Dancer and choreographer Kate Prince set up her own dance theatre company, ZooNation, in 2002. Six years later, Into the Hoods – a take on Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods – became the first hip-hop dance musical to run in the West End. Prince talks to us about building a dance career later in life and her goal to change the way hip-hop dance is perceived...
When did you become interested in dance?
I danced as a hobby when I was younger, but at the age of 12 I went to boarding school and there were no dancing classes, so I stopped. I started dancing again in my late teens as a hobby, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was 25. Fresh out of Edinburgh University, I came down to London and was excited by the incredible dance scene.
I realised that I could develop my hobby into something more. I went to Pineapple Studios, attending lots of classes and eventually teaching two or three classes a week. Pineapple is such a hub of activity for a dancer or an aspiring choreographer. You get to know dancers, the circuit and hear about castings. From Pineapple and from teaching at the London Studio Centre, I made my two most crucial life ties with dancers.
Why did you set up ZooNation?
To build a platform for dancers with a hip-hop and commercial style to be artists in their own right, not just backing dancers for singers. For me, hip-hop is a really rich culture. The original definition of hip-hop is that it’s the artistic response to oppression. Hip-hop is about community and family too, somewhere along the way it’s become about bling and gangs, but that’s not at the heart of it.
When we started up, I didn’t really have any costs as the rehearsal space was given to me in kind by one of the places where I used to teach. All of the dancers would come and dance for free. They could see that there was no money, but they knew if we worked hard and worked well, one day there might be money there – and that’s exactly what happened.
What did you hope to achieve with Into the Hoods?
I wanted to put hip-hop on the map and have the dancers be part of a company, which was recognised and established, similar to the Rambert Dance Company. The other objective was to get more families and young people into the theatre, particularly those who wouldn’t choose to go because it’s not “cool”. The first time we performed at Sadlers Wells, 85 per cent of our audience had never been to the theatre before, so we are definitely opening doors.
And you also set up the ZooSkool...
The ZooSkool, which runs on Saturdays, is for kids aged four to 21. I wouldn’t want to do what we do, if we didn’t have the school. The kids come in and they just want to dance – they’ve got such raw enthusiasm and untainted passion.
We have 150 kids who come to us from as far as Norwich, Manchester and Birmingham. We are very careful about the music we use and which moves we teach them; we focus on all the good, positive elements of hip-hop.
Starting out late in the dance industry, do you see age as a barrier?
There are upsides and downsides. I’m 36 now and it took me almost 10 years to make a success of what I’m doing and for my career to get to the level that I can enjoy it. However, it’s just at the time in life when I’d really like to have a family, so there are conflicts if you are a woman.
What has been your career highlight?
Performing for Nelson Mandela as part of his 90th birthday celebrations. On the day, we performed one of my favourite pieces, which I had created when I was going through quite a hard time in my life and we had Teardrop by Massive Attack playing.
ZooNation were all dressed in white, it was broad daylight in Hyde Park and thousands of people were watching. I was at the back of the company, dancing on a ramp, so I could see all the dancers – it was a really proud moment.
Kate Prince is currently working on ZooNation’s new show Some Like it Hip-Hop, which will run at the Sadlers Wells’ Peacock Theatre in spring 2011.