Hertfordshire filmmaker Jevan Chowdhury tells Natalie Li about his critically acclaimed Moving Cities project and uncovering creative nooks and magical spots in St Albans
Since an early age, the hubbub of city life, people’s reactions, and the moving background has always captivated Jevan Chowdhury. This fascination with his environment combined with a love of dance – he studied Russian ballet aged eight to 11 – led to the creation of Moving Cities, which has scooped him 21 awards, seen him engage with 800 artists and creators, and reached over 44 million people worldwide.
His project captures international dancers through photography and film in the context and movement of the city. Mesmerised by the chaotic energy of cities around the world, Chowdhury – who grew up in London and now lives in Bernards Heath, St Albans, with his wife and three children – wanted to explore new and different perspectives of city spaces through the universal language of dance. “I’ve always been fascinated by cities – I find them so mechanical and oppressive but it’s the people, their movements and responses to their surroundings which is so interesting,” he explains. “Cities have such chaotic movement that is ripe for artistic expression.”
As an ongoing project, Moving Cities seeks to merge community, artists, and architecture, and the placemaking work has seen Jevan travelling around the world to create films and photography in Hong Kong, Dallas, Yerevan, Paris, Athens, Prague, and London.
“In 2012 after suffering with health issues I felt mortality close at my heels and my wife had just given birth to our first child. I suddenly wanted to pursue this idea of working with dance as I really love the medium,” he adds. “After my commission to produce films for Westfield Stratford City to promote the emerging landscape in Stratford before the London 2012 games, I began to see the beginnings of Moving Cities. For the Westfield project I suggested dance as a beautiful cinematic language, which doesn’t need words.
“By 2014 I began to combine what I enjoy into a project that would give me a signature body of work. Like musicians getting together to jam, I would play with dancers and camerawork, but I didn’t get paid for the first two years. I was lucky to find so many willing collaborators. I started getting commissions to produce work that falls under placemaking. In 2016 I was approached by Visit Dallas who wanted a positive piece in the aftermath of the shooting of Dallas police officers. They wanted to show diversity and they saw Moving Cities as the vehicle for that. I worked with local ballet companies, Dallas cowboys, schools, and the community – it was a real privilege to use the city as a stage. It just got bigger and bigger.
“Through Moving Cities, we want to give dancers a space to create their own signature. Many dancers are hired for their technical ability to execute the artistic director’s vision. I wanted to unleash a dancer and place them in the middle of a junction, for example. I ask them how they would respond to this environment. I give them some direction as there must be harmony to it. The privilege to edit and assemble this work is so amazing.”
Chowdhury’s office and design studio, Wind & Foster, is on Alban Row where he produces broadcast and branded content. He admits that finding a creative spot in St Albans has taken time. “There are creative pockets in Hertfordshire, and I’ve discovered a really lovely creative community, but I didn’t find this until I started knocking on doors.”
A sense of place and community pervades Chowdhury’s work, but he believes in society’s part in strengthening the connection between people and places. He adds: “I want to contribute to the place I live in in some way and that’s important to me. Everyone must figure out how they can help and where there is a mutual appreciation. I’m currently working with St Albans Cathedral on a project. The concept is to take normal people with compelling stories, non-dancers, and celebrate them by using the local landscape to create 20 hyper-realist images that would be exhibited and go on tour. We are working alongside The Trestle Theatre and the Odyssey in St Albans.
“Hertfordshire is a beautifully static place, and, in many ways, it doesn’t have the same movement as other cities, but don’t get me wrong I love the landscape in St Albans. I find it incredible, it’s uncontroversial, but you can head down to St Michael’s area – it’s so magical. The thing I love about St Albans is that it’s friendly. In the city centre you can have a coffee and randomly chat to someone. Lockdown has made me appreciate local life even more.” Asked about his favourite local places, he says: “I love swimming at Westminster Lodge. Verulamium Park and the St Michael’s area is so magical, and also St Michael’s Manor – it’s where I got married, a very special place.”
The next locations set to appear in the Moving Cities collection include Moscow and Poland, although the former he is reticent to visit. In the meantime, he is exploring new ways to fill his creative tank through stand-up comedy and engaging with the Abbey Theatre and Verulam and Harpenden writers’ groups. “My new year resolution was to try stand-up comedy which was pretty scary,” he says. “I did a two-day course in London, and I would like to do some stand-up gigs in St Albans, but I am not ready yet.”
To date, he is most proud of Moving Barcelona, his eighth film which offers a magical yet realist portrayal of the Catalonian capital, filmed before the pandemic. He adds: “I was so proud that Spanish actor Pep Munné was happy to be involved. It was a real compliment that a respected and celebrated actor wanted to be part of this.”
As for the future, Chowdhury imagines a Moving Cities collection of works with multiple singers across the world. But, for now, he continues to enjoy comedy and the “relaxing sanctuary” of life in Hertfordshire.