Suze Olbrich sits down with the London-based polymath to discuss how dance culture constantly contorts and flaunts with convention. Exclusive photography by Paul Phung, with Milan wearing our new DITA Kohn sunglasses on the streets of South London.

Whether performing to camera, walking a ball, or contemplating the future of urban dance over the phone, Benjamin Milan—dancer, choreographer, movement director and UK father of the House of Milan, is forever in motion. A perpetual progressive.

Benjamin Milan by Paul Phung in DITA Kohn BENJAMIN MILAN IN DITA KOHN

During the latest fashion week in London, having directed movement for an outsider culture-themed presentation, Milan further collaborated with the designer on a spectacular after-party, a Ball, in celebration of the uncompromising life of a stylist-artist extraordinaire.

The fabulous, thoughtfully curated event, saw members of each London ballroom house, including Milan, walk before a panel featuring prominent voguers, the designer and an activist-model. Fashion and ballroom have long been intimate bedfellows, but this particular extravaganza reaffirmed their reciprocal adulation on grand scale, and in a city where a relatively young voguing scene is palpably blossoming.

Flash-back to a rural farm in Sweden, where an infant Milan, née Benjamin Jonsson, bounces on a trampoline, revelling in sheer physicality. This simple activity, the springboard for an unconventional voyage of creative discovery. Initially schooled in gymnastics, Milan’s teacher spied his potential as a dancer.

Benjamin Milan by Paul Phung

Once the artistic Jonsson clan moved to the city, the teenager was exposed to novel forms, getting into hip hop dancing, before securing a place at a performing arts school and joining the youth-oriented, summer company of Skåne Dance Theatre, an acclaimed contemporary outfit. Yet even in this incipient stage of a dance career, his interests encompassed the visual arts and fashion, too. “I've always seen dance in a wider context,” he says. “When I imagine choreographing, I'll envision the set design, the clothing, or what the visuals might be; the whole concept, even video angles—how it could be seen.”

On graduation, he opted to attend London’s Contemporary Dance School, drawn to the city for its wide-ranging cultural tapestry, and the style for its purported lack of boundaries. But it quickly transpired that his expansive outlook wasn’t well served by the capital’s contemporary sphere.

I fell out of love with it as that world was quite conservative. [Although it’s] called ‘contemporary’ art, it didn’t feel accessible, or open to people bringing in their own perspectives.

Serendipitously, at just that moment, voguing entered his life via the medium of internet video. “It was very liberating, very free, and it gave me an escape, a release from that rigid mindset,” he says.

Enraptured, Milan mined the web for every available snippet, including the seminal ballroom documentaries, Paris Is Burning and How Do I Look, duly inspired and emboldened, began emulating his newfound icons’ moves on nightclub floors as well as sneaking into university studios to train. His was an intuitive practice.

My style of vogue, new way, is quite open to interpretation. At that time, I also held conflicting ideas of my own gender identity and sexuality, and voguing felt like a natural way to express myself—masculine or feminine, across the spectrum.

“I just looked at their visual language and felt that I could relate, [especially as] a lot of them identify as what we call butch queens, cisgender gay men, like myself, and I’d never had that type of role model … It's been incredibly helpful [in encouraging me to] embrace myself; to be ok with feeling different and wanting to express gender on a broader scale—there is such a beauty and power in that.”

Benjamin Milan by Paul Phung in DITA Kohn BENJAMIN MILAN IN DITA KOHN

He also immediately comprehended that ballroom culture was about so much more than ostentatious performance and pristine presentation—that it originated as, and still is, fundamentally a lifeline for queer people, especially those of colour, who developed it in 1920s Harlem, fought for its survival alongside their own, and lovingly shaped vogueing into the vital underground force of today, as he says, “I felt this sense of LGBTQ family … It's extremely important to bring [this background] to people's attention, especially as a privileged, white, cisgender gay guy. [From the beginning] I didn't want to just try to vogue, I wanted to genuinely vogue—that's when I realised that I needed to go to New York.”

In ballroom’s legendary epicentre, he trained under icons of New York’s flourishing, vogue scene, relishing “ … being part of the conversation and culture; the whole environment with the relationships that you build, and having teachers that correct you,” says Milan. “I’m quite technical as a voguer, I like precision, which comes from my training.”

Benjamin Milan by Paul Phung

While piecing together this education, including in the vogue femme and runway styles as well as new way, he topped up classes with nocturnal sessions at packed out vogue-centric club nights.

With voguing, or any sort of freestyle, you get your foundations, then develop your own style, and put your own spin on its expression, which is very important. And the club is the place to do that.”

[Dancers] would come out and very much correct me; tell me when I was wrong, push me to the circle and to [improve my] freestyle.

Working within this exhilarating world gave Milan essential schooling in the phenomenon’s history as an LGBTQ safe harbour, activist hub, and beacon of strength for the marginalised and persecuted, which remains upfront in his mind.

“When you vogue, you are truly carrying on the legacy of those people who are not here anymore and who created the ball scene,” he says, “and when I walk, I walk in the name of the founders of my house, and the name of the struggle that a lot of the people from the LGBTQ community have been through, specifically, people of colour. [Ballroom is] about creating space for everybody to feel empowered and loved and seen.”

Throughout his time in New York, Milan was also honing his contemporary skillset, happy to fully connect with American contemporary’s inclusive, experimental underpinning. But the off-Broadway show he was cast him in lost its venue, and so, after a stint in Switzerland, he returned to London in 2014, having realised it was where he felt most inspired.

Benjamin Milan by Paul Phung

In a bid to pursue fulfilling professional projects and creative partnerships, he claimed his creative independence as a freelancer. Within a week, he encountered a voguing devotee in the form of an enigmatic, critically fêted, singer and dancer, and began working closely with her on astonishing live tour performances and award-winning music videos such as ‘Glass & Patron’, that deftly showcased vogueing, attracting attention to the form as well as further opportunities for Milan within both the commercial and artistic spheres.

I've always been interested in the space between the commercial and conceptual, there’s so much possibility there, and I like to make work that can speak to a variety of people.

“I kept dancing, the choreography came naturally then I started movement direction. Voguing and contemporary dance translate well to camera, as does the way that I generally like to work with movement and fashion.”

It’s been an impressive ride ever since, Milan’s portfolio now dotted with high fashion clients as well as the occasional more discerning, casual brand, and he continues to seek out work that offers the chance to progress, whether in the guise of dancer, choreographer or movement director.

“I feel that when you work with creatives, your taste and eye just translates across art forms,” he says. Currently, he’s choreographing a partially autobiographical, voguing and contemporary dance-based film, while preparing to perform in a major, upcoming film adaptation of a world-renowned musical.

Still, regardless of professional obligations, Milan is wholly dedicated to his role as London father of the House of Milan, which he’s been a member of since 2014. “My New York House of Milan father, made me father of this island because I've been teaching and developing students here for a few years; people who've gone on to have their own ballroom lives,” says Milan. “I didn't want to rush into being a father, it's a commitment for life, and something that I take very seriously. Now, I have two kids so I'm nurturing them and taking care of them—they push me and I push them … you have this connection within the house, and you see each other grow.”

Benjamin Milan by Paul Phung

In addition to the attendant responsibility and privilege of shepherding a fledgling family, vogueing remains an infinite font of experiential richness for Milan. “It’s so powerful, because it’s about your self-esteem and identity, and being vulnerable with each other,” he shares. "For me, when you walk a ball, it's something that you do for yourself: you’re battling someone else, but, ultimately, you’re battling yourself, and it's about being proud of what you're doing, whether you win a prize or not. It's about expressing yourself and creating art with your body, and sharing that with the community.” And he’s greatly pleased that the London ballroom scene around him is burgeoning, too. “All the houses are contributing, more people are coming into the scene, and there are more classes being organized for newcomers to learn the different styles of voguing. The movement’s grassroots are there and now we'll keep on expanding, which is really exciting.”

Milan also continuously works to ensure that members of the community have the chance to benefit from commercial opportunities. “It's great that there’s interest, but it's about ensuring that people from the ballroom scene are represented,” he says. “In my experience, when you mention this, especially in London, people are open to it. But you do sometimes wish they would look beyond the dance [style] itself—and that goes for not just voguing, but for many styles of urban dance, especially. I’m often asked questions like, ‘What is the coolest new trend?’ And you're like, ‘You know, you have to go deeper, so that it's qualitative and you're not just scratching the surface—so you see the person that's behind the movement.’

Benjamin Milan by Paul Phung

Despite these misgivings, Milan is hopeful about dance’s potential. “Dancing is so relatable, we all feel the music, we all move, yet often when you go to the theatre, it's art that's made for artists… [But] over the last decade, its profile has grown in popular culture and society. It’s great that urban street style dancers are getting more recognition and respect, especially in Paris,” he enthuses. “People are extremely creative there with aspects of hip hop freestyle touching contemporary dance, which is really exciting, because that’s how new things evolve.”

Meanwhile, his adopted home needs to up its game. “There's so much support for ballet, contemporary and musical theatre, but for urban, there’s almost nothing. In London, in 2018, there should be somewhere for urban dancers to work on their craft.” A final entreaty to make space for every single human pursuing freedom through expressive motion from the inimitable Milan.

Words: Suze Olbrich @suzeolbrich
Images: Paul Phung @paulphung

Follow: Benjamin Milan @benjaminmilan / @boxartistmanagement


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