Interview: Henri Oguike
After a two-year pause for thought, choreographer Henri Oguike talks about reappraising his life and work
In the mid-2000s, Henri Oguike was the next big thing in dance. His consummately musical choreography saw him as the heir to Richard Alston (whose company he danced with for five years), but he had his own voice, his own edge. Oguike was much in demand, creating a constant stream of works for his company, attracting tons of commissions, touring abroad and picking up critical plaudits as well as growing audiences. His signature piece, 'Front Line', even became a set work on the GCSE dance syllabus - now there's an indication that you've arrived.
The company celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2009, but then Oguike seemed to drop off the radar. While there's been the odd commission - notably 'Da Gamba' for Ballet Black - that steamrolling pace of work came to an abrupt halt. So what happened?
'It was getting to a critical point for me: mentally, emotionally, and ultimately, spiritually,' Oguike tells me over the phone, in a reflective mood. So you were heading for burnout, I suggest. 'I guess so. But I was also in danger of losing all perspective,' he says. 'It wasn't so much the practical work. It's the time you spend thinking, dreaming up stuff and extending the mind, way beyond what you can realistically achieve. You expect too much of yourself. When the work was done and the day was over, I'd kind of carry on. Where other people switch off, close up shop, rest and appreciate other things, I think I just kept burning that candle.'
So Oguike wisely took some time off, 'recovering the energy and rekindling the spirit', as he puts it. 'Just remembering to stop and breathe. That whole experience of getting back in touch with some really simple things in life, like family and friendships, has come to mean a lot more even than the work.'
But Oguike hasn't given up choreography - far from it - and following a year's research and development, he is back with three new pieces. The question is, has his newfound attitude to life affected the work we'll see on stage? 'In the work that will be seen, I'd say there's a question for me about the transformation of things,' he says, admitting that he's been considering his own transformation - the half Welsh, half Nigerian kid from Glamorgan, who got into dancing via hip hop and ended up at the London Contemporary Dance School. 'Everybody's always looking for their roots,' he says, 'and I realise I'm coming from a really mixed up place - the early upbringing was mixed up, the training was mixed up. I'm more aware of that now.'
One of the new works, 'Butterfly Dreaming', continues the topic of transformation, taking its title from a story by Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, who dreamed he was a butterfly, then woke up and wasn't sure if he was himself again, or the butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. The other pieces are 'Toccato', set to movements from Bach cello suites, played live, and 'Freq', a piece that involves the dancing body being showered with water onstage and comes out of Oguike's newly honed approach to choreography, stripped to fundamentals: 'The body, relating to the space, relative to thought,' he explains.
He's still reworking the pieces as they tour, and the gig hasn't been without hitches - a dancer leaving three days before they were supposed to start, and some technical challenges that have seen Oguike taking to the stage to chat with the audience during scene changes. But Oguike has dealt with it all with a new attitude of acceptance. Which is not to say he isn't cooking up some very ambitious ideas for the future. He's particularly interested in exploring the use of technology in dance theatre, and creating large-scale but intimate experiences for the audience. 'But back down to earth, I do accept my lot,' he says. 'And if that means ultimately my future is teaching some young children on a Sunday to dance in a circle, then so be it. But hopefully I get a chance to have a go at this. A lot of what I couldn't do over the last ten years, now with a bit of experience, I can bring to fruition. I'd like to let the thoughts fly.'
Henri Oguike Dance Company is at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Mar 8-9 2011