From the Power Rangers to Matthew Bourne – Kate Lovell talks to contemporary dancer Housni Hassan aka DJ about the brave new world of stepping out as solo artist.
DJ describes a childhood of rushing to wherever he heard music, an almost innate response to the rhythms pulsing through his body. Feeling eyes on him, it gave his tender young mind the first rush of performance bliss. “It was at age 5, I’d been watching TV, cartoons, and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and Britain’s Got Talent and that sort of inspired me. I had that gift, I’m going to be a performer, a dancer, a teacher”. Dance is in DJ’s bones. He is constantly in motion, he dances as he speaks, quite literally, and uses movement to express himself where words just don’t do it for him.
Whilst dance lives in DJ wherever he shall roam, when on stage, he is distinctly altered. “I’m a different person, I just am, it’s how I express myself through dance. It’s part of me and you can see through the quality of how I project, I hold my balance, I hold my gaze.”
Having witnessed DJ perform, his onstage presence is effervescent. He is infinitely watchable, and understands as much. He outlines his motivation to dance: “It’s my presence, it’s how I perform, I am really giving out, I’m really highlighting what I could bring.”
He is never explicit about being a learning-disabled dancer, but does implicitly refer to breaking down common stereotypes, describing his performance as a way of showing the public, who he truly is, and making a meaningful connection with audiences. It is easy to see how his energy and playfulness could be misunderstood as childlike or naïve, due to a lack of habituation with learning-disabled performers. But the quality of, and commitment to, his artistic development transcends this.
DJ feels no need to make hierarchical cultural distinctions, which perhaps explains his indifference to identifying as disabled. He cites mainstream TV alongside major dance icons as his main influences: “Matthew Bourne, Wayne McGregor, Stopgap, Birdgang, Boy Blue Entertainment”.
In thinking about influences, he tumbles into remembering his own dance journey:
“I was in Candoco, I was in Shift, I was in Laban, I mean I’ve done so much, Ivory Dance, Laban, Greenwich Dance Agency, I’ve done all these different categories, I’ve ticked every box.”
But what is distinctive is that DJ does not simply tick boxes. Some artists who work within inclusive arts organisations can struggle to find an onward path, to cut the apron strings, and it needs skilful mentoring to support promising artists out into the wider world.
When one of DJ’s many unofficial agents whips through a packed schedule that includes performing dance at the British Museum and giving a talk at the Royal Academy of Dance on consecutive days, the significance of professional mentoring and support is writ large.
Andrea Swainson and Sarah Archdeacon at Corali manage his pressured and varied schedule, “they’re sort of my brain, they’re my centre piece.” DJ has built an impressive body of experience, and has people championing him in many organisations. But now he is ready to launch his solo career and begin working as a choreographer in his own right.
Swainson remains present during my interview with DJ and is expert at reminding him to continue to push boundaries and stretch his creative scope. She gently prompts him to mention his future ambitions and experience that he himself has momentarily forgotten amongst his extensive back catalogue.
She also reminds him of funding bids they must re-submit after some rejections, and DJ acknowledges the currently difficult climate, but his optimism is powerful, and an asset I hugely admire: “It’s a tough knock, but do you know what, we’ll get through it.” His adaptability is central to his success as an artist. “I’m always keeping my hopes up high, but not too high. There are always other ways around.”
This versatility is evident in DJ’s dance CV, which impressively spans diverse styles, but all his material for solo work stems from improvisation. “I love improvisation, and that’s how I set a standard”. He explains why his training embedded. “I really owned it, and...I sort of didn’t have an opportunity before because I didn’t know how to control my movement, it was like all over the place...it wasn’t very clear but I broke it down and that’s how I got there.”
His journey into dance stems, at least in part, from a feeling of being unable to communicate effectively in a world that expects people to articulate themselves in words. “I didn’t really know how to speak properly; I used to blur my words... I didn’t get a good education.”
Elaborating on the significance of dance in his life, DJ explains, “It was through dance, it really gave me a sentence, it really gave me my voice back, and that’s how I put my words together.” DJ chooses to not self-identify as disabled, but he does describe instances of discrimination. DJ’s method of communicating with the world, as a disabled artist, is through his body, through movement, through dance. Words don’t work for everyone and this reminds us to listen to people with diverse communication methods in the way they want or need to be heard.
Dance is DJ’s first and best love. But, he has pushed himself out of his comfort zone and experimented with other art forms. He was part of the first cohort to undertake the Performance Making Diploma pioneered by Access All Areas at Central School of Speech and Drama. “It was a whole subject, it wasn’t just dance, it wasn’t just acting, it was the meaning.”
This pioneering course covers everything from role-play to marketing yourself as an artist. It’s the first professional acting course targeted specifically at performers with a learning-disability. Since being piloted in DJ’s year, it is now embedded as a permanent part of Central’s course programme.
Graduation from Central led to DJ being offered an acting job in Eye Queue Here with Access All Areas.
“It was short notice and...me and this other person filled up the gaps and now we’re part of the main company...we toured Brighton, Exeter...I had such a fantastic time, it was a new step for me.”
What is refreshing about DJ is his ability to value himself as a talented artist and his confidence to state it, flaunting the usual British reserve.
“My name is getting out there and I’m putting myself out there because all these little companies, no matter what I do, it will raise the bar and because I’m good...it’ll make the company get a little bit better and get a bit more notice as well.”
Watching DJ work in the Corali rehearsal room, there is a telling moment where he corrects the choreographer, who is supporting a group of dancers to re-learn a previously performed dance for a new space. At first the choreographer is bemused, but quickly realises DJ has recalled the moves more accurately than he has himself, and gets back on track; a live moment of witnessing DJ’s readiness to lead.
DJ has ambitions to choreograph more of his own work, currently co-facilitating sessions at Greenside School in Stevenage, where he teaches young people with special needs contemporary dance. “That’s what I really want to do, that’s the next step for me.”
Exposure is an issue, and DJ does bemoan the lack of reviewers coming to see his work with Corali, Spare Tyre and State of Emergency. But he is incisive about what currently keeps them away.
“They’re not really too sure...how to put it into a little sentence, or a little article, or description because they see a lot of other artists and because we’re a new group for them, it’s sort of a new process for them.”
He acknowledges that there is trepidation to criticise.
“Because they might put the wrong thing...they don’t want to make a wrong judgement. They want to play it safe. They don’t really know us, they don’t know what we can do.”
DJ isn’t knocked back by a lack of broadsheet write-ups, and his ambitions remain justifiably high. “I want to do more international work, collaborating with artists from other countries.”
He also has ambitions to work with the Russell Maliphant company, he describes their work as, ‘elegant’. “I just saw a little clip on a YouTube and I was like, ‘Okay, wow,’ and that has sort of inspired me”. Seeing Russel Maliphant’s solo performance also made an impact. “I just love his amazing subtlety and sharpness, it’s incredible.”
DJ is ready to launch is solo career and is currently promoting Overlap, for which he is actively seeking bookings and venues. It is unusual and unique for a learning-disabled dancer to have any real presence in the professional arts world. My first experience of DJ’s work was watching him perform in State of Emergency’s Co-Mission, a commitment to get disabled BAME artists on the professional stage, which involved a rigorous and lengthy training programme.
I spent significant time with the dancers, preparing an audio description script for visually impaired audiences to access the work, which allowed me space to absorb DJ’s work in detail. His dance is striking because he dances at high-speed, his arms snaking through space with such fluidity that it appears entirely spontaneous, but is in fact highly controlled and choreographed. Witnessing and examining the skill and quality of DJ’s artistry as performer, his profile outside of specific circles is conspicuous in its absence.
DJ’s foray into solo work is significant for the arts world. Contemporary dance all too often presents as out of reach to audiences not already in the know. It is screaming out for diverse performers like DJ to keep the scene alive, fresh and accessible to a wider audience.