, I used digital film or “Isadora” software for triggering visuals or sound by movement. Now I am doing more teaching and less choreography. I still make films.
I filmed a piece called Resolve, that’s an older piece choreographed by a Union Dance colleague Garry Benjamin. I do camera work, concept and editing. When I was in Union Dance, we also had a media department making promo videos and DVDs to send out to various venues.
You have had 25 years of experience in dance and choreography. What were your first steps into the profession?
I think my first steps was with Union Dance Company. We worked with Doug Elkins. My mom and Dad used to take us to parties and get the kids dancing. Watching Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers, going clubbing at the discotheque. I have a twin brother who danced as well and we wanted to improve our moves, so we went to class to improve on our moves for the battle in the dance circle in the club. Leicester School of Dance for one year and after that I got into Rambert. We had to do a 3-minute audition piece. I had a beginning and an end and in the middle, I improvised.
How does your family influence your work?
My daughter is 22 and the son is 11. The daughter watched a lot of dance and rehearsal and then she went over to her mum. Because of my children, when I work with children that age, I know where they are mentally. And what to say to them. It makes it easier for me. They tend to watch and say whether they like things or not.
What makes you tick?
What makes me tick is enjoyment of movement and linking different styles to make them flow into one. At the end of Rambert, most students auditioned for either contemporary or ballet companies. I went into Union because they did different dance styles, they kept it fresh and versatile. Instead of it being pure Classical Ballet or Contemporary, it was a mixture. I started as a freelance dancer then I joined full time and became a soloist. After that I became the Rehearsal Director and then an Assistant Artistic Director in 2008.
At one point within the company, there were three older members with three younger ones coming through, and the younger ones would stay on for a year or two, so there was an established group. We were always open. The dance world can be really belittling and cutting. them down. But we didn’t do that at all, so people really loved to work with us. We would build them up instead of cutting them down. We created a good environment for work so that people were relaxed about what they were doing; calm so that they can be in a safe environment to give.
In my choreography you need a lot of patience. One of the things I have learned is patience because if you understand someone else’s body and how it moves, then you can see how choreography will fit on someone else’s body. To see if it can fit well, or if you have to change it, or find another way of asking them to do any kind of movement.