Peter Cordwell, journalist, interviews Vicki Igbokwe ahead of visit to The Lowry with The Headwrap Diaries on Sun 18 October.
IF Vicki Igbokwe ever had any concerns about her cv they soon disappeared in 2012 when she helped to create the opening ceremony at the London Olympic Games that captivated TV audiences around the world.
As one of the mass movement choreographers involved in Danny Boyle’s stunning historical presentation, Vicki worked with 200 men, known behind the scenes as the Warriors – 90 per cent of them volunteers – on the moving Industrial Revolution scene.
The experience changed her life and confirmed a “passion for empowerment” that led to creating The Head Wrap Diaries, a show that her company Uchenna Dance will play in London on September 19th/20th and Salford on October 18th, followed by a tour in Autumn 2018.
“Mass movement was what I’d been doing in my career but 2012 was a thousand times more intense,” said 35-year-old Vicki. “I learned so much about myself and so much about people, and it obviously improved my reputation within the industry, being able to work with so many people under so much pressure.
“There was no fame involved as such because we were what I called the ninjas. We rehearsed six days a week, up to 16 hours a day, and we knew we’d been on a massive journey and we’d all grown tremendously.”
Vicki was part of a 30-strong team of dancers, directors, trainers and choreographers. “What we did was take the vision from paper and turn it into reality. The NHS scene was overseen by an amazing woman called Rocky Smith, who had worked on numerous ceremonies before. We had to spell out NHS through dance and GOSH – Great Ormond Street Hospital – plus a crescent moon.
“We had to work out, for example, how many hospital beds we could get on the field of play to do all this? And how do we go from NHS to the crescent moon, involving every single volunteer? The volunteers were regular people who just wanted to be part of this unique event in their city.
“People saw the finished product but none of the highs and lows we went through. What was so great was the camaraderie between the volunteers and some of them are still really good friends today.”
All the while Vicki – who went on to work at the Winter Olympics in Russia and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, both in 2014 – was being taken over by the drive to inspire others through dance, audiences as well as performers.
“I was a professional dancer but I knew from the off that it was never my first love. At university all my friends were talking about performing in the West End, but I said: ‘Yes – and I’ll be the choreographer’.
“What I love is working with people and bringing their talents to reality. I’ve got this vision of getting an amazing team together and empowering their performance. What I want to do is understand the journey they go through. We are all part of the same team but my job is to bring all the different elements together. Every now and again I might joke about coming out of retirement and playing a cameo role, but I’d much rather empower people and bring things together and then watch the performers enjoy it along with the audience.”
The Head Wrap Diaries explores “women, beauty, hair and culture”, told through the stories of three very different black women playing at least two roles each, but Vicki insists the issues and messages are universal. “When I was in my late teens, early 20s, there were very few black women who wore their natural hair, but now it’s the absolute reverse. It’s such a massive movement. So the show is very timely because it helps to get the story told.
“The inspiration came from the growing desire for natural hair and head wraps. The head wrap can cover up a bad hair day or it can complement the outfit I am wearing. At one of our sharings – a showcase night – a man came up to me and said: ‘I’m white, I’m a man, I’m bald but I get it. I absolutely love it!’ I just hugged this guy.”
Up to 2014 Vicki had done “just about everything” with her hair. “I went through every single style. I had just got a new set of braids done and, as everyone knows, they take as long as going to Paris and back on the Eurostar. It was then that I decided to embrace my natural hair. I told my friend the next time she saw me my braids would be gone.
“The next morning I chopped the braids off – just chop, chop, chop. So I sat there, 33 years old and about to set off on an amazing journey of exploration that inspired the show and realising there were women out there going through exactly the same thing.
“I see it all as a question of empowerment, whether that is watching a show or attending one-to-one workshop training. Movement for me is another form of communication to make people freer. What I want to do is spend the next five years developing The Head Wrap Diaries and a second show – Our Mighty Groove – rather than make show after show. I want to work smart, not hard.
“I think I’m only just scratching the surface on where theses two shows can go, and they are only one element of the story. I want to take them further through fashion, workshops, festivals and various other projects.
“There’s a lot of self-sabotage out there with women asking who they are and where they are going in life. There’s pressure in society on women in all their relationships, at home, at work and with their partners. I want them to go and make the life that they want to live.”
Vicki’s campaigning style clearly comes from her own background. Her barrister father died when she was very young and at 14 she had to be carer for her mother – formerly a Labour councillor in Kensal Green – until she passed away in 2009, and her three younger sisters.
That was also the year she set up Uchenna Dance, which “survived on love” and, in Vicki’s case, on some teaching in colleges and universities. “The company would meet every Sunday for a few hours where we rehearsed in a cold studio, followed by some food in Nando’s to heat ourselves up.
“The people I was working with wanted to be performers – growing from six to 15 – and I wanted to be a choreographer, so it worked for all of us on that level. Now we have six to eight in the company, all working as freelancers who work with Uchenna and me on a project to project basis,
The Head Wrap Diaries is their first sortie into the world of touring at The Place in Euston on September 19/20. Unsurprisingly, the audience will also be able to enjoy a multi-sensory experience at the pre-show bar installation.
“I wanted to make the show funny and uplifting. You’re more likely to get your story across than with a serious political presentation,” said Vicki. “I also think the world we are living in at the moment badly needs some laughter and lighter moments, allowing people to breathe easy for an hour or so.”
For more information on The Headwrap Diaries at The Lowry visit our website.