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IN CONVERSATION – Jamaal Burkmar & Eleesha Drennan

When commissioning for Step Sonic Part 2, Tom put out an open call asking the question ‘how has dance music been influential to you as a choreographer or your choreography journey?’.  Dance music has been so influential to Tom, he wanted to explore how music and sound have influenced other choreographers.  Jamaal Burkmar and Eleesha Drennan piqued his interest.  In these excerpts of conversation (from a post-show chat at Deda, Derby, on the launch night of Step Sonic), Jamaal and Eleesha explain the concepts for their solo commissions, and how music has influenced their work.

Jamaal Burkmar: ESCAPE

A graduate of the Northern School for Contemporary Dance in Leeds, Jamaal’s first creation as a student ‘Ocean’ proved successful with audiences and was commissioned for VERVE. Upon graduating, Jamaal became a winner of the much-coveted New Adventures Choreographer Award.

Jamal: I think there was a point during my training when things were over articulated, and it didn’t really feel like you were allowed to use the innate relationship with music and for that to be enough. When I applied to Tom there was a conversation that was happening among the people I graduated with and people in training about the relationship to music and there was a moment when this guy who was making a piece for a grade and he was asking what was the most cringy and over-used music. I think Mozart kept coming up. When I grew up my brother’s a rapper and my sister’s an R&B singer, but I’ve only ever really made to classical and folk music, so I was a little frustrated with myself or frustrated that that was how I was being moulded in the industry a little bit. In the last two years I’ve only really made to music of black origin, so hip hop and R&B, and I’ve done a lot of work in the commercial sector and music videos, so I wanted to get that across as well. So I came into this it had taken me about 5 years to find the right dancer who I wanted to work with and who could also connect with me through that musical response. All the people who I work with now have pretty much the same taste in music. In our first conversations (for Step Sonic), we talked about Janelle Monae…

Tom: As soon as he mentioned Janelle Monae I was like ‘yeah, I want him!’.

Jamaal: Her first three albums were from the perspective of her alter-ego called Cindi Mayweather who’s an android from the year 3000 come back to tell us about the harsh environment of the future. I loved her for it and all of her music is about the othering – of different races, of sexual orientation, on the socio-economic ladder – and all of these different things, and she puts these all together in an android. I really wanted to respond to that in her music.

Eleesha Drennan: Resonance of Air

An award-winning British/Canadian choreographer, recipient of the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship award for the creation of Channel Rose, and awarded first prize for her solo Whiskers at the International Solo Dance Theatre Festival Stuttgart. Previously House Choreographer for NDCW where she worked as performer and choreographer 2004-2013.

Eleesha: In terms of starting point, I really love working with music that has really organic sounds, that come from an organic origin in some way. I also like to introduce really contrasting rhythms and see what the body can then do, and see where that can take us when you put it to a different piece of music. So I decided for this piece to look at echolocation, which bats use at night to orientate themselves, but it’s not something we can usually hear. With a bat detector you can translate that sound into something that’s audible to human range. I was just blown away by how it picks up the sound and how the rhythm changes depending on whether they’re catching a bug or how close they are to something. You couldn’t write that – so unpredictable but purposeful. We do bat surveys because they’re an endangered species, and if they don’t get the right amount of insects into them at night then they won’t survive. So there was something about the urgency and the necessity of these little sounds and the rhythm that they made – I wanted to work with that and build on the idea of sensing the parameters of space using echos. So that was my starting point, and then to think ‘ok, how can I start with these really intricate, detailed rhythms and then build a world that transforms them into something else?’.

UrBen Media Video with our choreographer's Jamaal and Eleesha

IN CONVERSATION: Tom Dale & Jo Wills on Collaboration

Tom has been working with composer/sound designer Jo Wills since 2007.  Their collaborative approach has been fundamental in the development of Step Sonic as a concept, and bringing it to life in performance.  In these excerpts from a post-show chat at the launch of Step Sonic in October 2019 at Deda (Derby), Tom and Jo explained more about their process, and how the concept became a reality.

Can you tell us about your background in dance, and how the concept for Step Sonic came about?

Tom: I only realised that I could dance because of electronic music.  I didn’t know that dance was a thing that I really liked doing before listening to electronic music and going out to raves and things like that back in the early 1990s. And it was then that I really discovered a passion for dance moves and even abstract dance. One thing led to another – I started doing dance as a formal activity, and then people encouraged me to audition for the conservatoires. I ended up at Laban because it felt like a place where they were up for whatever I wanted to do.  They push the individual to really experiment on themselves, and to do solo after solo after solo until you start finding some kind of voice within your work.  I used electronic music to inspire me and guide my aesthetic choices. Having realised over the last few years how much it has influenced movement aesthetics, I thought that now technology’s moved on, me and Jo could explore how we could use dancers as a sound source.

How do you go about creating work with Jo?  Have you developed a shared language?

Tom: We’re making music and we’re choreographing all at the same time, so we’re starting with nothing, but we’ve got a shared sensibility in lots of ways.  We follow an avenue or a track of something that we might like or something that just comes from playing, mucking about, using the technology and finding out how things work, and then starting with the kernel of an idea and then trying to let that grow. It’s experimental.

Jo: A lot of it is trying to figure out what the possibilities are with the gear.  The big floor panels – each one of those has got contact mics inside and are like the inside of a door bell underneath.  The first version of those we made were much smaller and really easy to make and they just sounded great, and then when we tried to scale it up and make it something that you could predictably manage we ran into loads of problems.

Tom: And that was durable and could fit through doors! I think me and Jo have a tendency to be too ambitious and try too many ideas, so it does force us to hang back.  We have lots of other ideas for other pieces and things that we’d like to squeeze in to the piece which was impossible to do, so we had to pare it down and be strict with ourselves.  Restrictions are good for us.

Jo: I think that also, on the technology side of things we had to hold back a little bit as well, because we talked about the potential for what we could do if we just used the floor panels, but had more of them and built a whole stage with it.  That would open up a load of possibilities for what we could do, but it would also multiply the challenges.  Quite aside from just making it tourable, all the processing side would be much harder.  It’s a case of finding where the limits are with each set of instruments.  There are mics at the front, and each one of those is manageable by itself and sets some boundaries from the start.  We feel it’s helpful to have some limits.

Tom: We feel we’re only scratching the surface of what is possible.  We want to do more and let it grow, and for other people to take it forward and run with it.  It’s just the start.

STEP SONIC: Composer & Sound Artist Jo Wills

“Across the board, we’ve only scratched the surface of what we could do…the sky really is the limit”

Jo Wills is a composer, sound designer and producer based in London.  In this interview, Jo leads us through his background as an artist and the innovative use of technology that allows us to combine live music and dance in Step Sonic.

What is your background as a composer/producer and how did you and Tom meet?

I studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, initially on the Classical double bass course, but I switched to electronic music half way through the degree. Before getting to GSMD, I was involved in the classical music circuit but also getting in to DJing and the burgeoning DnB scene in Bristol in the 90s. Those felt like distinct musical worlds, I didn’t see the link between it all until I got to GSMD, then I started trying to bring those two worlds together in my practice. I’ve been working as a composer in a variety of contexts since then, from TV and film stuff through to Installations, various band projects and contemporary music ensembles. I’ve always been invested in new ways of making music and working across art forms. Tom and I met when he was starting to work on RISE and was looking for a composer with similar musical interests, we had some great conversations about the links between sound and movement and the evolution of dance music culture in the UK. I got on board with that project, that was I think in 2006, we’ve been working together off and on on various projects ever since. Notably, ROAM and Digitopia for TDC.

Where did the idea come from to turn physical objects into instruments for the dancers?

Its something that Tom and I have talked about a lot over the years, Tom has been asking questions around that idea for a while. I worked on Digitopia, we were looking at how to connect sound and movement digitally on that project, kind of through that process, talking about all the stuff we weren’t doing in Digitopia, working in the digital realm, that lead us to trying to find analogue ways of harvesting the sounds that dancers can make. I’ve done a bunch of work with contact mics and trying to amplify unusual sounds, we had a lot of hypothetical conversations about how we could transpose those ideas in to a live movement context. A lot of the issues with that are around scale, trying to deal with the need for sensitivity from the instruments, on a scale large enough to dance on authentically, with out it being impossible to control.

How did you go about sourcing materials?

Thats been a long process of trial and error, there were some guiding principles, Plate reverbs have been around for years so there was a body of work to take inspiration from, the boxes we use are basically giant Cahons. The floors were harder to figure out, the first protypes were sheets of MDF with battens underneath and bits of Toms faithful old yoga matt. Scaling it up and making it tourable has been hard. They’re made of Birch ply with pine frames, and bridges between the boards to aid sound transfer, everything you do to the instruments changes the way they sound, varnish reduces the sensitivity of them, and smooths the surface of the boards to much so we had to oil them. Everything thats gone in to them is the product of multiple attempts, its been a pretty steep learning curve. We’ve spent a lot of time in timber yards and B+Q, looking at different densities of rubber to isolate all the individual instruments etc.

What technology do you use to make it work?

The instruments all have contact mics attached to them, with custom built pre amps that manage the impedance differences in the system and allow us to use long balanced cable runs, there are shotgun mics accross the front of the stage and a driver mounted on the back of the large steel sheet at the back of the stage so we can use it as an instrument in its own right but also play other sounds through it.
My rig is based around Ableton Live where I’m doing all the processing, an Ableton Push 2 controller and an Akai APC40 for controlling it. Then we have a Focusrite 18i8 interface with an octopre giving us a total of 16 mic pre amps to run all the instruments through, then a power amp that sends signal to the plate reverb. I’m using ACS custom in ear monitors and mixing the show live, so all in all, theres a lot of plates to keep spinning, the Push 2 has been invaluable in letting me work fast without having to have my head stuck in a laptop, its a very intuitive control surface and It lets me play with the dancers, like were in a band together. The Akai APC 40 gives me tactile mix control so my right hand is creating while my left hand is balancing more or less.

Did you have to give consideration to the tone and frequency each instrument would create and how those would blend?

Yes, a lot of thought and effort has gone in there, although not always in the way you might expect. The main concern is about having controlled transfer of sound, the floors panels need to transmit any sound movement that happens anywhere on an 8ft square to a single transducer (the contract mic) so its less about the sound of the board, more about transferring the sound the dancer makes to the microphone. Then we have had to do a lot of work around isolation, so you can make a noise on one board and it only minimally transmits to the board next to it, so they’re all surrounded by and sitting on high density rubber. Each piece of wood and microphone we use behave slightly differently so theres been a steep learning curve there as well. contact mics are famously temperamental things to work with, they may be cheap to make but they’re very easy to break and the ones in this show get a lot of abuse, being jumped on day after day.

What are the challenges involved?

Managing feedback! the floors and boxes essentially work as enormous mic diaphragms, they’re super sensitive so each new venue we rehearse or perform in, we have to tune the gear to the room. The show needs a lot of bass in it, but if for example your on a sprung floor, that bass can transmit straight back to the instruments very easily.

Getting comfortable with the whole setup, to do the performance well I need to know the specifics of each setup well enough for all the technical stuff to be happening almost subconsciously, we’re still scratching the surface of whats possible with the instruments which means that each new set off processing we try our throws up new things that need managing in performance.

The building process has been full of enormous pit falls, making everything tourable, durable, liftable and resonant has been like trying to find a way through a complex maze.

What have you most enjoyed about the project?

Seeing the ideas work, when we try out a processing setup on on of the instruments and the dancers immediately find ways to interact with it and then I can vibe off of what they’re doing, hitting on the golden ideas basically! having the chance to make thighs that we’re been talking about for years.

Given the opportunity, are there extra things you would add to expand on the performance in future?

Yes for sure, there are some things that didn’t make it in to the show this time round, not least of which is a beautiful 3 metre high 2.5M square 32 string harp, we also had a water tank that we could play sound through, both great ideas but just not manageable within the time limits of this tour. I’d also really like to to try expanding the floors, you could cover the whole stage in them in theory, which would give us so many options and increase the working area for the dancers. I’ve also been thinking about using more metal, maybe giant hanging steel bars or tubes, a bit like hanging xylophone bars….

Across the board, we’ve only scratched the surface of what we could do with this stuff, each process can be explored deeper, as we all become more in tune with the process, the sky really is the limit with what we could make.

ON TOUR: Step Sonic

Our brand new production, Step Sonic Part 1 & 2, is now on tour. Featuring an innovative form of live music / music dance, plus three new solos by three choreographers.

For tour dates, see

PART 1: Step Sonic

Step Sonic aims to explore the hidden sound potential in a dancers movement…to showcase the inherent,
visceral musicality within the dancer’s body and soul. A new live form of dance music.

“Music has played an essential role in shaping new dance aesthetics throughout history but particularly over the last 20 years with the emergence of electronic music. It has been so influential in inspiring me to dance in the first place and then to explore movement styles and aesthetics as a choreographer. The live performance of electronic music is so often non-performative and all you see is the musician pressing some buttons if you’re lucky – I wanted to see how much mileage there might be in dancers becoming the sound source for the music. Step Sonic is experimental work at this stage and hopes to unlock new territory for both dance and music whilst showcasing the inherent, visceral musicality within the dancer’s body and soul and offer something back to music.” Tom Dale

Jo Wills
Jo is a composer and sound artist based in London. He is Artistic Associate at the Barbican Centre, the co-founder of WW Records and Artistic Director of Drum Works. His composition credits range from commissions for the BBC to collaborations with video artist Sophie Clements and Brian Eno. His extensive discography includes releases on WW Records, Gold Panda, Test Card Recordings and Clay Pipe Music. His installation work has been shown at the Barbican Centre, Bath International Festival, Aldeburgh Festival and Dolby labs.

Special thanks to Lakeside, Deda, Cambridge Junction, Dance4, Phil Hill, Inspire Youth Arts and students at Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies.

PART 2: Three Solos by Three Choreographers

Choreographer: Eleesha Drennan
Dancer: Rose Sall Sao
Sound Design: Charlie Knight
Ultrasonic Bat Recording: Richard Devine
Malpensa by Julia Kent

Inspired by bat echolocation, Resonance of Air is about sensing the parameters of space by inhabiting sound. Hilda has the ability to navigate through echoes. She is a rare beast of heightened sensual capacities; endangered yet brave, primal yet sophisticated, she is lost on a quest to be found.

Special thanks to Michael Young for introducing me to the sound world of bat echolocation.

Choreographer: Jamaal Burkmar
Performer: Juan Sánchez Plaza
BaBopByeYa by Janelle Monae

Inspired by the events of The ArchAndroid as told by Janelle Monae and Cindi Mayweather, an android illegally falls in love with a human and has to go on the run to avoid detection. Hoping to secure safe passage, our hero has to first fight off its original programming before making contact with the love it has left behind.

Choreographer: Tom Dale
Digital Design: Barret Hodgson
Performer: Jemima Brown
Lighting Design: Richard Statham
Ital Tek – The Circle is complete
Amon Tobin – Goto 10

As digital innovation exponentially accelerates humans share the planet with new technology, a life force that cannot be controlled and is quickly
becoming a part of nature. Surge is inspired by ideas about enhanced movement and digital sound as we move into the augmented age.

Jamaal Burkmar
A graduate of the Northern School for Contemporary Dance in Leeds, Jamaal’s first creation as a student
Ocean proved successful with audiences and
was commissioned for VERVE. Upon graduating
Jamaal became a winner of the much-coveted New
Adventures Choreographer Award.

Eleesha Drennan

An award-winning British/Canadian choreographer, recipient of the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship award for the creation of Channel Rose and awarded first prize for her solo Whiskers at the International Solo Dance Theatre Festival Stuttgart. Previously House Choreographer for NDCW where she worked as performer and choreographer 2004-2013.