As a hip hop reinterpretation of The Wind in the Willows begins its UK tour, its choreographer tells Anna Winter about being mentored by Kate Prince, creating work by ‘feeling the room’ and promoting female creatives
In their latest stage incarnation, Toad of Toad Hall and his quadruped companions – rat, badger, assorted weasels and the rest – are transforming from countryside gents into street-dancing schoolkids. Why? How? Choreographer Rhimes Lecointe has the answers. She’s working on In the Willows, a new hip hop musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale, written and directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan and starring panto favourite Clive Rowe.
During a short break from rehearsals, Lecointe explains her approach. She’s not going full-on Springwatch, she says, since the show relocates the traditional riverbank action to an inner-city school. “I didn’t want to animalise it too much so that the characters aren’t human. They aren’t four-legged, but there’s this resemblance to the animal. I thought about how a rat moves, how an otter moves. Are they quick, sharp movements? Is it fluid? Are there holds?”
She continues: “Using those words, I created movement, giving it a flow or quickening it, staying up or staying low.” She notes that Toad – the school’s joyriding rich kid who sports a green gilet and leads cautious newcomer Mole astray – has a distinctive plié position that references the amphibian’s stubby front legs and bent haunches.
‘I love to go into a space with bodies and stage them through the space, so I’m making the stage dance and then I’m making the bodies dance’
In the Willows breaks with tradition in other ways. Street dancer Chris Fonseca, who is deaf, will perform the role of Otter and Lecointe is incorporating British Sign Language into the choreography. A community cast of dancers aged 17 to 25 will be recruited in every city that the show visits on tour, with D/deaf performers especially encouraged to apply.
How did Lecointe set about weaving BSL into hip hop movement? “I really had to think about how it was going to work. I learnt some of the basics that I needed and got those bits into the choreography quite simply. Then I’d find out that I’d choreographed something and it was only a fraction away from the sign, which was crazy. It wasn’t an obvious word either, it was ‘class’. Coming into the rehearsal room, I was super-observant of Chris and whoever was helping with signing, so I could ask questions and then mould it into shape.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in Laura Ashley.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Going to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Into the Hoods.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Music, people, love. When I think about artists out there, the only artist is Missy Elliott. She dances, she’s a wordsmith. The way she raps – this is artistry.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Know that this is all opinions: what you think about you matters the most. Once you do that, you will grow in confidence and confidence is like a superpower.
If you hadn’t been a dancer and choreographer, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
London-born Lecointe took to street dance as a child in “an organic way – or as my mum would put it, I jumped around in the front room in my cycling shorts and belly top”. She got her first taste of choreography working with hip hop theatre company Boy Blue Entertainment and in 2010 set up Boadicea, an all-female dance crew, which led to appearances on TV’s Got to Dance and the film StreetDance 3D.
She credits Kate Prince and her company ZooNation with “nurturing the gift in me” and pushing her creative skills to the forefront: an original cast member of Into the Hoods, she then worked on the show’s 2015 reboot as associate choreographer. “Kate has been a mentor to me since I was 17 or 18. I’ve watched as she’s developed as a person and a choreographer. I’ve been taught and fed by her. She’s the biggest inspiration to me as a female, a choreographer and as a wife and a mother. For a long time I didn’t think it was possible to be those things and I believe it now.”
When it comes to In the Willows, Lecointe describes her choreographic process as “feeling the room” – taking an instinctive, intuitive approach to the particular people in the space and how their bodies move. “I’m not massively attached to preparing things at home and working out every detail of choreography. I love to go into a space with bodies and stage them through the space, so I’m making the stage dance and then I’m making the bodies dance. That’s my process with everything. A lot of it is about feelings – I take that as an asset of being a woman.”
The inherent challenges of being a female in the dance industry is a topic on which Lecointe is refreshingly direct. “For the majority of my dance career, I competed. People will say that there’s a natural competition between dancers trying to push themselves to the front. I no longer believe that. I had this mentality that if the boys could do it, I could do it. If the guys were going on the floor, then I’d go on the floor. I remember challenging my teacher when they said that they were doing a new piece and only the guys were going to do it. And I said: ‘What do you mean? I can do it.’ And I was the only girl who did that piece.”
A passionate proponent of ‘girl power’, Lecointe is adamant that women can do the same things as the men. “Yes, our hips are heavier, but let’s learn how to balance them on the floor or to move more slowly. On many occasions, I’ve felt I’ve had to prove myself when it was easier for the men. To go further, I’ve always had to try, try, try. It’s very tiring. That anger and frustration, it served me at the time because it made me push. But you get to a point where it’s like: how long can you stay angry and let those things consume you?”
Demurring over the definition and title of ‘feminist’, she’s nevertheless convinced that while men and women need to work together: “Women have this natural softness that needs to be nurtured in a particular way to pull the strength to the surface. That’s so important. And you can break. And I’ve seen people break and I know what it’s like to feel broken by this industry.”
‘I’ve had to prove myself when it was easier for the men. To go further, I’ve always had to try, try, try’
Far from being ground down by showbiz pressures, Lecointe has determinedly made her own luck in order to forge a career that combines choreography with mentoring projects. She recalls being told that she’d find success as a backing dancer in the US. “I’m a thicker-set woman and people said: ‘You’re built like the American black girls, you should do well there.’ I was like: ‘Yeah, that’s great but this is my home. I wanna do things here, grow things, nurture and be nurtured here. Why can’t I do that?’ So a lot of the decisions I’ve made have been to make stuff up and see what happens.”
Lecointe is committed to “nurturing the next generation of female choreographers and creatives”. She adds: “No matter if there are five women in the room, all of them can make it. There’s this idea that only a few can slip through. Women think: ‘Oh there’s that woman there already, so I don’t stand a chance now’, even though men just go for it no matter what. It’s a weird dynamic at times. You have to learn to shut out the noise, hone into the important things, not to think: ‘Am I good enough and is that person better than me?’ We need to say: ‘What can I offer, how can I serve this story and bring it to life?’ ”
Are there any other classic stories that she would like to reinvigorate? “I’m a massive Marvel comics fans and I really like Wonder Woman. I did kick-boxing growing up and I’d love to choreograph fighting.” She’s also partial to Hans Christian Andersen: “I like his journey of being a cobbler before he was known as a storyteller – that concept of somebody who has all these stories inside of them, but isn’t getting a break. I’d love to bring that to life in a hip hop way. To have all those characters, like the Ugly Duckling, in one production.”
Lecointe is also reworking Resilience, a Boadicea show from 2016. “It’s about telling real stories – the crap things and the interesting things – that aren’t all fun and glittery.”
Born: 1985, east London
Training: Leyton College; Lewisham College
• Into the Hoods, ZooNation (2006)
• Pied Piper, Boy Blue Entertainment (2009)
• StreetDance 3D
As associate choreographer:
• Into the Hoods: Remixed (ZooNation, 2015)
• An Officer and a Gentleman: The Musical (2018)