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Nafisah Baba: Honesty, Integrity, and Discovering Your True Voice

As another month begins in 2021, I am delighted to introduce Nafisah Baba, a Contemporary Dance Artist, currently based in London. I have been following Nafisah’s increasingly exciting career ever since she won BBC Young Dancer in 2017, so it's such an honour to feature her on Between the Art!

Although born in the UK, Nafisah is half Jamaican and half Nigerian. Her classical training took off significantly in West London, and includes studying at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, and at Chrysalis London where her love for contemporary dance flourished.

More recently, Nafisah joined ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company in 2019. She features in the upcoming Everyone’s Talking about Jamie movie, with choreography by Kate Prince, the founder and director of ZooNation. Although on hold due to the pandemic, Nafisah will be performing in the company’s latest production Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre. Currently, Nafisah is “trying to push through and survive through this pandemic, like all of us!”

Nafisah’s honesty that is so apparent in her movements and choreography comes across in her words here. This is a beautiful read, reminding us all of the importance to find your passion, your creative focus, and to stay true to yourself.

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

Before Covid, I was working with ZooNation in Message in a Bottle. This has been a big highlight in my career so far! The biggest, most important thing that has inspired me during this process is the other artists who are in the company. When rehearsing, we spent a lot of time together, and there was continual advice and support shared amongst each other during this time. This never changed throughout the whole creative process.

I find I’m heavily influenced by my artistic and creative environments – I would say I’m influenced by most environments, but creative ones in particular! I’m trying to figure out whether this is a good or bad thing, but I guess it can be both? As long as you know yourself and what feeds your soul; and you are reminded of your true values and what your needs are within these environments. If you have a choice, it’s so important to choose the right environments for you. Within the cast of Message in a Bottle, everyone had their own way of moving, even if some people had trained in the same or similar styles. I was seeing people move in ways which I didn't think were possible! It also reminded me that there is no right way to move, something that was important for my creative process as I can get really into my head sometimes.

Since April, during lockdown, I have been working in a warehouse (to pay for rent) which, if I’m honest, has not been great for my creative process! It’s freezing at the moment and there have been many uninspiring moments, but of course I'm grateful to have a job in this time. I have realised that it’s about implementing what you need and making space into your routine for creative outlets, even if the routine is rigid and not allowing much freedom. I’m now starting to do this.

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

My creative process is quite random! It depends on what I’m creating, who it’s for, and also on the subject matter. I really enjoy creating pieces that convey emotions as authentically as I can. Even if it may be painful, it’s a raw, beautiful way to heal, and really process and connect internally.

I’m getting back into writing at the moment, which I love to do! I am very moved by words in general. When I created Redemption, which I performed at a TedX Women’s Talk in Amsterdam and at the BBC Young Dancer Finale in 2019, I had to really sit, identify and write down my feelings, some of which I had kept covered for years. Once I did that, I literally saw my journey and my personal process to finding redemption. My creative juices were just flowing. It became less about choreographing, and more about sharing my story.

When choreographing, sometimes I will just listen to a piece of music I like constantly: on the train, at home, everywhere! I listen until it becomes like a second skin and I can literally imagine the movement in my head. On the other hand, sometimes I will put on a piece of music and improvise to see what naturally comes. My creative process changes frequently though and I would like to expand and explore different incentives too.

"I enjoy creating pieces that convey emotions as authentically as I can. Even if it may be painful, it’s a raw, beautiful way to heal, and really process and connect internally."

What is the main subject of your inspiration?

Many of the works I have created have been built from my own experiences or struggles I have faced. I’m really moved and inspired by emotion – both my own and other peoples. However, at the same time, anything can inspire me: a conversation, a piece of music, world matters and injustices…

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on myself at the moment! Emotionally, spiritually and mentally. This is probably not the expected answer to this question, however this is the truth.

I do have upcoming projects, but I’m hoping Covid doesn’t stop them from going ahead!

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

To me, sense of place is having some sort of attachment, bond or an identity related to somewhere, maybe a location, or even a person. It’s something emotional but can also be very physical too.

This concept has made some appearances in my work. One example is in my piece Inescapable. I’m making a decision on two things I loved: netball and dance. My mum gave me an ultimatum as they were both clashing, and I was taking them both seriously at different academies outside of school. These were two passions that I identified with for much of my childhood and I loved both! I ultimately chose what gave me a more wholesome sense of place, the one that I couldn’t live without. It may also be re-defining an attachment to an experience or an emotion that I felt had become etched into my identity.

Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?

Not at the moment, but doing this interview has actually spurred me into wanting to create more works that connect with the natural world! It would be interesting to seek new ways to connect with it.

I do believe the natural world is always relevant, both in dance and in life in general. I’m especially finding this during these testing times in lockdown. This winter lockdown feels a lot different than the one in summer...

Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?

I believe it has a part to play in everyone’s everyday life, whether we are conscious of it or not. I’m obsessed with sunsets. You should see my iPhone camera roll… it’s a little unhealthy!

I find I am very affected by light. There is something different happening when the sun wakes you up naturally, and the light is there dancing outside your window, stirring you to wake up. Sometimes that alone can completely change my attitude in the morning, compared to if it’s a rainy, grey start to the day.

Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?

I don’t have a favourite artist as I’m inspired by so many, it would be difficult to choose just one! But I would have to mention the three people who have inspired my work and movement style: Jodie Blemings, Laila Diallo and Sadé Alleyne.

Jodie’s choreographic styles helped me fall in love with contemporary dance. After graduating from college, I still had pursuing a classical ballet career in the back of my mind. I joined Chrysalis, a postgraduate company led by Jodie, who is the Artistic Director. His incredible, hybrid artistic style and nature helped, supported and inspired me when creating one of my solos, and the duet Deliverance for BBC Young Dancer.

Working with Sadé during the competition was special as it was the first time I was being mentored by a black artist in that way. That was so cool! I didn’t realise how small I would often dance and I got acquainted to knowing how my body moved in space - a bit like the famous Leonardo Di Vinci painting, The Vitruvian Man. I learnt how to prepare my body and mind for performance so I can firstly, find familiarity within the space, but also so I can take the space and fly authentically. These are treasured lessons I took with me and still have with me to this day. I have also developed an awareness of articulating my extremities and finding new ways to move. It’s magical when you watch someone who inspires you, truly embody their words of wisdom and more into their work.

Working with Laila, again during the competition, I was inspired, and still am, by how human her movement felt. A single breathe can connect you to the audience and carry them through on a journey. I learnt the power of how less can be more and I definitely like to adopt this into my own work now. It was also special to see Laila embody her words and essence into her own performance, which I witnessed at the MDI Leap Festival in 2018.

What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?

I would be a massive hypocrite if I said I didn’t need to take this advice on board myself! It is to stay with whatever feeds your soul and creativity, especially at the moment. Right now and always. We are allowed to be both art and the artist. We are constantly evolving and growing as humans and artists even on those days when we feel like we have achieved nothing. So be kind to yourself and stay creative. Not out of a pressure to perform or post, but for your own benefit.

"Stay with whatever feeds your soul and creativity. Right now and always. We are allowed to be both art and the artist. We are constantly evolving and growing as humans and artists even on those days when we feel like we have achieved nothing."

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

I have two:

Firstly, that our progress doesn’t need to be seen or be validated by other people to be deemed worthy.

Secondly, I would like to share a quote I found: “Your ancestors did not survive everything that nearly ended them for you to shrink yourself to make someone else comfortable. This sacrifice is your war cry, be loud, be everything, and make them proud” [by Nikita Gill].

Find out more about Nafisah on her website and on Instagram @nafisahbaba

Image 1, 2: Asiko

Image 3: Kofi Paintsil

Image 4, 5: Nick Guttridge


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