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Storytelling through dance

11th September, 2018
Artistic Director James Haddrell on the wordless storytelling of hip-hop dance theatre piece, SKIN

The reason why I love theatre, and have always loved theatre, is its ability to tell stories. I have always loved reading, and cinema, and television drama too. I studied English Literature, so it may be that I love words. I have just finished working on a production of The Jungle Book, which brought Kipling’s original novel to the stage in a new adaptation from Canada, and next I embark on a rare revival of Michael Frayn’s comedy HERE, one of the hardest texts for actors to learn that I have worked on so far. Both use words to brilliant effect. As well as telling the story, our production of The Jungle Book was full of chants, whether to explain the laws of jungle, to send a frightened child to sleep or to celebrate the madness of the monkey kingdom. Frayn’s play uses utterly naturalistic language, with the characters cutting each other off, talking in half sentences, knowing what the other person is about to say, playing games or creating conflict, but all through language.

However, you don’t always need words to tell a story. One of the most memorable shows of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, which I have since worked for a year to bring to Greenwich, was 201 Dance Company’s SKIN. Described by the company as dance/theatre, the show follows a boy’s journey through gender transition. Hailed as the “stand out dance of the summer” by the Guardian, the show blends urban and contemporary hip-hop and original music in a fast paced, emotionally charged story of identity, family, mental health and belonging.


This is not a new approach for the company. Over the past 4 years they have created a strong reputation in Edinburgh and beyond for their unique style of dance with a theatrical narrative. Selling out three consecutive years in Edinburgh, they confront contemporary issues and challenge social prejudices.

In this case, they tackle the issue of gender transition and its impact on the mental health of young trans people. In 2017, Stonewall reported that 45% of trans youth attempted suicide, 84% self-harmed, 64% experienced transphobic bullying, and 9% received death threats at school. 71% of LGBTQ+ youth said teachers did not intervene when they witnessed LGBTQ+ bullying, while 40% of students are never taught about LGBTQ+ issues.

It might seem instinctive to want to tackle such major issues with words. Politics and law are based on language. Education and the propogation of ideas are language based. Counselling is done through words. Friends and supporters are identified through conversation and speech. However, at the heart of all good storytelling, and at the heart of every major event or encounter that we experience in life, at the heart of every injustice that we experience is an emotional reaction, an instinctive understanding, a series of feelings.

This production may be wordless, but it is not without language. It uses the emotional and technical languages associated with music and with dance, a language of movement and ultimately a language of feeling, to tell a highly personal story about a hugely important social issue.


SKIN plays on 20 and 22 September. Book tickets here.
This blog first appeared in the Greenwich, Lewisham and Bexley Mercury.