With the Dutch dance crew's urban-arts ethos finally being embraced by the mainstream, we find out more about their adrenaline-fuelled show Elements of Freestyle
As urban creatures, we rarely engage with our surroundings, other than as something to navigate around; concrete and metal monoliths which passively dictate our everyday movements. But gravity and the built environment seem to work differently when ISH Dance Collective take to the stage.
Freerunners spin through forbidding rebar cages; a BMX bike becomes a sensitive, balletic partner. Rails no longer contain and curtail, but instead are the spring that drives the skater's propulsion into the air. In their gravity-defying, risk-taking show Elements of Freestyle, ISH offer us a glimpse into a different and deeply creative way of understanding the terrain around us.
Twenty years ago, the urban arts (a catch-all term encompassing everything from graffiti culture to disciplines like skating and breakdancing) were, at best, critically overlooked and, at worst, considered a public nuisance. Growing up in Antwerp, Marco Gerris, ISH's artistic director, recalls his early years as a freestyle inline skater. 'The moment I put on my skates, I was in heaven!' But there was an associated stigma too. 'People drove me from the streets. They were like, "fuck off"!' he says, laughing.
credit: Studio Breed
Moving to Amsterdam in the mid-90s, he immersed himself in its thriving underground scene. 'Amsterdam is a crazy place where everything is possible,' he says. And it was there in 2000 that Gerris established ISH, which platforms urban arts projects in dialogue with more conventional forms. Though Gerris and ISH were ahead of the curve at the turn of the millennium, the mainstream is starting to take notice of urban arts, with one notable example being Cirque du Soleil's Volta. 'Now that we're out of the box, everyone wants a piece of the pie,' laughs Michael van Beek, the show's freestyle basketballer. 'It's a nice acknowledgement.'
But Gerris has mixed feelings about what he's seen so far. 'I don't think they always use it in the right way,' he says, 'but that's a style thing.' Rather than merely showcasing the spectacle, his interest lies in highlighting the creative freedom and drive that underlie these disciplines. 'My style is to use them in their purist form – the energy, the rawness – and translate that onto the stage. In breakdance, skating, inline or freerunning, we're all searching for a kind of freedom. We're all looking to push our own boundaries.'
credit: Studio Breed
It's this aspect of personal expression that sets Elements of Freestyle, and urban arts in general, apart from its more orthodox kin. The show weaves together six forms (including freerunning, inline skating, breakdancing and skateboarding) while showcasing the sense of individual identity that underlies each. 'That's the definition of freestyle,' says van Beek. 'You're free to do whatever you want to do. It's different from, say, ballet which is more strict and has certain steps. With urban arts, like freerunners, they go outside and suddenly they're jumping over a bridge. Because they see that potential and why not use it?'
Dez Maarsen, the show's BMX rider, agrees. 'When you're riding, you're like a piece of somebody's soul, you know? The things you do are very personal, or at least that's the goal: to create your own identity in your riding.' Of course, translating public disciplines into private spaces means something must be lost. The physical parameters of the stage is one such obstacle. 'Also the rawness you see in battles, when they stand against each other, is difficult to stage,' adds Gerris. 'You have to find another way to use that energy.'
But even these limitations lead to new, creative avenues. For instance, the disciplines in Elements of Freestyle are soundtracked by a live cello and violin, which lends to their disparate choreographies both a cohesive fluidity and an emotional pitch, while also bridging the gap for audiences that may be unfamiliar with the forms.
And ultimately, that's what Elements of Freestyle is here to do: to challenge preconceived ideas of what urban arts is or can be. 'I want audiences to understand that it's more than just sports or hanging around on the streets,' says Gerris. Such revelations extended to the performers as well: when Maarsen would practice his riding out on the street, people would derisively tell him to join the circus. But Gerris, who lived nearby, also took notice, and reached out to Maarsen in 2006 when he needed a rider for a show. 'What he's taught me is that my discipline is already artistic,' says Maarsen. 'He was always pushing me forward, and it made me think about myself and how I can make my work better. It's something he unlocked in me.'
The show is also very much a love letter to the underground community that embraced Gerris in those earliest days, as seen in the performers' playful goading and their open joy in each other's successes. 'This show is about friendship, about how we help each other, how to push each other, how our disciplines are born,' Gerris says. 'Most of the tricks we do are born out of being bored; just waiting on the street, doing nothing. Then suddenly we see a nice rail or a nice wall, and we think, "ah, let's try this".'
ISH Dance Collective: Elements of Freestyle, Pleasance at EICC, Morrison Street, 3–25 Aug (not 7, 12, 21), 4pm, £14–£17.50 (£10–£14.50; family ticket £11–£14.50).
ISH Dance Collective In this adrenaline-fuelled explosion of extreme urban sports, breakdance, music and theatre, ISH Dance Collective create breathtaking poetry in every single moment. Elements of Freestyle is about those redeeming seconds that make a complicated trick ultimately succeed; about the freestylers' total…