"Musical ideas spring from the strangest source..."


SWEET TOOTH is a cross-disciplinary music theatre piece devised by vocal and

movement artist Elaine Mitchener. It uses text, improvisation and movement to stage

a dramatic engagement with the brutal realities of slavery, as revealed by historical

records of the British sugar industry and to illuminate its contemporary echoes. The

work was commissioned by Bluecoat Liverpool in partnership with the Stuart Hall

Foundation and the International Slavery Museum. It was premiered at the Bluecoat,

Liverpool in November 2017 and at St. George’s Bloomsbury, London in February 2018.

Gilane Tawadros (GT): How did you come to conceive SWEET TOOTH

as a performance work?

Elaine Mitchener (EM): Musical ideas spring from the strangest sources.

The idea for SWEET TOOTH came from a shared addiction of Scottish

Tablet with my late father. That crumbly sweet substance sparked many

questions in my mind concerning the deadly cost to human life and livelihood of

one race in order to feed the addiction and greed of another; and how far people

will go to satisfy their desire to gain wealth and satiate an appetite.

The Sugar Trade and the enslavement of millions of Africans, represented the

zenith of capitalism; in other words, the removal of its most costly item: paying

people for their work. By dehumanising one race, another gained in prosperity

and wealth and the vast funds received in turn were used to develop Western

society at all levels – education, culture, medicine, science – which we profit from


How could I tackle this vast topic through music? Was music the right medium

through which to examine this area of human history? Did I have a right to? I had

no idea how all-consuming this exciting journey would be.


My practice works primarily in movement and voice. Over the last five years

working collaboratively with the choreographer Dam Van Huynh, I have created

a technique which is grounded in classical vocal training (my teacher Jacqueline

Bremar is brilliant) but also enables me to employ the physicality of

contemporary dance. My philosophy of encounter-enact-engage allows me to

develop and devise works combining found texts, sound, movement,

vocalization, improvisation, and collaboration to create intimate and

experimental music theatre performance pieces. Pulling together a team of

extraordinary musicians, Sylvia Hallett, Marks Sanders and Jason Yarde along

with Dam Van Huynh and invaluable guidance and insight from historian Christer

Petley, we undertook two years of research and development.

I started creating from a blank space. The only definite idea I had was that I knew

I wanted people to experience the work live and that sound would be integral.

Through reading research, discussion and learning, it became clear to me that

the work required a strong aural basis and not just a physical one. Meditating on

what it might have been for enslaved Africans to experience the unknown and

the sound and smell of fear, the strength, self-determination and resolve of

rebellion; the essential activity of song and dance as a constant reminder of one’s

own humanity, history, tradition; these became the cornerstones of the work

from which I was able to build a skeletal framework to hang ideas on.

The next stage was to ask the team to engage with the topic fully and to find

their own personal ways into it. To embody the feelings for themselves; place

themselves and their families into the situation and to express their reactions

musically. What became clear (and what I had in mind) was that this work was

not going to be a comfortable experience for us or the audience and it ought

not be. I will have failed if people applaud loudly, whoop and cheer. So far the

response has been silent reflection and thoughtful discussion afterwards, but I

can’t prevent an audience from responding to the work in a more enthusiastic


GT: SWEET TOOTH is a very uncomfortable piece to experience and it is an

experience rather than a spectacle. It draws you in to a sequence of episodes or

movements but has no overarching, linear narrative as you would expect from

a fictional novel or a historical account. Can you say some more about the

piece’s relationship to historical research and how your approach to source

material differs from that of a historian?

EM: It’s such an immense subject that it was very clear early on that I would

need to work with an expert to check facts and to alert me to current research

and resources that might prove useful to the development of my ideas around

the work and how to present it. Working with Dr Christer Petley proved


invaluable and I believe we learnt a lot from each other. I wanted to avoid

voyeurism, victim ‘porn’ or any kind of spectacle and the idea was to try and

evoke an unnerving sense of tension, claustrophobia and entrapment. Of course,

one can never know what that really felt like, but we have narratives and

accounts, diaries which describe each step of the experience, albeit mainly from

the oppressor’s point of view.

Not being a historian enabled me to focus on other aspects of the source

material. Being a musician, I decided to draw the audience’s attention to sound

as the narrative, the sound of people, their voices, their expression of rage, fear,

defiance, joy, comfort. These would be reminders that, although reduced by

their oppressors to being part of the huge machinery of slavery, enslaved

Africans were people who dreamed, loved, hoped and resisted, and finally


The vast knowledge base of historians is enviable. They are able to digest what

they’ve painstakingly researched and re-present it for public understanding.

However, I find that this is all conducted in a clinical way, as though these events

are being viewed under a microscope or at arm’s length. The purpose of SWEET

TOOTH was to give a voice to those millions of people lost to slavery. Recalling

their given names reminds us of their humanity. Referencing their work songs

and rituals allows us to honour the culture which they developed and the legacy

of which remains to this day. My job was to liberate the dry historical facts and

somehow breathe life into them.

It was a challenge for me to view the historical material researched with an

academic eye. I had to seek ways to absorb information, much of which was

deeply upsetting, disturbing and difficult to accept. I had to digest it as historical

fact and allow myself to find a creative and artistic response to it.

My decision to work abstractly with words was a conscious one in that I did not

want them to obstruct the sound experience. Where words are used, they are

used sparingly and are quickly fractured. Because SWEET TOOTH is also a visual

work, I felt strongly that any ‘narrative’ could be felt and heard without the use

of words.

GT: Can you say something about the episodic structure of SWEET TOOTH

which has been conceived as a series of distinct chapters or movements?

EM: The decision to call these movements ‘chapters’ was a deliberate way of

anchoring the work and the fact that it concerns a tragic episode, not only in the

history of black people but in the history of humanity. This holocaust has

repeated itself at different periods of human history. I employed a creative


semantic approach to liberate the source text material from books. Slavery in

the British Caribbean was operated at a conveniently safe distance (not within

the British Isles as in North America), and therefore I couldn’t draw upon

personal familial accounts or records. In this way I was more like an historian

because of the slight impersonal distance.

GT: You are also a jazz musician, working with other musicians and using

improvisation and other techniques to create unique sounds and compositions.

How has this influenced the way in which you approached and composed


EM: I consider myself as a musician who works across and draws on difference

genres: experimental/free-jazz, avant-garde contemporary new music, gospel,

Afro-Caribbean (Jamaican) music, free-improvisation and I think these influences

can be heard in this work. I never thought about ‘composing’ the work. Having

worked with composers and performed works by composers, I realised that my

approach would need to be different to work effectively. I always wanted a sonic

experience and with movement SWEET TOOTH is a work that is seen and felt.

Early on I imagined it as a radio piece (so I’m pleased it was eventually broadcast

on BBC Radio 3), but as the piece developed over two years it told me that it

also had to be a visual / movement experience. Lighting also plays a musical part

in this work and Alex Johnston has designed incredibly striking lighting moods

which move the work forward.

The artists I have brought together for this project bring with them a wealth of

experience and expertise along with an openness to trying new ideas. We are

all well versed in the world of free-improvisation, however, for SWEET TOOTH

I knew its musical world couldn’t be defined or restricted in this way. So we

came together to workshop and research ideas and devise the piece along with

Dam who was invaluable in helping us to access organic natural movement whilst


Over time I was able to construct a method of structured improvisation upon

which we were able to hang the skeletal form of the work. This method allows

us the freedom to improvise whilst retaining the structural, musical form of the

work. So although the concept is mine, how we arrive at realising it is very much

a collective effort. My job was to work out what to retain or mull over an idea

and to have the confidence to discard something because it’s not right for the

work. It’s very important that each of us feels ownership of the work and finds

our own narrative that can be communicated. It then becomes a powerfully

direct statement of humanity to humanity.


GT: The events and experiences to which SWEET TOOTH refers took place

in the historical past. What can this past teach us in the present?

EM: According to Michael Craton in his book Testing the Chains: Resistance to

Slavery in the British West Indies, ‘Historians who believe history to be the story

of man’s rise to civilisation tend to define civilisation to include the acceptance

by all classes of their place with the socioeconomic system.’ Even from a liberal

point of view its appearance is essentially that of accommodation and

acceptance. These ideas have been challenged by writers and commentators

such as CLR James and Herbert Aptheker, also the Jamaican writer and cultural

theorist Sylvia Wynter and her theory of the human, which she discusses in her

essay “Unsettling the Colonially of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the

Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument.” The Atlantic Slave

Trade, the Middle Passage, which largely took place during the so-called Age of

Enlightenment, marked a brutal and catastrophic period of human history. The

past teaches us a lesson that we seem unable to understand and learn from:

humanity’s capacity for inhumanity. Professor Catherine Hall said that it’s easy

to think that those involved in the slave trade are different to us, that we are

different to them. We are not. Only when we acknowledge this simple truth are

we able to change and make changes.

Gilane Tawadros is Vice-Chair of the Stuart Hall Foundation.

SWEET TOOTH has been supported with public funding from Arts Council England.

Commissioned by Bluecoat in partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation, London and The

International Slavery Museum with further support from PRSF Open Fund, Edge Hill

University, John Hansard Gallery, Centre 151 and St George’s Bloomsbury.

Stuart Hall Foundation is a registered charity in England and Wales. Charity number: 1159343