‘What is live electronic music?’ It’s a massive question, one that third year student Alex Kearney (beelzedub) hopes to answer with his ambitious event, Footwork in Flow.
A self-confessed muso, Alex grew up on sound systems and the original garage scene in his hometown of Brixton. Not happy with just consuming a multitude of genres of electronic music, Alex was keen to discover what came next. An Atari ST introduced him to the world of computer-based music, and after a healthy career spent performing in bands, and as a session musician in the studio and on tour, he reached a stage where he felt ready to refine his skills as an electronic producer and performer.
“During the six or seven years that I was in a touring group, I was still making electronic music for myself, and when that tour wrapped up I asked myself, ‘Am I actually going to do something with this electronic stuff?’ I’d moved to Plymouth after most of my family had already made their way here, and that was how I happened to find myself at dBs.”
Now in his final year on the BA (Hons) Electronic Music Production degree, Alex is channelling his passion for Footwork into each of his final major projects.
Footwork originally grew out of Chicago in the late 1990’s as a dance that was typified by its fast, rhythmically complex moves that shared some commonalities with breakdancing, particularly the idea of ‘battles’ between performers. The dance then inspired a genre of music of the same name, which grew to notoriety at the turn of the millennium, but died out again in the early 2010’s.
“It’s a bit hard for people to get their heads around,” says Alex, who is one of a few Footwork producers in the Plymouth scene. “The rhythms and style of dancing isn’t particularly accessible - it’s not something you can just bop to, like you would to say Jungle or Drum and Bass. But what I love about it is how personal it is when you interact with it - everyone will interpret it differently and no two people are going to dance the same way.”
While Footwork is the basis for each of Alex’s final year modules, his event - ‘Footwork in Flow’ - is by far the biggest undertaking. The concept behind it? Answering the question, ‘What is live electronic music?’
“How would you even answer that?” laughs Alex. “It was a really interesting subject for me and as I started asking myself how I could practically demonstrate live electronic music occurring, the idea was born. Initially, it was the idea of me interacting with music, but that’s just me pressing buttons on a stage and we come back to the question, what is live electronic music?
“So then I began thinking about how I could show that I’m making a difference through my music. The genre of music I make is inherently linked with dancing, so I needed performers, but by performing the music live and responding to them, it creates a forced interaction, as opposed to choreographing to a fixed piece of music. If I change what I’m playing, the dancer will react to that, and once they do that forces me to react too and it snowballs from there.”
In order to make ‘Footwork in Flow’ a reality, Alex is collaborating with Barbican Theatre, The Groovement Project and KinaeSonic. Interestingly, the groundwork for the event was laid for something else entirely.
“There was a project called ‘Meet Me At The Sundial’ that Barbican Theatre put on in conjunction with Plymouth Arts Council. I pitched for that project, but didn’t get it, but it did get me talking with Suzie West who was the Talent Development Lead at Barbican at the time. We got talking about footwork and it turned out that she was really into it. Where it got crazy was she knew Drew [Shears], an experienced Chicago Footwork dancer who is a crew member of Creation Global and the founder of The Groovement Project, who are one of two footwork groups in the UK - the other is in London! She really made all the pieces fit together and has been invaluable to this project.”
Go with the flow
Footwork in Flow is more than a performance. On the day of the event, Drew and rhythm tap artist Jess Murray (KinaeSonic) will be leading a free workshop in Chicago Footwork followed by the creation of the show to be performed that same day. While the lack of any formalised rehearsal is intimidating, for Alex, it’s the only way this project could really happen.
Pictured left to right, Drew Shears, Jess Murray and Suzie West
“If the performance was a finely tuned piece, we wouldn’t get that interaction and personal interpretation that is so rooted in Footwork. I’m deliberately not rehearsing my music that much so that my input is off the cuff and can be responsive to the dancers on the night. They’ve all heard a little bit of the music I’ve made for this show, but know that it won’t be the same on the night. The Ableton Live session I’ll be using doesn’t have these perfect scenes that flow into one another, they will stop once they’re finished, so I have to make sure that I am constantly reacting to the performance and can move the music in unison with the dancers.”
We liken the changeable and reactive nature of ‘Footwork in Flow’ to the work of Terry Riley, which strikes a chord with Alex.
“I admire the courage of Riley’s work. There’s a part of me that thinks the idea is crazy, but there’s a bigger part that’s always wanted to do something like this. I don’t think you get many opportunities to create work like this and for it to be validated by others in the way that ‘Footwork in Flow’ has.”
Like nothing you’ve seen before
This project has been a real labour of love for Alex - he frequently laughs at his ambition creating more work and problems for both himself and his collaborators. Seeing people come together to support and elevate the project has been a humbling experience, but one that has inspired Alex to think about how it could evolve.
“Once everybody got together and we started seeing the idea take shape I started to wonder why this isn’t a thing. It strikes me that at the moment you have theatre productions and live music. One is focussed on the performance, the other on the music - why can’t there be something in the middle? There’s a strong collaborative element to ‘Footwork in Flow’ and it’s an environment where people can just jump in and get involved, so I’d love to explore that at somewhere like Edinburgh or Camden Fringe and see how people respond to it.”
With just a day before the performance is brought to life, I ask Alex what he hopes people will take away from ‘Footwork in Flow’.
“It’s got two very distinct parts; the music and the movement. Some people may come along and really enjoy one element, but not necessarily remember the other, which is totally fine. What I would love to see is people enjoying the crossover of those disciplines and feeling like they really worked together. Having seen a lot of productions at the Barbican Theatre, I feel like this is going to be something people haven’t seen before.”
‘Footwork in Flow’ takes place on Thursday 6th April, 2023 with workshops and show planning running from 10am - 6pm. The performance will take place at 7pm. To get involved in the workshops and/or performance head to the event page on Barbican Theatre’s website.