Showtime: An interview with Benjamin Berry
In January, SpinCo had the pleasure of hosting Showtime: 2 Day Performance Intensive with Benjamin Berry: Season 5 Hooping Idol contestant, hoop instructor, and all around awesome guy. As those of you who attended may know, old man winter did attempt to put a damper on the workshops with our first real snowfall of the season coming down that weekend. However, much like the name suggests, the show must (and did!) go on. After the classes, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Benjamin for an interview. We got to learn more about Benjamin as a flow artist, performer, and person.
First and foremost, how did you get into hooping?
Boredom, honestly! Summer of 2013 I was in my friend Emily's yard and she had a couple dollar store hoops and I hadn't tried to do it since I was young, so I went ahead and gave one a spin! I couldn't even get one solid rotation at first, but after a couple hours of trying I was getting at least 5-6. It felt so good to be able to track my progress that I asked if I could borrow it. She said "sure" and mentioned that she had seen people doing tricks and dancing with a hoop at a show recently, so when I got home I googled "hula hoop tricks" or something to that effect. What I found was the Lisa Lottie video in front of a carousel (we all know the one), and I was instantly mystified and decided that I had to teach myself.
Do you do any other flow arts aside from hooping?
In terms of object manipulation, not really. I have dabbled a bit in poi, staff, leviwand; right now I have plenty to work on with hoops and the many styles. I have been enjoying playing with dance more, if that can be considered a flow art.
I've noticed that your movements in general are incredibly fluid! Do you have a dance background?
Thank you! Hooping was my introduction to movement. About a year and a half into it I began taking one dance class per semester, so I've had pretty minimal formal training... That being said, the teachers I worked with were amazing and I learned some things pretty fast. I recommend at least trying a dance class without a prop to most flow artists and object manipulators, just to see what it opens up in their spinning. For instance taking Modern really influenced my ability to hoop on the ground and change levels, while Composition of Dance changed the way I choreographed. Right now I am looking to take more Vogue classes and see how that can be incorporated into hoop dance.
What does your practice look like? How do you push yourself to be better than you were yesterday?
No two practices are ever the same for me. Lately I have been trying to allow myself a balanced practice: some time spent drilling "the old stuff," some time spent exploring totally new things, and some time to simply flow. Hoop is the only prop I work with at the moment other than my own body, so I try to spend a little time on single hoop, twin hoop, triple hoop/juggling... Haven't really been feeling quads recently. As for pushing myself, I've decided that for me personally pushing too hard doesn't really feel good and just creates pressure. I find I learn more over a period of time if I approach my practice with a sense of playfulness rather than "work."
Speaking of “work,” What was it like being on Hooping Idol?
In a word, chaotic. I was a full time student at the time and involved with a lot of extracurricular activities - so juggling the competition while also studying for finals and preparing for end of semester performances and programming was a challenge! That being said, I am really glad I participated. I realized my love for visual storytelling and character work during the process of creating those videos. The themes were totally fun and my camera boy and I also bonded through the stress and ended up dating for some time after that. Hooping Idol let me show myself and connect with so many hoopers from all over, and for that I am grateful for the experience!
You can totally see your love for character work! My personal favorite video from Hooping Idol Season 5 was your Mulan video from Disney Week. You're so well know for your costuming and character creating. What got you into costuming/character building?
I have always loved to dress up, in particular gender bending... When I was three I put on one of my female cousins' dresses and paraded around the yard. I can think of several times this happened while growing up. Halloween was always a favorite time of year of mine. I began playing with drag as an adult a little while before I started hooping, so combining the two with my Electric Forest audition video was a fun exploration which was really well received. Hooping Idol encouraged me to continue this more, and having such immediate deadlines for over a month was a great exercise of those skills! Right now I am hoping to learn to use my sewing machine and and refine my costume construction skills, though after that I'll probably still be a hot glue and Goodwill queen at heart.
What's the best memory that you have involving hooping/the hooping community?
This is a really hard one to answer..! So many memories come to mind. Getting to create that first "oh my gawd I'm DOING it" moment when someone thinks they can't hoop and you show them how, meeting personal heroes, connecting to total strangers because of the hoop in one or both of our hands.
What's your favorite video of yourself hooping/performing? Why? Can I have a link to share with our readers?
I am a perfectionist so honestly the feeling of being really satisfied with a performance, flow video, or demo video is pretty fleeting. I'm working on that. The most up-to-date video is this collaboration I did with my dear friend Katie Pinto Bella, singing and playing her Uke. The story behind this is pretty funny too, we ended up being invited to perform in a talent show at a tiny American Legion spaghetti dinner fundraiser. Never thought I'd be performing in that setting.
Another video that is pretty special to me is this one of me in my college's annual talent show. This was a little over a year into my hoop journey and winning it was a huge turning point in my self confidence and what I believed I was capable of. I remember feeling truly connected to my audience for the first time.
What is your favorite costume/character that you've created?
Again, in retrospect I am usually looking at things I could have done better with my work... The 1920s Silent Film flapper is one that people responded well to and I put a lot of work into, I learned the Charleston for that character. More recently I enjoyed portraying a Space Cowboy, though there aren't any videos of the finished look. I think this will be a year that I create some new characters and media to share them online.
What is your favorite type of music to hoop to?
Really depends on my mood! Anything psytrance gets me in a really focused place for practice, but if I just want to be all expressive and sh*t I'd probably get down to some Ani DiFranco or Alanis Morissette. Sometimes music with lyrics feels restrictive. I've been enjoying vogue ballroom mixes lately too.
Is there any music in particular that you don't like hooping to?
I've never been particularly drawn to country, but have opened my mind to it lately. I guess really generic, overplayed dubstep or other EDM would be a turn off, or most Top 40s stuff.
We all come across difficulties in our practice, what is the most challenging thing you've experienced with hooping?
Self criticism. I am a fairly analytical person, so once I become aware of something I am not doing "right," it's hard for me to let go of that long enough to just practice it.
Do you have any advice to hoopers and flow artists who may currently be dealing with challenges and discouragement?
Remember that progress is always being made, even on days when it feels like nothing is clicking. If you are in a rut, it's okay to take a break. When you come back later, your body may have processed things or new inspiration might hit you out of nowhere!
That’s super solid advice! So, what's next for you, Ben? Do you have any big plans in the works?
Great question! I have been doing the travel-teaching thing for a little while now, and right now I think I want to take some time off from that and relocate to a community where I can be inspired and challenged by my peers; gain new skills and refine the ones I have. I'd like to start working with different groups of people more in addition to people who already hoop, such as youth and the elderly. I am hoping to get back into performing, something I haven't done much of since leaving college.
That sounds awesome, Ben! I also wanna ask a couple of non hoop related questions because we're all such multidimensional people and I think we should give a nod to the fact that there's more to you than hooping. What, other than hooping, takes up your time?
In the last eight months or so I have gotten into a more regular yoga practice, which is something I'd like to keep growing with. I love to cook vegan cuisine. I want to explore more dance and test the limits of my body with circus skills. When I allow myself some down time, I sometimes play videos games... I like RPGs and games that tell a great story.
What's your all-time favorite food?
Probably Thai coconut curry, when I'm home I make that at least once a week.
Do you have a favorite book?
An old favorite is "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood, a more recent one is "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman.
If you could have one superpower what would it be and why.
I was raised on SciFi and superheroes, so this is one I've given much thought to. I've always been fascinated by teleportation, time travel, telekinesis, force fields... I think I'd like the ability to stop time and have infinite time to practice and catch up on reading and Netflix, honestly.
Big thanks to Benjamin Berry for taking the time to talk to us! It was so much fun getting to know you better while you were here visiting in Philly. Best of luck in your future travels!
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