It was incredible to watch you working on set. Can you explain how that process works? What does a motion director do?
There’s a misconception that movement direction is me coming on the set and telling people how to move. But it’s me coming on the set, feeling the energy, looking at the brief, seeing what’s needed, doing my research, keying into the models or the dancers on the day. Seeing how they’re feeling, watching them move and quickly analysing what they can and can’t do. What help they need, how they feel supported… I read bodies really quickly. When I meet you in the morning, I’m reading your body. It’s not that I do it deliberately, it just happens.
What does that mean when it comes to directing northern soul?
Northern soul has never stopped really. Its original ethos was to continue discovering new old music and altering the way we dance to that. So, the reference with the younger generation of dancers and models that I worked with, it was really to get them to work as an ensemble group, so that we could mimic in two days the way we used to learn to dance back in the day…. Everyone danced individually so it was a safe space, so you could feel the energy of other people, but you wouldn’t infringe on their space.
You can’t watch people dancing to northern soul and not smile...
It was really the world’s first all-night clubbing. We used to go at one in the morning when it opened and finish at six and dance non-stop for that period. It was really about the dancing, and dancing hard and sharing that energy as an escape. The music, the forgotten mostly African American music, just has amazing power and soul, and it touches people... Northern soul dancing never stood still… it moved on after Wigan Casino closed in 1981, which is always recognised as the heart of soul, northern soul went truly underground and places like Stafford opened and the music changed slightly… and so the dancing changed subtly as well.
What first drew you to northern soul?
It was kind of an anarchistic movement if you think about it. We were escaping to dance all night at some venue in the north that you probably hitchhiked four hours to get to. That wasn’t happening much in the ‘70s – in the ‘70s it was usually a disco in your local town. And the people were bored with that. We were drawn towards the northern soul scene. It was rebellious and a growing movement.
It feels like such a freedom of expression and individuality but also unity and togetherness. How did it feel at the time?
It’s unimaginable. When I first went through the doors at Wigan Casino, it was like a massive wind hitting you, it really knocked you back. The music and the bass. There was sweat dripping off the ceiling. The floors were sprung then so it was bouncing. The first record I ever heard was ‘How To Make A Sad Man Glad’ by The Capreez, which now isn’t the best music but it stuck with me… And the fraternity, brother and sisterhood, that’s where the phrase ‘keep the faith’ comes from. You’d shake hands and say, ‘keep the faith’. Which was kind of like a life affirmation, because for a lot of us it was a struggle… I think northern soul allowed me to encounter other people in a similar position and it gave me faith in many ways – not in a religious sense but faith that I could do something different. After that first northern soul experience, there was no going back.
I wanted to be different. I wanted to escape. I grew up in Grantham, a small market town. When you’re 15, 16 the act of travelling to Wigan might as well be you travelling to Australia. You’re escaping your small town… I rebelled by going to northern soul all-nighters but looking back that ignited my interest in movement and dance, so when I qualified as an apprentice engineer… I quit my job and went to theatre school where I did movement-based theatre and a lot dance…. I always credit northern soul as giving me that heart and spirit to escape the circumstances I was in.
How did fashion feed into the time?
The archetypal baggies were around when I was going in ’79, ’80 but it was back to Levi’s jeans, ‘501s and various styles of shirt in around ’85. A lot of the guys were into football so that would come into it, but the fashion was on the dancefloor. I guess it was pretty practical. So, circle skirts – the ’76, ’77 dancers, particularly the female dancers, used to like to spin and the skirt would lift. A lot of them put weights around the edge of their skirts.
You’ve motion directed everything from fashion shows to films and editorials, from Glen Luchford’s Soul Scene Pre-Fall 2017 campaign for Gucci to Kenzo’s La Collection Momento No.4. Why do you think that relationship between fashion and music and dance is so strong?
Dance has always been connected to fashion, and often it’s led the fashion. Vivienne Westwood would be a classic in that she was in a conversation with the punk movement; she influenced it but also it influenced her… I used to travel across to Nottingham to go get clothes at Paul Smith, his first shop. He was in turn influenced by that. He had a retrospective about ten years ago, a sort of homage to northern soul. He talks about the sort of kids that used to go in.
Things seem to naturally collide with each other – they have a symbiotic relationship, no matter whether it’s with subcultural music like punk, funk, acid house, garage… If you look at the new romantic movement, that was very linked to fashion and vice versa, it influenced fashion.
It still goes on… whether it’s hip-hop or Brazilian funk or whatever, it’s usually linked. Music influences fashion because fashion is either drawn to or clever enough to look to those areas to see what’s going on. Art always comes from those areas.
It’s those subcultural movements that create the new movements in music and fashion, I think… you can search in the smaller clubs, linked to music or emerging subgenres, and you can see that happening because there is always with new music a desire to look different as well be different, to respond to that music in a textile way, through way you’re wearing, or your visual sense. It’s quite an interesting field that is definitely, totally, connected.
What does dance mean to you?
Movement and dance have always been in my life. It changed my life when I was 14/15 and I never looked back… I just had a thirst and a need to move. It has a psychological impact on me, even now…. It’s an intimate conversation, not in a sexual sense, in dancing in a club with a group of people that are united in their aesthetic and ethos. That we’re there to let go, to breathe, and to enjoy those moments. You glimpse at someone with their eyes closed and they look at you and they’re like, ‘yeah.’ Particularly in northern soul, you can feel it from them. So, for me that’s a life affirming thing that I couldn’t live without. It’s in my endorphins. It’s a good thing I’m a movement director (laughs) as a living because I get depressed if I don’t move.