Stomp

It's the most successful percussive dance show in the world. But founder Luke Cresswell would rather be at a rave

As far as Stomp’s co-founder Luke Cresswell is concerned, the hardest part is turning away some of the dancers arriving at the open auditions. ‘You take one look and see that they'd die,’ he says.

‘Someone walks in at 25 stone in weight and you think they're going to have a heart attack. Or ladies in their 50s wearing high-heel shoes and black leather trousers. It's just like, you're gonna die. You're going to break your ankles.’ 

One young Venezuelan arrives at auditions in America, London and Paris. ‘He must have very rich parents,’ says Cresswell. ‘But you can't stop anyone having a go. They enjoy themselves and we have fun.’ The young Venezuelan’s disappointment shows that while everyone can dance, not everyone can Stomp.

In 18 years the show has grown from a self-funded troupe of eight people in Brighton into a global phenomenon. Undertaken by companies in Brazil, performed at the Acropolis in Athens, in New York Stomp has enjoyed more than 5,000 acclaimed dates.

Stomp co-founder Luke CresswellThe ideas for the show began in 1990, when the 18-year-old Cresswell would hang upside down in dance clubs, suspended from the roof with an upturned drumkit. The young percussionist would play while Fat Boy Slim spun records for the crowd. 

‘We'd do lots of different jobbing stunts,’ he says of the early clubbing days. ‘There was a thing called Urban Warriors. Two of us would do street work, beating the hell out of each other with sticks and armour made out of bits of metal.’

As a drummer, Cresswell’s theatrical instincts were sharpened when he began developing an interest in rhythms and language with co-writer and director Steve McNicholas. The pair were fortunate with established contacts, allowing them to bring the fledgling Stomp to the 1991 Edinburgh Festival. They were awarded the graveyard slot. 

‘The show was a big success,’ says Cresswell, ‘but only with other performers who had finished their shows and were able to come and see it. We didn't make any money, and the audience didn't really pick up on it. It wasn't until we got a tour of Australia that it took off.’

The Australian tour, including the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals, allowed the performance to develop its own reputation. Opening to an audience of around 60 in Sydney, Stomp sold out one of its closing dates in Adelaide. 

‘Suddenly it became known as an alternative, hip gig,’ says Cresswell. ‘People were shouting about it and wanted to see it. We actually thought, "Okay, we might be able to get to a few more festivals and see a bit of the world."’ 

New York is one of Cresswell’s highlights, from a schedule that has seen the performance housed in London’s Royal Festival Hall, in Barcelona and Hong Kong. Stomp began its New York run in the Orpheum Theatre in 1994, and is yet to leave the city. 

Stomp‘I've always loved New York and now it feels like home. But another highlight is just the fact that you can play any country, from Brazil to Japan to Northern Ireland. Language is not a problem, and you can open up lots of different doors.’ 

Although Stomp and its subsidiary shows are Cresswell’s full-time concern, he has long since stopped performing it himself. ‘It's definitely a young person's show. It's like doing a physical sport. When you're in your early 20s it's great. When you get to your 30s it starts to hurt. In your 40s, it's time to stop. There's only so much pounding you can do with your feet.’ 

Dance is often regarded as one of the most spontaneous and democratic of artforms. Steps have historically developed from sailors and soldiers crossing the globe, cross-pollinating moves and establishing patterns in a spirit of communal defiance. 

While Stomp is a mongrel’s mixture of percussion and movement, it differs from almost all other traditions and performances in that its dancers do not move to the music of other people. Its creators are reluctant to see it classed as ‘dance’. 

‘We can talk about tap-dancing as a defiance of slavery and other things,’ says Cresswell. ‘A lot of music is political in that way. But with Stomp, we create the music by dancing. That's what some people find difficult. The dance is secondary to making the rhythm. We're not dancing to someone else's drum. You are the drum. 

‘I'm not a dancer,’ he continues. ‘I'm a drummer, with influences from punk to jazz to Latin and African. When you give someone a particular rhythmic pattern there's different ways they can play it, with a different feel. Because we've such a mixed cast, the shows change. 

‘In New York it's a very 'New York' show, with Brazilians and people from the Bronx. Even though they're doing the same rhythms as in the London show, it feels very New York. It's a bit like an accent; someone saying the same dialogue but in a Bronx or London accent. I like those changes.’ 

Stomp’s fluidity and openness to interpretation has led to it being used in American school curriculums to illustrate mathematical concepts and fractions. Its originality means it has had few bad reviews, enjoying approval from the dance world since its first run in Sadler’s Wells. 

‘Most of the dance world embraced the show,’ says Cresswell. ‘They saw it as a real freedom of movement, unconstricted by any one form. But that was before Stomp was a huge mainstream conglomerate. It was one show that was more likely than not going to disappear in a couple of months.’ 

Surprisingly, the man behind one of the performance world’s largest successes has little time for mainstream musicals, or dance. He won’t be watching Davina McCall’s Got to Dance in 2010, but might have a spectacular set up for Stomp’s 20th anniversary in 2011. 

‘Watching mainstream dance I find it’s like watching Pan's People or Hot Gossip. Then again, even though Stomp plays in the West End and off-Broadway, I'm not a big musical fan. I like West Side Story. That was beautifully done. But that's about it. The interest I have in dance is much freer. It's like people dancing at a rave, letting it all go. 

Stomp is such a big family now, so many people from all over the world, that I'd love to get them all together to put on one big show. It's such an array of people. What I love about Stomp is that it started with eight very British people and now it has nationalities from all over, all different languages. It's really grown for the better.’ 

Kiran Acharya

Stomp plays at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, January 19-24. Full details and booking information can be found in the Culture Live! listings.