Filmmakers Damien Fry and Martin Senyszak, dancer and choreographer Theo Canham-Spence, and stylist Sam Thompson got together to create Sojourner, an art video about dancing and performance. With music by South London artist James Massiah, the video tackles issues like the digital world and how we project our fake selves in it, the awareness of our bodies, and somatics (the relationship between body, mind and wellbeing). Today, we speak with Damien and Theo to discuss movement, reality, and creative teamwork.
You’re presenting Sojourner, a video about contemporary dance. The title, ‘sojourner,’ refers to a temporary stay. What’s the relationship between a sojourn and dancing? Why did you go for this title?
Damien: At the time I came up with this concept I was thinking about how we are constantly focused on the future or the past and not able to live in the present moment. In the digital age, we are constantly trying to keep up with the infinite scroll whilst simultaneously projecting an image of our best lives, caught in a digital world that is far from reality. Filming this dance piece, I wanted it to be fixated on the present moment. Not to be thinking about the future or the past or how you may appear to others. The dancer is free and completely engaged with the expression of movement and form. It feels like transcendence for only a couple of minutes.
Theo: The relationship between a sojourn and dancing is very much the same as meditation and the meditator, in my opinion. It’s a temporary check-in to the body, something you can access walking down the street or dancing around your house. I think we have all experienced a temporary vacation from our physical self (aware of it or not) whether that’s deep body awareness or stepping outside the flesh and exploring the surrounding space. It’s these moments either way that help refresh and develop the relationship and awareness we have with our bodies. Dancing (performing or casually at home), alongside other practices, is a fantastic gateway for that. I study somatics and the relationship between movement and wellbeing, so I’m finding it very difficult to give you a short answer on something I am so involved in. Apologies!
I’d like to know more about how this project came to life. What was the starting point? Who met who, and how did the rest of the team get involved?
Damien: Martin and I worked on a couple of projects together in London and I thought it would be great to do something that was not bound by a commercial commission or fashion editorial. I was also shooting a project with Nii Agency at the time and came across Theo through that connection, and we decided to get together and see what might be possible with movement and film.
Theo: At the time the project came up, I was being represented by Nii, a London-based modelling agency, and that’s how I came into contact with Damien. We had a little workshop in his studio and that’s where I met Martin. It developed through e-mails into a coffee to speak about his idea, and a few weeks later, we were shooting. It was swift – how we like it.
Two filmmakers, a dancer and choreographer, a stylist, the music… It isn’t easy to make everyone row in the same direction. Could you tell us more about the creative and filming process? How was it like sharing ideas and finding common ground?
Damien: We got together at a studio in East London to experiment with choreography and shot direction. We were really excited with how Theo composed his movement and knew we could create something very organic with him. I wanted to place Theo in a versatile environment where he could move and utilise the elements around him. The brutalist structure of the empty underpass spoke to me as an iconic setting where Theo could turn the large oppressive space into a positive environment with no limitations.
When we got Sam Thompson (stylist) involved, he took inspiration from Theo’s test video and created the character that was going to lead us through the film. Keeping an open mind and listening to everyone’s creative input played a key role in putting this together. We had the right mix of talents and voices that didn’t drown each other out.
Theo: It was a very smooth process. I always appreciate freedom and trust in a project, and I had that with both Martin and Damien. Damien was great when it came to giving me space to roam, and wherever I placed myself, I felt Martin was there getting it all, open to receive whatever I threw at them. I had only been modelling for just under a year, I was still new to the camera, but it was for sure the most relaxed I’ve been for a shoot.
I think what made it flow well is that everybody was open to explore and let what happen, happen. Damien, of course, had an idea and frame he envisioned but his direction wasn’t restricting at all. It was very much, ‘this is what I see, do you, play around, and it will come naturally,’ – and it did.
Theo, as a dancer, you’ve been touring the world with Swedish artist Robyn as a solo dancer. You’ve been to music festivals, starred in her music videos… How does Sojourner differ from your day-to-day life (before lockdown, of course)?
Theo: Sojourner was the first dance film I had done that wasn’t with a friend for a little play around; I saw it as my first ‘don’t mess this up’ film job. I went on to shoot Honey for Robyn (which lead to the tour) and have just had a collaborative short for BBC Arts come out, so I’m grateful for my relationship with film and Sojourner being the beginning of it.
The project itself and my day-to-day are ironically super relevant giving that it’s a project we shot three years ago now? I am currently studying somatics, and the relationship between the body, movement and mindfulness, working on a few projects where film seems to be the common format of presentation, is very fitting with what I am doing today. I’m constantly investigating the rhythms of emotions and sensations, finding space to sink in, listen to the body, reflect and process – ‘temporarily vacating’ is a regular activity for me. Therefore, it doesn’t differ at all, which I am grateful for as most of the elements within the film are what inspire and motivate me most days.
Even during the tour the subject was always relevant. As we hopped from city to city, I was finding myself in new physical spaces, every other day, which of course influenced my emotional landscape as well as my mental and physical. There was even more necessity to ‘check-in’ because, on top of all the travelling, I was performing to fifty thousand people per show for eight months, by myself, for a short period each show. Being the only one performing on the stage of Madison Square Garden’s takes you on a little emotional rollercoaster; therefore, the relevance of Sojourner is very close to me.
What interested you the most from the project?
Theo: At the time, what interested me the most about the project wasn’t the subject because I hadn’t been consciously involved in somatics, but I was definitely exploring movement and movement outside of dance. If it were to come up in present day to collaborate, I think there would be a very different result. What interested me was the opportunity to dance in front of camera, without it being a super commercial project, with freedom, in a subject that piqued my curiosity. It was mostly the amalgamation of everything being new – the subject, my first film collaboration, and the opportunity to be myself when performing. 
Martin, you’re a filmmaker working across fashion and music mainly; Damien, you’re also a (fashion) photographer in addition to a filmmaker. How have you worked as a directing duo in Sojourner? Was it difficult to agree on stuff, or were you two pretty much on the same page?
Damien: Martin is a super dynamic director with a great eye, he knows how to execute a film with patience and humility. It’s great to work with someone like that, and I respect and value his opinions and experience on this production – I couldn’t have done it without him!
The music is by South London-artist and poet James Massiah. Why did you feel his work was the right choice for the video and choreography? What does Massiah’s work have that caught your attention?
Damien: I wanted to collaborate with James on a project for a few years now and love his vision with the music he creates. In the song Last Dance, James talks about meeting someone who is discussing the writer Silvia Plath with him. He adds, “ain’t no one gonna die today,” which I interpreted as a reference to Silvia Plath’s suicide at a young age and a nod to the work she produced in that short time. It seemed relevant to the Sojourner story – life is just a temporary stay, embrace the present moment and fight for what you believe in.
This summer, when the injustices happened here in the US, I was editing the film and I couldn’t keep it off my mind, so I paid a little tribute to all the people fighting against injustices around the world by keeping a little BLM tag that’s graffitied on a wall at the end of the film.
Music, dance, filmmaking, photography… Combining different artistic disciplines together makes for a more rounded, complete result. What would you say you take with you from this project?
Damien: I love working with people who can show me a different perspective of the same story. People fascinate me, and film is just a vessel to try and learn more about the human experience and what makes us tick! It took a while to pull together – forgive me, crew! In many ways, it was part of a much bigger journey in my life, seeing it come together is a positive feeling, and I hope people feel the same when they see it.
Theo: I am always the most grateful for any opportunity to explore the things that fascinate me and to do them with people who share that same curiosity and drive to build, create, influence and inspire others. Curiosity to me is one of the most powerful assets we have – to explore/share/inspire that is golden. In short, gratitude for the opportunity to explore the self and the opportunity to invite the viewers to do the same. I am so pleased this is coming out, I hope it inspires you.
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