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Stratford: How Alexa Ryan-Mills’s garden is set to celebrate Sadler’s Wells East

East London-based designer is preparing for her first RHS Chelsea Flower Show this May

Garden designer Alexa Ryan-Mills

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I‘m just looking out at the rain and wondering when it’s going to start warming up,” said Alexa Ryan-Mills.

While idle talk of the weather is ubiquitous in the UK, for the Walthamstow-based garden designer – and all those in her profession – precipitation and temperature are a constant preoccupation. 

That’s especially true when there’s a deadline looming and, for Alexa, the 10 days leading up to May 23-27 are fast approaching.

That’s when she and her team will create her first garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show – arguably the biggest stage in British horticulture.

What exactly appears in that garden will, to some extent, be dependent on the weather – although Alexa said she was confident the nurseries she’s working with would have sufficient stock to provide backup options, should the mercury fail to rise to the desired level.

While Wharf Life covers neither Chelsea nor Walthamstow, the reason we are interested in this garden is twofold.

Firstly, Alexa’s design is inspired by the forthcoming opening of Sadler’s Wells East – the fourth venue in the Sadler’s Wells family, which is set to open overlooking Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2024.

But that is still a building site at present, so secondly, there’s a more immediate link – all the plants and materials used in the creation of the garden will be donated to Sadler’s Wells associate institution School 21 in Stratford, where they will be used to improve its outdoor spaces.

“School 21 has been planning and fundraising to do this for a while,” said Alexa.

“I found out about that and we’ve now spent some time going round and identifying areas where we can put the plants after the show. 

“There are lots of different play spaces, which at the moment are quite bare, and we can get the kids involved in planting those up.

“The school also has a great design and technology department that will be able to re-use the materials too.

“For the garden we also recently decided to work with Brixton-based artist Benjamin Wachenje, who will be creating a hip hop-themed mural as a backdrop and School 21 will be able to use this as well.”

An artist’s impression of Alexa’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden

Before that happens, though, the garden itself must be created and shown – a project that has its genesis in Alexa’s change of direction from a career in PR and communications.

“I felt like I’d had enough of that industry and I was thinking about what to do next,” she said.

“Around the same time I met a garden designer, having just bought a house in Walthamstow.

“She designed my garden and I really enjoyed the process and thought I’d like to know a bit more about it. Before I did anything crazy and quit my job, I did some initial training. 

“That went really well and so I decided to invest more in training and that’s how I wound up starting to build a business in east London.”

Having worked mostly designing private residential gardens in the likes of Waltham Forest, Hackney and Newham, Alexa specialised increasingly in planting design, studying for a diploma in the field and collaborating with landscape architects and other designers on a freelance basis.

“While I was studying at the London College Of Garden Design, I knew I wanted to create a garden for a cultural hub and I used Sadler’s Wells as my imaginary client,” she said.

“I found out Sadler’s Wells East was set to open in Stratford, so I created a design that was related to dance – choosing plants that might have an interesting shape or ones that would self seed and move around the garden like that.

“Then I saw a call out from an organisation called Project Giving Back – a grant making charity that provides funding for gardens for good causes at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

“I realised I had an idea and all I had to do was persuade Sadler’s Wells. They said: ‘Go for it’, so I applied and after various rounds, got the funding.

“Then I had to apply to the RHS because you get the funding, but still have to be chosen for a place at the show itself.”

Alexa says she was inspired by the planting at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford

She was successful and is now set to lay out a six-by-eight metre space under cover in the All About Plants category of the show’s main pavilion.

Featured plants will include the nodding blooms of salvia nutans and three trees, namely hionanthus retusus, styrax obassia and acer monspessulanum.

“I really wanted to make the plants the performers – the dancers – and put them centre stage,” said Alexa.

“It’s all about visitors being able to see the planting and the shapes and enjoy them from different places to sit and walk through.

“There’s a pipe-like sculpture inspired by the saw-toothed roof of Sadler’s Wells East – itself a reference to the manufacturing and industrial heritage of Stratford – that frames different views.

“I’ve chosen plants that have interesting shapes with lots of purples and limes as well as oranges. I want it to feel energetic. It’s about dance. 

“There has been a fashion at Chelsea for lots of calm, muted planting, but this design is not like that at all.”

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Stratford: Why Sadler’s Wells East is looking to young dancers for its first production

Summer workshops set to help find participants for first show Our Mighty Groove by Uchenna Dance

Vicki Igbokwe is reviving and refreshing Our Mighty Groove at Sadler's Wells East
Vicki Igbokwe is reviving and refreshing Our Mighty Groove at Sadler’s Wells East – image Matt Grayson

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Baptism” is the word Vicki Igbokwe uses to describe the inspiration for her show Our Mighty Groove.

Apt then that a refreshed and revived version of the work has been chosen to anoint Sadler’s Wells East as the first production to hit the stage at the new dance theatre when it opens next year in Stratford.

This summer Uchenna Dance – the company Vicki runs as creative director – is looking to young east Londoners to get involved with a series of workshops, leading to some participants taking to the new stage with the professional cast in 2023. 

Our Mighty Groove is inspired by the night I was baptised at an underground house club in the USA,” said Vicki.

“I’d been travelling to New York every summer from 2008 for a few weeks, because I’d discovered house dance and I wanted to learn.

“On this particular night I had just finished a house class and the teacher said that to really understand and get into the spirit of these styles, you had to experience them in their natural habitat by going to a club.

“When I got to this club, I got stage fright – everyone was amazing.

“They weren’t all professional dancers, just people who could boogie. Some were trained but others were just people who had maybe grown up with the dance as part of their culture.

“All my self-esteem evaporated. I had my back up against the wall of this club for what felt like six hours.

“Any time anyone came up to me I’d wave them away, saying: ‘Oh, no, no, I’m from London’.

“I can laugh about it now, but on the night I felt that I couldn’t do what they were all doing.

“So I watched this cipher in front of me – a dancers’ circle – with one person in the middle, giving it large, and other people cheering them on.

“Then I saw a person in a  pink balloon hat and somehow I could tell they weren’t going to take no for an answer. They got closer and closer, and I was thinking: ‘Gosh, gosh, gosh’.

“They didn’t say anything, just extended their hand. There was just something about that person which made me peel my back off the wall and they led me into the cipher.

“I got into the middle with all these amazing people looking at me, and I thought: ‘Sugar. I’ve got to do something’.

“So I tried to remember some of the steps that I’d learnt in the dance class. I had four moves, so I just repeated them. I thought I probably looked like a robot.

“But the amazing thing was that everyone around me made me feel like Janet Jackson, shouting and cheering me on.

“Something just clicked in me and I went from feeling I couldn’t dance to total freedom in my body – I just had the best night ever. I was one of the last people to leave the club, still in my moment. 

An artist's impression of Sadler's Wells East in Stratford
An artist’s impression of Sadler’s Wells East in Stratford

“It felt absolutely liberating, I felt good within myself, and it was a life-changing moment, not just for me as an artist, but as a person – a human being and a woman.

“I realised that when we feel good, we do good. That when you empower someone, even if they’re going to struggle with what they’re trying to achieve, they’re going to have so much more energy if they have that support.

“So that’s why I call it a baptism – I felt like I’d been reborn.

“I came to New York that year one way and I left a completely different person – not in culture – but in confidence, not just for myself but also thinking how I could enable other people to experience their own versions of that.”

Dance was not the most obvious path for Vicki.

“I was supposed to be a barrister,” she said.

“My dad was a barrister and my mum was a councillor in the Labour Party. They were Nigerian, so the choice was lawyer, doctor, engineer or failure and the fourth was not an option.”

Vicki, whose father had died when she was a child, became a carer aged 14, looking after her mother, who had become seriously ill, plus her three younger sisters. 

She battled through GCSEs and began studying A-Levels with the aim of becoming a barrister, but realised she was following her parents’ dream rather than hers.

Instead she enrolled on a BTEC in performing arts at a college where she discovered it was possible to study dance at university.

“To this day I believe my mum – may her soul rest in peace – paid my teachers to only talk to me about law or possibly becoming a teacher,” said Vicki. 

“So I went on to study dance at Middlesex University and then did some performing with Impact Dance and producing with East London Dance.”

Not satisfied with popping and locking, exposure to house styles in London in 2006 set her on her current path – something more “feminine, graceful and elegant” – with elements of waacking and vogue.

Following her stateside pilgrimages, she set up Uchenna Dance – derived from her Nigerian name that means God’s will – left a full-time job in the 2009 recession and started making work.

Vicki set up Uchenna Dance in 2009
Vicki set up Uchenna Dance in 2009 – image Matt Grayson

“We worked very much as a community group for the first year and a half, not really doing shows,” said Vicki.

“We did lots of rehearsals – I was exploring my movement vocabulary – looking at how I could fuse West African influences and contemporary dance.

“Our first professional show was Our Mighty Groove in 2013, which was at Sadler’s Wells so it’s such a big deal to be the opening show of the new venue at East Bank.

“I’m really excited, first because it’s such an honour but also to be working with young performers.

“For me that makes it extra special – to work in dance, to be giving these young people the opportunity to get to know themselves better whether they want a career as a performer or not.

“Some of those taking part in the workshops will be among the first people to be in the new building, to touch it, to be on the stage and in the dressing rooms. That’s something which is really exciting.”

Uchenna Dance will be running four workshops for young people interested in taking part in Our Mighty Groove in November next year.

Youngsters wishing to take part must either be living or studying in east London and be aged 16-21 on August 31, 2023.

“Those taking part can expect an introduction to dance, to who we are and to the styles that we work with,” said Vicki.

“This includes club styles such as house, vogue and waacking, along with West African influences.

“But most importantly the workshops will be a space where people can come as they are to learn to be inspired, because we, as artists and teachers, will also be learning from them.

“There will be connection, meeting, making friends and also a bit of a journey.

“Sometimes we work with people who just say that they can’t do what we do – that they’re not good enough. 

“We say that they should start where they feel comfortable.

“What we’re really good at is pushing people past their comfort zones.

“They’re often surprised and ask how they did it, but it’s all in them.

“In terms of the final show, this won’t just be a five-minute slot for the young performers, they will be part of it from the beginning right through until the end.”

Uchenna Dance’s Our Mighty Groove workshops are free and take place on August 8, 14, 18 and 27 at various times.

Read more: How you can cool off in Canary Wharf’s Middle Dock

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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