a photo of two people lying toe to toe in a field with their knees bent, a blue sky above them.

Freestylers:
Everybody with Me, Always

Freestylers: Everybody With Me Always. Jordan Ajadi and DJ Hassan. Photo credit, Roland Carline

The performance begins with loud music and a dance circle where people are whooping, stamping and clapping. Freestylers are part of this circle and some are inside it, soloing. A rapid Soul Train-like parade moves through a gap in the circle. There is excellent, exuberant hair whipping. The energy is infectious and immediate and the toddlers present in this afternoon performance are into it. At first I’m not sure who is in the group and who isn’t, but then I see Freestylers are all wearing variations on a green camouflage dress code, personalised for individual expression.

Arriving into this scene in the black box room of BALTIC’s Level 1 performance space, I am handed a tinfoil sheet and invited to help myself to bottles of water. As we are later told, ‘this is a show that requires hydration!’. As I make my way to the circle through the seating area I see a man wrap his foil sheet around his head, and catch a glimpse of a well-sculpted pair of foil hands on the floor. I have folded my sheet into a staff that I hold as I dance in the circle. Having read that this is a show that invites participation, I wonder how much longer it will continue at this pace. Suddenly we are told it is time to sit down because ‘it’s movie time’.

Freestylers: Everybody With Me, Always. Tramway, Glasgow. Photo credit Brian Hartley.

Freestylers, previously known as Deptford Freestylers, have worked together as an evolving group since 2019. They used to meet weekly at Deptford X, and then at Goldsmiths CCA for the four weeks of founding member Roland Carline’s residency there. Throughout the pandemic, Freestylers haven’t been able to work with each other in their usual way. The film we watch at this point charts the group’s development of ‘Everybody with Me, Always’, through walks. It cuts between handheld shots of the group in similar outfits to the ones worn today – this time with large backpacks – walking through rural and coastal settings. In their conversations the group members support one another, they ask open questions and follow each other’s trains of thought. In between these shots the film shows members of Freestylers at Siobhan Davies Studios, London, sharing experiences that refer back to these walks, equating them to being on a journey.

This sense of journeying is woven back and forth across moments of connection between the film, the invitations for the audience to participate and the live performances themselves. At one point in the film, the conversation between two members walking along a seaside promenade turns to ‘soloing’. For one member solo performance is a source of energy, for the other, it’s a cause of anxiety – for her it’s the hardest thing to do ‘because you don’t have any support’. They discuss the amount of money it would take to make the reluctant soloist perform. Twenty pounds is not enough. After cutting between other scenes this section of film concludes back at the beach where the pro-solo member is enthusiastically chanting ‘Power in the name of ice cream!’. With the film in freeze frame, the same two Freestylers walk out to applause, the persuaded soloist dressed as an ice cream. The whole audience now chants: ‘Power in the name of ice cream!’ as ‘Where is My Mind?’ by Pixies picks up and she solos, gloriously, cycling through gestures of freedom and angst: balletic leaping, head clasping, miming one hand reaching out (seemingly against her will while the other pulls it back), turning the ice cream headpiece around to obscure her face as she turns inwards. This weaving of references speaks of the shared world the Freestylers are building through their walks, and it invites the audience into it via hooks and callbacks.

Freestylers are an inclusive group who challenge conventions of producing and sharing performance art, as described in a statement for ‘Everybody with Me, Always’: ‘As our team is made up of artists with and without disability we are often interrogating the idea of care because we believe it goes both ways… We believe that everyone in our group is powerful’. The film, and Freestylers’ vocal support of each other’s performances, makes these values evident. The careful structure of this two-hour long event makes it clear that this care is also extended to the audience. Attention spans, fatigue, shyness and hydration needs are all taken into account, as is our understanding of what is going on. When we are invited to join a ‘classic hip hop cypher’ the term is immediately clarified as a dance circle at a jam or a club, and then demonstrated.

Freestylers: Everybody With Me, Always. Tramway, Glasgow. Photo credit Brian Hartley.

The next section of the film shows how the group draws more themes from their walks. At one point they come to a fenced off area. From off camera we hear a voice shout ‘It’s private property mate!’. There are calls from the group to ‘reclaim the land!’ as its symbolic resonance as a border zone is acknowledged. Another section of film touches on both collective and individual experiences of grief during the pandemic. It cuts between the studio, the sea and a lake, where we hear that this body of water is a place to remember ancestors. In the studio Carol shares childhood anecdotes about her teasing younger brother before revealing that he passed away last year. We see how the group remembers him, repeating his name and acknowledging their passed loved one’s presence in the waters they pass on their walks. 

These are examples of the way the landscape, including its natural features and human interventions, is brought into the journey narrative. An open gate is a portal to a new place. An island in the middle of a lake is the promise of a new world whose rules are riffed between the group members. There is a sense of joy to this unfolding and a poetic sense of a shared vision, but the landmarks are also acknowledged for the difficulties they represent. The fence prompts reflections on obstacles faced in life, whether structural, societal or self-imposed. In the group’s responses to the fence we feel the injustice of being shut out. We also see the positive collective energy of resistance as one member rallies the group by parading up and down the barrier, baring his chest in defiance.

Before the film ends we see the group traverse another section of fence, climbing over and through it. The poignancy of this moment – breaking through and making a new portal – is cut through with humour as someone reflects on the awkwardness of the manoeuvre, ‘It’s the cheese wire in the crotch innit Jordan?’. This kind of enmeshed joy, pain, humour and sincerity runs throughout ‘Everybody with Me, Always’. I have been on the verge of tears at several points of the show so far and moments of the final section almost floor me, including Sabir’s solo backed by the whole group who repeat and vary his moments, and Joe’s heartfelt dance for Greta Thunburg performed with sweeping reaching arm gestures while wearing a cardboard Greta mask. Mother and daughter Carol and Bethany’s kitchen choreographed piece, performed to ‘Trust in Me’ from Disney’s The Jungle Book, includes an unexpectedly poignant oven glove dance. Looking around at the audience, I am not alone in being on board with the journey’s emotional climax.

Freestylers: Everybody With Me, Always. Tramway, Glasgow. Photo credit Brian Hartley.

The final dance is between Nancy and Andrea. They unfurl a section of dark blue fabric about 1m x 7m and place it on the floor and then, in turn, journey down its length. Their movements reflect struggles. They are entangled with it and then released. We are invited to leave the space together in a way that involves the same length of fabric, which has now become a river. I don’t want to give away the function of the foil – but the audience’s use of it is valued and becomes part of a symbolic gesture we are invited to enact as we exit the room. Such well-choreographed stages and endings are rare, but ‘Everybody with Me, Always’ is a reminder of our social capacities to build worlds and make them meaningful. 

Freestylers are currently Roland Carline, Francis Majekodunmi, Abdul Sabir, Adam Smith, Sheri King, Charles Oni, Ezi Ogbonna, Sunanda Biswas, DJ Hassan, Vicki Hawkins, Joe Pecruich, Carol Pound. Bethany Pound, Shola Cole Wilson, Nancy Clayton, Samuel Keelan, Meave O’Brienn, Rachel Gildea and Andrea Swansain.

‘Everybody with Me, Always’ was toured to Goldsmiths CCA Gallery, London (24 September, 1 and 8 October 2021), Tramway, Glasgow (22 and 23 October 2021) and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (12 and 13 November 2021). It developed on this tour through open workshops at Tramway, Glasgow (16 October 2021) and Dance City, Newcastle upon Tyne (6 November 2021).

The images in this article were taken during the performance at Tramway in Glasgow.

Kate Liston is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne

This article is supported by Siobhan Davies Dance

Published 20.12.2021 by Lesley Guy in Review

1,521 words