“I was determined to give them a platform” – Traplord, the dance show confronting Black masculinity
By Lara Monro | Art | 30 March 2022

Award-winning dancer, choreographer, director and self-proclaimed ‘Roadnaissance’ man, Ivan Michael Blackstock is set to showcase his long-awaited Traplord at 180 Strand this month. Incorporating movement, trap, grime, opera and film alongside dance, theatre, and spoken word, the stage show explores themes of death, rebirth, life, mental health, and identity.  Performed by a cast of close friends and collaborators, Blackstock unpacks the lives of socially disenfranchised young Black men to shine a light on Western stereotypes of Black masculinity, specifically those from South London. 

Blackstock grew up in Peckham where he lived with his mother, sister and brother until moving to Brixton at fifteen. With an absent father, he was confronted with the lack of a male role model as well as the pressure of gang culture, toxic masculinity and systemic racism. He left school at sixteen with no GCSEs, however his passion for dance and creativity offered an alternative to street life, unlike many of his peers. Blackstock formed the award-winning creative company Bird Gang in 2005 alongside Simeon Qsyea, Kendra J Horsburg and Ukweli Roach. He has subsequently worked with a number of contemporary music icons including Pet-Shop boys, Kylie Minogue and Beyonce.

There are as many variations to Traplord as there are facets, the themes addressed being inextricably linked to Blackstock’s psyche.  In order to express these experiences, and those of his peers from similar backgrounds, he embraces collaboration, using his voice and that of his cast as a bridge to the movement. “It started by gathering young men in the warehouse to talk. We didn’t go straight into dance combinations,” Blackstock tells us. “I took a step back and looked at what we were doing from an outsider’s perspective. This is when I knew there was something special here.”


Ivan Michael Blackstock: I just gathered everyone’s energy and have been so inspired by all involved, exploring how I can use everyone’s ideas and voices to build and design a vehicle that ultimately shares all our voices.

One specific voice includes long-term friend and collaborator, Jonzi D. One of the UK’s most prominent advocates of hip-hop, Jonzi D is recognised for his contribution to the development of the dance genre and its place within the theatre scene over the last two decades. Having established Breaking Convention, a festival of hip hop dance, Jonzi D first met Blackstock back in 2005 when producer Kate Scanlan insisted he take a look at the then eighteen-year-old Blackstock’s moves on an mp4 player: 

IMB: I think I was about eighteen at the time and Kate was really excited about what I was doing, she thought it was unique. So she rushed me over to Sadler’s Wells to meet Jonzi D. We didn’t have phones back then so I showed him what I was working on through my mp4 player and he was like…”

Jonzi D: I was like, “Yo, what do you mean you’re a hip hop choreographer?” Because I didn’t really see the hip hop in it. What I saw was someone who understands how the theatre space works. So I said to him, “I can see you know how to use the space, but that the dancers you’re working with need to be hip hop dancers.” I’m thinking to myself, imagine this vision, imagine this mind, but working with hip hop dancers. So I said, okay, do you want to work with Breakin Convention?”

Blackstock and Jonzi D have been working together ever since, including their duo performance for Jonzi D’s Broken Lineage (2013). Acting as Dramaturg on Traplord, Jonzi D likes to think of his role as being the ‘outside eye’: 

JD: I like to say outside eye but I guess you could also say a voice of questioning. Quite often, I’ll say to Ivan, “Yeah, but why?” You know, “Why is this happening?” Not necessarily to force a narrative, but to question why we are doing certain things. What’s the intention behind this moment?  I find a strand that can follow through from beginning to end.  

Connecting with the mind, body and soul, Blackstock wanted to ensure the movements translate both his and his casts’ experiences, Blackstock spent two weeks at an abandoned leisure centre in East London workshopping the performance’s initial stages:

IVB: It started by gathering young men in the warehouse to talk. We didn’t go straight into dance combinations. As a result of our open conversations we began to include movement, rap, spoken word. I took a step back and looked at what we were doing from an outsider’s perspective. This is when I knew there was something special here. For me, all the men are stars, whether they are in education, employment, training or not. The main challenge was getting them to believe in themselves, and to ensure we stay true to our original audience as we present them on a new stage, theatre. So I was determined to give them a platform. We spoke about our childhood and memories to help us communicate through our bodies. 

This idea of presenting Blackstock’s community within theatre is something costume designer Saskia Lenaerts has been acutely aware of throughout the design process.

Saskia Lenaerts: Ivan has managed to move his and his casts’ stories into the realm of a new audience so it was really important to focus on how to stay true to his community. By being at 180 Strand and Sadler’s Wells, Ivan had to think about how to translate the stories and experiences in a way the audience could digest. 

It started by gathering young men in the warehouse to talk.”

Training as a menswear designer, Lenaert has long been fascinated with different ways of expressing hyper-masculinity. For her degree show, for example, she researched the Namibian Herero tribe, who, to this day, wear the military uniforms brought to their country by 19th-century German colonialists as a subversive act of defiance. Lenaerts spent a lot of time delving into the hyper-masculine stereotypes Blackstock and his cast felt they had to adhere to: 

SL: The need to be hyper-masculine within specific environments is something we really explored. We talked a lot about how Ivan would express his masculinity by dressing in a way that made him look bigger than he was and more intimidating. Actually, I think in my own work, even though I’m trying to project a man that is worldly, peaceful and nonviolent, I am also trying to say that this doesn’t mean the aesthetic has to be something really fragile. I think that can be an archaic view, and I think that’s where we understood each other. 

Within this, Lenaert examined the cultural and social history of street style, exploring its multiple facets. She wanted to make clothes that were familiar to the cast to ensure they could express themselves truly.

SL: I started by dissecting and understanding the language of the South London roadman: looking at how he dresses and what the key garments are. I wanted to look at it from the most honest perspective and respect the fact all the dancers came from this environment; these are the clothes they wear every day. I took elements like puffer jackets, the tracksuit, Nike Air Max, and tried to reconfigure them in a way that is still honest. 

While the piece focuses heavily on masculinity, Blackstock decided to include women performers in this iteration of Traplord as he felt their energy would bring a new and healthy perspective to the themes addressed.

IMB: We were sharing a lot of ideas around masculinity, seeing how they translate into the movement and choreographic language and it felt important to have a female perspective. For a long time now, Traplord has been just men, so having women in the space changed the environment. There was more compassion at times and the competitive nature that could be in the room changed somewhat, which you could say was much healthier. Male stereotypes are at the heart of this work and a lot of them have now been questioned by the women in ways we didn’t think about before. For me, it’s been really important to work through that, because having the women dancers there to workshop ideas helped us uncover a deeper truth around the stereotypes. 

Male stereotypes are at the heart of this work…”

Performers Chantelle Dawe and Shannelle ‘Tali’ Fergus have been rehearsing with Blackstock since February and agree that the presence of women dancers invites questioning and deeper exploration into certain ideas.

Shannelle ‘Tali’ Fergus: It has been a lot of conversations, a lot of questioning and we’ve worked through every possible version. So we are aware of what it has been and how male-dominant it is, understandably because of the themes addressed. I guess it’s a question of us as the performers exploring how we fit into that, and also having to explore if there is a completely different world that’s created by having women as part of the story. I think we are still exploring what that is. And for better or worse, we just keep adding questions to the pile. But that’s possibly a feminine trait in itself, which is part and parcel of having us here!

Chantelle Dawe: It definitely changes the dynamic within the group because guys connect and communicate so differently. I think by having that energy in the room, it allows for authenticity and opens up self-expression in a new way. That transcends the piece as well. But yes, we’re still exploring it. Ultimately it’s definitely going to be a different version to what it has been in the past. 

The journey of Traplord is one of self-actualisation. It is a poignant attempt to pursue authentic lived experiences that involve physical and mental trauma. Through his holistic approach, Blackstock aims to inspire a healing process in both his performers and audience as he offers an escape from the mental state of being condemned before having lived.

Traplord runs until 16th April at 180 Strand – buy tickets here.

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