She grew up in the leafy New Forest and spent her youth watching MTV and copying Janet Jackson’s dance routines. Now 33, Kate Prince is an established choreographer who has worked on television shows including CD:UK and Top Of The Pops, music videos for McFly and V, and Beatles musical All You Need Is Love.
Three years ago, this self-confessed musical theatre geek decided to combine her love of musicals and street dance to create a new hip hop dance show with her company ZooNation. Based on Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale musical Into The Woods and featuring the music of Gorillaz, Snoop Dogg, Basement Jaxx, Kanye West and many others, the show, aptly titled Into The Hoods, begins performances at the West End’s Novello theatre on 14 March. Caroline Bishop asked Prince to explain exactly what it is all about…
Tell me about Into The Hoods
Kate Prince: It’s one of those things where it is quite hard to describe. It’s not strictly a musical, it’s not strictly a dance show and it’s not strictly a piece of theatre, but it’s kind of elements of all three – it’s hip hop dance theatre comedy narrative. It’s kind of hard to sell when you say all those words, so we just call it an urban fairytale.
It’s an adaptation of Sondheim’s Into The Woods, but it’s set in present day London, so instead of being in the woods they’re in the hood. Instead of Cinderella you’ve got Spinderella who is a girl DJ. Instead of Rapunzel you’ve got Rap-On-Zel, called Zella, who is a rapper emcee. All of the characters are based on youth culture. Lil Red is a singer and she’s been signed to Wolf’s record label which is Big Teeth Records. She’s secretly in love with Jaxx, who lives in the basement, and he’s a music producer, and he gets into trouble with The Giant, who is a drug-dealing pimp who lives in the penthouse. So all these characters are based on your fairytales but it’s like, if these characters existed today, in London, what would they be, how would they relate to us today?
How did you come up with the idea?
KP: We were experimenting with trying to put a narrative into hip hop dance. Because hip hop dance is great to watch but you can’t really sustain the audience’s interest for longer than about 10 minutes if there isn’t some kind of theme or story. So a friend of mine said why don’t you just start by trying to tell a fairytale as an experiment and see how you would do that. I said ‘Oh we should do Into The Woods because that’s four fairytales in one.’ He laughed and I laughed…then I went, ‘Actually, that’s not a bad idea.’
We started writing it in 2005, and we’ve been workshopping it and performing it and changing it for the past two and a bit years. It’s definitely been a long journey and a work in progress and we never thought in our wildest dreams that we’d be doing what we are with it today. It’s so exciting for all of us, it’s brilliant.
It is a comedy, but you aren’t mocking urban culture – how do you tread that line?
KP: There is a fine line. There’s a real fine line between being funny and stepping over that line and being a bit distasteful or a bit disrespectful. It’s trying to find different and unexpected ways in which to perform hip hop dance that isn’t a cliché; it isn’t that we’re just all dressed in incredibly cool hip hop clothing… you’re telling a story and trying to find different ways of telling that story.
Is urban culture part of your background?
KP: No, for me personally, not at all. I’m from the countryside, I’m not someone who grew up in the city; I’m not someone who has experienced street-life culture from a very young age. But when you live in the countryside and it’s winter and you can’t go outside and climb trees, the television is your friend, and I spent a lot of my youth watching MTV and musicals and music videos. I learnt most of my dancing as a kid by copying stuff off the telly. That was my introduction to that culture when I was growing up.
Since I’ve been an adult I’ve spent time in Los Angeles and New York and I’ve been in London for nearly 10 years, so I have a sense of what living in a city is like, but I’m certainly not a hip hop kid, I am a countryside girl and I’m not ashamed of it either!
How did Into The Hoods begin?
KP: We did it first at Sadler’s Wells, they commissioned it as a two-night thing at the Peacock theatre [for hip hop weekend Breakin’ Convention]. It just went really well and I think people saw that there was some potential in it and Sadler’s Wells asked us to come and do it again for five nights in the summer. Then we took a risk and took it to the Edinburgh Festival, and from doing that it just went through the roof. I think it just tapped into something in Edinburgh that hadn’t been there before.
Aren’t you a little bit tired of going to see a musical where it’s just a remake of an 80s movie or it features the music of ABBA or Queen, or you’re going to see it because someone from Coronation Street is in the lead role? There’s no one famous in our show, it’s not a famous movie, it’s not about that; it’s about us trying to do something that is genuinely entertaining and fun and that you’re going to enjoy.
It’s really a show that a grandmother could take her granddaughter to and they should both be able to have a good time.
How does it feel to be bringing it to the West End?
KP: I don’t want to sound like I’m on the X Factor and go ‘It’s my dream come true’ but this is something that I’ve always wanted to do and I’ve wanted to get this to happen for the people that I work with, and it’s actually happening and it’s very surreal. It’s absolutely the most life-affirming, most incredible thing that we’ve ever had the opportunity to do. Everyone is working so hard right now to try and make sure that we don’t let anyone down.
If we get this right then we are going to open doors for more shows like this to come through. If we mess it up and people don’t embrace what we do and it isn’t successful then I think producers are going to be even more hesitant about putting money into doing a hip hop show in the West End. There’s a lot riding on this!
Why did you set up your dance company ZooNation?
KP: It came out of two things really. One was a frustration at the fact that hip hop dancers and backing dancers who are very talented and highly skilled and train very hard, their only opportunity to showcase those skills was behind someone famous in a music video. So it was kind of an outlet to let a group of people who are really passionate about this style of dance be creative and come up with ideas.
It’s partly a social thing as well. It’s quite a lonely world being a freelance actor/dancer. It was just really nice to bring a group together once or twice a week where we could rehearse, work together and have a bit more of a family base.
The company goes from 7 to 35 years old. It’s a multi-generational, multi-cultural group of people. It feels like family to me a lot of the time.
How do the younger kids get involved?
KP: We actually spent October to December going all around London, going to the after-school groups, youth groups, little dance schools. We wanted to make sure we were really getting round there and finding kids.
We found this one incredible boy called Michael, I think he’s 11. He can do the most slick tricks I’ve ever seen, he’s as good as the grown-up boys. If we hadn’t done this search we wouldn’t have found him.
We also had open auditions. So we have another kid, it’s his third West End show! Then we have other kids that have been in [ZooNation’s youth company] ZooYouth for three years, so they’ve trained with us and been working with us for a while. So it’s a real mix of children.
Can you teach people to dance hip hop?
KP: It’s definitely something you can teach children. They’ve just got to enjoy it and want to do it, and have the enthusiasm, and a little bit of rhythm and they’ll be fine!
What influence can dance have on kids’ lives?
KP: Doing this show isn’t just about us adults working and being in the West End, it’s about trying to have a company performing something that young people in London and around the UK would want to go and see, would enjoy seeing and might motivate them to do something.
I’ve seen what a positive thing dance can be in someone’s life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go on to be a dancer, but it does mean you can be part of a group, going along, rehearsing, doing shows. You might go on to be an accountant, it doesn’t matter, but it means you are part of something and it can change your way of thinking and make you feel more positive.
Can kids who enjoy the show get involved in ZooYouth?
KP: Yes. We are doing weekly workshops with the show. A good way of doing it is they come and do a workshop in the afternoon and then they see the show in the evening. We actually teach them stuff from the show. In addition to that we have a Saturday school. If the kids really enjoy it they can come to us for three hours and learn from us.
I absolutely love doing workshops with young people and so do the cast. I’ve never done a show that doesn’t have young people in it because it just wouldn’t be any fun.
Into The Hoods opens at the Novello on 26 March after previews from 14 March. Book tickets
To find out more about ZooNation’s workshops visit www.zoonation.co.uk