Liam Francis on how hip hop led him to the UK's leading contemporary dance company
PUBLISHED: 12:54 22 February 2017 | UPDATED: 11:24 23 February 2017
Brighton boy Liam Francis will return to his hometown this March to dance with Rambert on the seminal piece Ghost Dances.
It is still January when your correspondent visits Rambert’s base on the South Bank to interview dancer Liam Francis, 23, who grew up in Brighton and will dance at the Theatre Royal in Ghost Dances this month.
Observing muscular young dancers perform logically impossible feats is an excellent way to feel those post-Christmas pounds weighing heavy on the conscience. But Liam wears his expertise and mastery of the form lightly. A pupil of Tideway school (now Seahaven Academy), he was an active boy – swimming competitively and playing football, squash and basketball – but dance didn’t enter his orbit until his teens. In fact he was with his brother at a chess competition when he discovered the joy of movement. “There was some music on and I was dancing about, and I just thought, ‘This is so much fun!’”
Soon after that he went to see ZooNation’s Into the Hoods – a hip hop fairy tale mash-up inspired by Sondheim’s Into the Woods – and his conversion was complete. He was intoxicated by “the power, the fun on stage. It wasn’t contrived, theatrical or over-the-top – you could see watching them that they were having the best time.”
Liam trained with ZooNation Academy of Dance from the age of 14, travelling from Brighton every Saturday to train after a busy school week. He joined the Youth Company in 2009 at 16 – combining rehearsals and performance with his academic studies at BHASVIC where he did politics, maths and English – his ambition was to be a journalist or a politician. But in his final year – in which he also studied dance at AS Level – he started to consider it as more than a hobby.
By 18 he was resident director, dance captain and choreographer for a ZooNation production, Groove on Down the Road, with his best friend from Brighton as his assistant. He’s full of praise for the company culture: “We were lucky enough that the older company members who were in the show would teach us, so there was this real family feel to it and a really efficient way of transferring knowledge that was going to be of use to the company.”
He credits that nurturing atmosphere with giving him the confidence he needed to work as a commercial dancer from the age of 16, backing JLS, Gary Barlow and 2009 X Factor winner Joe McElderry. He appeared at the O2 and on various television programmes.“I could go to an audition and know I’ve been trained by the best street dancers this country has to offer.”
He decided to pursue vocational dance training instead of university. Yet at 18 he’d never done ballet or jazz. “Before my audition at London Studio Centre I did two ballet classes. I stood at the back and copied everyone, I had no idea what was going on and I blagged my way through it.
“I don’t think there’s much as a performer that’s harder than doing something you’re very bad at, and going to London Studio Company made me have to become comfortable with that. Being in ballet class wearing ballet shoes, wearing tights, thinking I don’t know what I am doing. You just keep trying until you can do it.”
Liam scored a coveted apprenticeship at Rambert in 2014 after Mark Baldwin (artistic director), Michaela Polley (senior rehearsal director) and Angela Towler (rehearsal director) saw him perform with InToto, London Studio Centre’s third year contemporary dance company. “Afterwards I remember Michaela coming to me and saying ‘Mark has just left, he’s told us to offer you an apprenticeship. Would you like that?’ My immediate reaction was ‘I’m really sorry, I’ve got another show to do. Can I get back to you?’ They hold me to it, and they will, forever.”
Performing in Ghost Dances – he is one of three ghosts – is momentous for Liam, who remembers studying it at BHASVIC. “I remember being in a small studio and watching the video, pausing it and trying to recreate the move.” The 1981 work is choreographed by Christopher Bruce, a former artistic director of Rambert. It is an enormously popular piece paying tribute to victims of political oppression in South America. Liam says: “It’s very interesting because when I studied it at school we learnt that the work was packed with political meaning, but then when you talk to Christopher Bruce he is less inclined to say those sorts of things.
“So I think it is more ambiguous than people think and that is what I feel on stage. And the honour of performing it, knowing that some of the best contemporary dancers this country has produced have performed the role that I get the opportunity to learn and perform. To know that I am deemed worthy to perform the same role is enough for me, and gives the experience on stage that intensity.”
The fact that Liam and his two fellow ghosts also dance wearing full masks adds another layer to the performance. “I was worried at the beginning but I’d forgotten how well Christopher Bruce rehearses his works. Yes the mask is an issue but we spent so long rehearsing, nit-picking and going through it with a fine tooth comb, the choreography is there. With the three ghosts there’s a real sense of unity and actually I often feel that we are one ghost – we move together around the stage, we’re one body, we’re one energy.”
I wonder whether having his face covered affects his performance. Actually, he says, “There’s something really wonderful about it because you lose all sense of identity whilst wearing barely anything. We’re painted and we have feather bands around our wrists, waists, knees and elbows. So there’s this contradiction of showing everything, physically, and concealing your identity. That’s very liberating, to be onstage feeling like you’re not wearing anything and you can feel the feathers moving, you can feel air on your skin… but no-one can see who you are. Once you put the paint and the masks on, you can’t tell who’s who.”
As well as performance, Liam is relishing the opportunity to contribute to the creative process – I sit in on a research and development session with company dancers and renowned choreographer Kim Brandstrup and witness it in action. He also recently staged his own piece, R1, at the Arts Depot in North Finchley, and it’s something he’d like to do more: “You forget how wonderful it is to create something and then share it onstage with people who have trusted your vision. And you’re performing to people who want to see what you have to offer. It made me realise I need to do that more, because I got really caught up in making sure that whilst I was here at Rambert I got a really strong start and I really wanted to take everything I could from every choreographer, every director, every dancer in the company, I wanted to just as absorb.
“Because I wouldn’t have guessed that I would be here. Now I feel very comfortable in the company and I very much want to start choreographing more and using what I’ve gained from the company to filter into what I create.
“My long-term goal is to develop ideas with other people to the point where they become something they couldn’t have been if they’d stayed within the one mind that conceived them.”
Rambert brings Ghost Dances plus Malgorzata Dzierzon’s Flight and Lucy Guerin’s Tomorrow, to the Theatre Royal Brighton from Wednesday 1 to Saturday 4 March. Tickets are £13.90-£35.40, available from www.atgtickets.com.
• Events and things to do in Sussex - March 2017 - Our guide to the best events in and around Sussex this March