An interview with Ali Pretty, Artistic Director of Kinetika

Ali has had an incredibly interesting creative journey, and we asked her if we could interview her, so we could share a little more about Ali and her work on our website and social media. We thought this would be a way of creating a lasting legacy of our collaboration, to inspire and give insight, as well as to celebrate Ali and Kinetika.

You can listen on Soundcloud, or read the whole interview here.

As a child and young person, did you always know you wanted a creative career? 

Ali: No, I didn't do art. I stopped doing art when I was 14 at school. I did like doing art, and when I was 15, I thought that the world that I was living in wasn't great. There were three-day strikes and there was some terrible weather. And my parents were always arguing. And so, I was like, there must be a better place in the world than this. And I read a book, Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, it was about an American businessman who went to Central Africa, and it basically was illustrating that in other parts of the world, people live by different values. And there isn't one reality. But there are many realities.  

I always wanted to explore other ways of living. And then after that I went to South Africa during Apartheid, and that kind of politicised me and I was like, I really want to work in my life to make a difference to communities, but I don't really know how I'm going to do that. And then I went on to do a Politics and Sociology degree, so yes, it wasn't in my mind that I could be an artist.  

Could you give us overview of your journey, any formal or informal training, how you got to the early part of your career? 

Ali: I went to Zimbabwe and South Africa in 1980, which was just after Zimbabwean independence. And that was part of my gap year between school and university. Then, as a very, very angry young woman, I went to Bristol University and did Politics and Sociology, where I found lots of places to become active.  

I was active at Greenham Common on the CND marches. Anti-Apartheid, Stop The City. It was all going on in the early 80s and so I spent a lot of my time at university being out, being active.  

I also did street theatre, and we made shows and went to Glastonbury, and at some point on the way I think I started doing the making for the shows, painting stuff and making sets. So, I feel that I've always wanted to be in the arts, and I wanted to do drama, but my dad said no, you’ve got to do something serious, and he didn't think Sociology was serious, and then thought it was terrible because I became an activist.  

After that I then decided that I would go to India because I thought that I would be guaranteed to find somewhere that was very different and had a different set of values. So, I ended up flying to India. It was the day after Indira Gandhi was assassinated, so I flew into Delhi just after the riots and I had signed up to the voluntary programme to make sure that I could work with communities, but all the programmes were cancelled and we were in curfew in Delhi for quite some time.  

Then I found a creative director who could give me contacts, some address books, paper and stuff. And I found Habib Tanvir, who is a really famous theatre director, and he said, “Oh, actually, Ali, we're going to be doing a community project in Madhya Pradesh, which is in the middle of India. And we're working with actors from Delhi who are sort of Western actor trained. We're working with the school and we're working with some folk artists from the area. Chhattisgarh, it's called and we're bringing it all together. And there's these two English women who are coming over to work with me. And we can do an outdoor performance of the Pied Piper. And if you want, you can get on the train and you can come and join us.” 

So, I thought, well, yeah, I'll do that. But between being quite homesick and not having any contact with any other Westerners, and sort of thinking, should I? Just go on the track, the tourist route, or am I going to persist and try and just do something more embedded within the local communities?  

So that was really amazing, and Elizabeth Lynch was the English woman who was directing the show with Habib Tanvir. And that was an amazing conversation because Habib’s work was indoor theatre, normally political, and Elizabeth had come through the Welfare State International route with John Fox and Sue Gill. She that was at really early stages of the British Community Arts movement.  

I was very influenced by Welfare State. I spent a month with them, and I ended up making costumes. I directed the physical theatre aspects because I'd been doing circus skills when I was at Bristol. And what, in a nutshell, happened was that I'd spent three months in India not being able to communicate with anybody and not really understanding.  

Now to make any connection because this was, you know, India - it was not westernized at all at that point. It's very different now - and I was alien to them and they were to me. But through this project, making masks, doing physical theatre, sewing saris and things together, we became a family and very close. And when I was trying to decide what to do, I between this and whether I should work with the Women's Development Agency, that sort of thing that suited my social science background. 

Habib said to me. “No, no, no, no, no, Ali. If you want to change the world, you need to be an artist. And if you want to know anything about culture and politics, you’d better come with me to Calcutta." So, he took me on a train to Calcutta with 70 performers, and the rest is history, as they say, because, in that moment, I knew that that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. To work through the arts, to work with communities, and I knew that the arts had the potential to enable communication across any kind of barrier, and to this day I'm doing the same thing. There are lots of different ways of doing that and I still believe exactly the same thing - in the power of the arts to transform communities. 

Where did you get all those skills? So you were building them anyway, but to come there and then be making, as you say, masks and costume - how did that happen? 

Ali: I was working with a designer, Geraldine, and she would say we'll stick this here or whatever. And I had been working for WOMAD, the World Music, Arts and Dance Festival, at the very, very early stages of that. I mean, this is 1985 and that was only the second or third year that WOMAD existed. So, I was designing backdrops and flags for WOMAD. And I just made it up as I went along. I'm still doing that. 

When I came back from India, then Elizabeth said you must go to the Welfare State summer school. Walk the Plank, Exchange Cargo, The Same Sky, Emergency Exit Arts. They are all people who first went to the Welfare State summer school.  

I managed to get a place there and you're in residence for a week and you learn how to make lanterns. But most importantly, John Fox had this exercise - this is your community, this is your site, this is the theme, design an event. So, he took you through designing an event, and that was a brilliant exercise which I've subsequently used with other people.  

When you break it down, it’s quite easy to make a lantern, and obviously, what their philosophy was, was to bring art to the people and really it was for social workers and teachers and community members. It wasn't really for artists, so it was about anyone could be an artist, which is what I believe. 

So I had those skills, but I didn't have my own thing and it was much later on after I left WOMAD that I had a short period of signing on and I went to an evening class in Islington, with Noel Dyrenforth, who's a really great teacher and instantly I was like, Oh I know what I can do with this, and we were doing it with bunting and stretching clamps, and frames and stuff and making very small stuff. But it wasn't crafty because he was trained as a fine artist, so he didn't teach it as a craft.  

He talked about it as art, and that was really good for me. It was all about mark making and then I did a tiny, tiny piece of silk, and I was like, what would happen if I made it really big, and I had that idea because I was working for WOMAD at the time.  

I'd started volunteering for Notting Hill Carnival, and then I understood that the silk would be really a fantastic medium for carnival because of the way it flows and catches the wind, and it lets the light through both ways. And you can design your own prints and patterns, and nobody had done that in carnival.  

I left home and I had my first little freelance gig down in Oxford. And I asked Neil, can I borrow your wax pots, which was an electric frying pan, actually, very unsafe. And I decided, Oh, I'm going to make some butterfly wings. I had one batik workshop. I took it down and taught what I'd learned in that week. And I went back the next week. Very cheeky I was. But and then, you know, then I got picked up.  

And then I decided I needed to go to Trinidad. 

I was working in a community centre in Hackney and the caretaker was Trinidadian and he said, well, you haven't seen anything if you haven't been to Trinidad carnivals, biggest street party in the world, and another lady there, Bernadette, she was from Trinidad. And she said, well, you can come and stay with me, and we can go and work.  

And then I saw an exhibition of Peter Minshall's work. He was an amazing designer and I was like, I want to go and work with that man. I just got on a plane and turned up at the mass camp. I didn't think you’d get to meet the designer that much, but I helped, and I did more than help. I kind of threw myself in for a whole month. And all the guys were like “You won’t stay, you'll be down the beach”, and I was very small and very young. And they couldn't believe that this small, young, white girl had turned up in their mass camp, and I stayed and worked all day and worked all night and then partied hard and we went down the road for carnival. And I learned so much. And I was like, and this is what I'm going to do.  

And now I've got my silk painting and I've got carnival. This is the most participatory form that I've ever experienced in terms of hundreds of people being on the street and working in a mass camp, which is like building a community, and Peter Minshall is very political and his productions were always very relevant to the time and made hard hitting statements, global statements. And so, not only did I learn about making stuff, but I also started thinking about how I could put epic narratives on the street. That was by the late 90s, and then I started designing for Notting Hill Carnival and my first band was in 98. 

How did you develop your skills? 

Ali: I don't know really where I got that from. I didn't know that I was going to do the arts. I never wanted to go to art school. I thought, well, I don't really want to go to art school, because they just stick stuff on walls and I want to work with communities, you know? I don't want to go to theatres. And if I had done drama, I wouldn't want to put it on a theatre. 

Now there's a lot more people are doing that, but definitely at that time, there weren't so many avenues and Welfare State was the avenue to do that. John Fox is still here bless him and he's like literally spawned that whole movement.  

But I think what happened by me being involved in Trinidad, when Minshall found out that I painted silk, because I think the first time I went I hadn't been painting silk. I went back with Mahogany carnival band, and we were painting silks for Clary Salandy.  

And there’s this big queen costume and unfortunately it caught the wind and fell over spectacularly. But anyway, it got the attention of Mr Minshall, who said bring this woman to see me. He'd forgotten that I'd actually worked for him, and he hadn't noticed me in the backdrop. And he said, “Will you paint my queen?” I said yes, as long as it doesn't fall over. He got cross with me for challenging him and then he invited me to go back and paint his queen.  

He kept changing his mind about whether he wanted it painted or not, as this massive big butterfly costume. I had to turn up with my dyes and my silk and my suitcase. And then he wasn't going to paint it. So then he asked me to paint something else, a smaller costume. And to this day, I don't know whether he was testing me, whether it was too much of a risk to let me loose on his queen or not. Anyway, with this other costume, he accepted it and said very nice. And then it was a semi finals of the queen competition.  

Then at the end of that night, he said, “Come and see me in the morning. I’ve changed my mind. We're going to paint the queen.” We’d got one night to make it, so I went in the morning and he showed me this A4 piece of paper which was like a Monet Impressionist painting of a bunch of tulips called Joy to the World. And he said, “paint this” and I was like, “yeah, but the competition’s tomorrow”. And he said, “well, I thought you wanted to paint my queen” and he got all stroppy. And I said, “Dude, I don't know where I'm going to paint it.” So then we had to set up a space for me to paint it overnight, and I just about managed to do it, and then it went across the stage, and it won Queen of the Carnival. And that really that was the biggest gift. I don't know if he was really wanted to give me such a big gift, but it meant when I got back to London, every Trinidadian band in London wanted me to paint their costumes. So, that was another big moment. That just took my career in a different direction.  

And then I developed ways of teaching it, and I designed my first carnival band. It was 1200 metres of silk, and I worked out how to do a repeat pattern. I made the paper pattern and then repeated it. That’s what we're doing now. So, I've evolved this methodology to suit the outdoor arts and to suit carnival.  

If you had to think of three key elements that led to where you are now, what would they be? These could be moments, people, things that happened. 

Ali: Habib Tanvir, you know, “If you want to change the world, you’ve got to be an artist”, was one.  

And Noel Dyenforth, who, taught me how to do batik and said, you know, “Treat it like a painting”, was another.  

And Peter Minshall opening the door for carnival. You know, “I'll make a queen that will stand up”, that sort of thing.  

And also, and I always want to credit women. Elizabeth Lynch who I met in India. She's still a real mentor. Almost like an older sister to me. She's really been there for me as my journey's evolved.  

What are you most proud of? What are your highlights?  

Ali: I'm fundamentally proud of Kinetika and the fact that I went from freelance and started a company and that it's still going after 28/29 years. I'm happy that I got to make that decision and that so many people have had faith in the work and will see it as an unfolding narrative, so one thing always leads to the next.  

Everything has to be a narrative in my head. And one of the legacies is the Kinetika Bloco. When we were working for Thames Festival, Adrian Evans introduced me to Matt Fox, who was a musician. And Adrian said I'd like you two to work together. And Matt said, “Yeah, I've got about 100 drummers, Ali, if you want to put them on the road.” And I said, “Well, I can make them look nice and we can add some dance”.  

And so we put something on the road for Thames Festival in 1999, and with Matt it was 2000 or 2001. And then out of that, a big Bloco grew within Kinetika for 10 years. And then I felt that there were teenagers busting to go. So, we split the company and made two companies and the Kinetika Bloco is an NPO in its own right.  

What I try and think of all the time is what is the legacy from the work we do? Because from my social and political standpoint, what I wanted to do was make a difference and change the world, and change some people's worlds. And to do that, you have to be generous and you have to give away your knowledge, share your knowledge and encourage other people to take it on and do it because hundreds of people can do much more than one person, I want to build those centers of energy. I'm proud of that. 

I suppose one of my highlights projects is a project called Silk River and my connection with India has remained and we did a really big carnival project that went back to Calcutta, traced the journey from India to Trinidad to the UK and back. We worked a lot in Calcutta to do the first carnival there, and then building on that a lot later, that was 2003. 

And in 2017, which was a UK India Year of culture, we got funded to do Silk River, which connected communities along the River Thames with communities along the River Hooghly in West Bengal, showing the connection between London and Calcutta, and the idea was to reimagine the relationship. We worked with 10 communities there and 10 communities here, and we made these huge silk scrolls, which had the story of each one of those places, and the most significant thing about that was that we changed our production from Chinese silk to Indian silk and we met the weavers in the village who wove the silk specially for us. They rewove what was a very famous silk called Murshidabad silk. They had to weave it especially for us because prior to that they were mixing it with Korean nylon, so it wouldn't take the dye. So, they took the nylon out and it was beautiful. It takes the colours really fantastically.  

When I came back from Silk River, I was like, OK, no more Chinese silk. We're only importing from that village, which we have done ever since. And we also sell it on. Ajai, who's the silk merchant, said, “Madam, you have completely transformed Murshidabad silk”.  So, the weavers are now getting much more regular work. We still need to build that up so that we can change the conditions of production and get the women more involved. But we have brought in several thousand metres of silk, and of course your Dancefest silks will be out of Murshidabad silk. So, every time I get a new commission, it's not just hooray, we've got a new commission for us. It's also another few metres of silk that needs to be made in Murshidabad. 

We loved the workshops you did with us. Clearly the children loved them. What did you think and what’s the process for making the flags? 

Ali: It was a really lovely evening. It was quite amazing what we did in three hours. And I think this model that we're working with now in terms of creating silks for dance, the big, long triangular shape, which really catches the wind, and when you move it, it's got such a lot of movement, and variety of movement as opposed to a square flag. We piloted that in India. I was working in Bangalore earlier this year and I could see what the potential was. And the actual design that we have with the eye shape in, in the head of the triangle and then the pupil of the eye is this is my Worcester. We've just done it in Marseille. This is Marseille through my eyes, and that seemed to be a really strong concept that's very transferable and so easy. It appeared when we did that lovely workshop and was a concept that was really easy for the children of all ages to understand and to have their bit. So I was really pleased with that, and I love the fact that we had some really little kids up to teenagers, who did the same process and it they all seemed to equally enjoy it.  

It was nice that we had the sample silks so we could see how the movement was. 

It seemed very easy for them to understand what they were being asked to do and what the outcome was going to be. Obviously, they know each other, they know the staff. You're already a tight community, so they feel very comfortable and safe. And it was a really lovely evening.  

Since then, we've got the drawings and because their exactly the same size as the silk, as we got them to draw it to scale, there's not very much that us, as artists have had to do to. There are a few that we've simplified, but we've really done very little. We've traced the drawings onto the silk. And we're now at the first stage of putting the first layer of colour on, and then tomorrow it’s double waxing and we'll put the patterns in. So, where there's the light blue, we'll put the pattern on that light blue and then then we'll go over with the darker in your brand colours. Then once they're painted they’ll be dry cleaned and steamed. 

Can you tell us about your next big project? 

Ali: I certainly can. As I said, everything has a narrative. And we've been building towards our next big project which is called Beach of Dreams. Since 2012 I've been not really doing so much carnival. I mean, we're obviously producing some things for carnival, but I'm not operating as a carnival designer, I'm a walking artist now and I have been developing and leading walks to collect people's stories.  

I didn't know what I was going to do when I decided I've done Carnival. I'm went for a walk and a think. And then I thought, oh, I love walking. And I'm having really good conversations with people that I wouldn't normally talk to, and people that would definitely not go anywhere near the arts.  

So I thought, oh, this is interesting. I wonder if I can make something of that. So I developed this model where we walk to places and collect stories and people draw their stories. And we've been developing that for 10 years and now we have this project, Beach of Dreams. In May 2025, we're going to be working with partners, communities, groups, individuals across the entire coastline of the UK and inviting them to adopt a mile or several miles in their own local area and to photograph it, draw it. Just a spot of their favorite beach. And then to write about why they're connected to it, and to look to the horizon and imagine how this coastline is going to be for the great, great, great grandchildren. And use this as a way of reimagining what it could be. And then the final question is and what are you going to do about it? Asking people to commit to caring for and protecting their coastline, maybe evaluating our current values and the way that we might live a happier and healthier life in the future.  

And prepare the way for our great, great, great grandchildren. We started this project in 2021, we've just been successful getting a large grant from the Arts Council to scale it up nationally. We already have 620 silk pennants that represent 620 UK miles. And this is a growing national artwork where we're inviting groups to become members and to keep growing.  

In May 2025 there will be a month of people walking simultaneously all across the UK. There are 8 additional artist interventions with a team of artists from very different backgrounds who will create responses to the coast, and hopefully it'll be a national conversation and lots of people's voices will get heard and we'll shine a spotlight on many really great initiatives are already happening.  

And I think it's a obviously a real tendency to focus on the fear and to focus on what's not happening. And but in fact, lots and lots of stuff is happening and lots and lots of people are working really, really hard to make positive change in their communities. And we want to highlight that on a national level. 

Even though we couldn't be further away from a coastline, we're really hoping Dancefest can get involved in some way. 

Ali: One of our partners, which has come on later, which is also a little bit random, is the London Borough of Culture in Wandsworth. Well, there's a river and a river goes to the sea. So if you're inland, find your nearest river - and you’ve got a massive river, a very important river that goes through you. The narrative of my story here is we're going from the beach of broken dreams, pitting picking up the gems that we can find along our shattered foreshore. And if we put each of those gems together, could we have a vision for the future? I think we can all have a beach of dreams in our imagination. And we've all got rivers quite close to us, so it's about joining up. So of course you can get involved – the sooner the better! 

Do you have one piece of advice for anybody working in or considering working in the arts?

Ali: I would say don't think twice, get stuck in! 

I'm sitting next to Sarah here, Can I just ask Sarah to describe her journey because that would be really inspiring for other people.  

Sarah: So I think it was 2019. They were bringing the carnival back to Tilbury, which is the town where I live. And my Nan ran a needlework group. And Ali was asking all the groups around the communities to come in and design a flag to represent their groups. At the time, my Nan was away. So she asked me to do it. Now I was not working in the arts, not an artist, not a trained artist, but quite creative. Anyway, I just went along as a community member to a workshop with Ali and then from that she approached me and invited me to come to the studio to paint, to wax and to learn the technique. And now I'm an employed artist from Kinetika. So yeah, it's really, really exciting. 

Ali: I think you would find quite a few people who've had a similar experience. And Sarah's now got a DYCP from Arts Council England and is going into learning about carnival and carnival costumes - she does want to do Carnival!  

So my advice really is, it's hard to imagine how you're going to earn a living, and it's a difficult landscape at the moment for that. But I think especially when you're working in communities, it's got a purpose and it's a proven model. 

It’s really interesting because I've been to various conferences and places recently, and when I say what I'm doing to much younger people, people in their 20s who are looking for something to create meaning, I say I'm very old and analogue and I don't really use much to digital, we work with paint and silk flags - and they totally go mad for it, because they get it, because it's taking people outside to talk and it’s going full circle.  

I'm driven by the same values as I was when I was 25 and I've used different art forms, different mediums, worked in different communities, but effectively doing the same thing because it works. 

Thank you so much. Is there anything else you feel we haven't covered that you'd like to say? 

Ali: Thank you for the opportunity. It’s come about because Kitty [Dancefest’s Director] worked with me in London and it’s really lovely to see what she's been doing and what Dancefest is. It proves the point really that we're all interconnected, and those connections run deep. I hadn't seen Kitty for ages but because we did all those things together, there's a deep connection, and it lasts. Those connections last for your life, so I couldn't recommend it more. 

What Dancefest does chimes with what you do. We are activists in a smaller community way I suppose. So it's just fascinating hearing about you and you work.  

Ali: You were saying you worked with 200 children in community classes a week. So that's really brilliant. Yes, that's definitely being an activist. And those kids, you know that are coming and how much it means to them and their families.  

What's been wonderful about being in Thurrock for 10 years is that we've been able to be embedded in the community. We did Thurrock’s first Pride Walk on Saturday, and Sarah had worked with those communities to make their own flags. That's I mean and having been here for 10 years, lots of things that have happened and we're beginning to come all together. I'm now lucky enough that I've got a really strong team here and my business partner, Donna.  

So we are able to hold it down at home, which is really important. But it’s also really important that I can go and do it in other places and bring other influences back into Thurrock. Beach of Dreams has come out of the model that we developed in Thurrock.  

So when we do Beach of Dreams, that story needs to be told because we've seeded it in this community, who have nothing, absolutely nothing in terms of the arts. So it deserves to have it all come back.  

Sometimes when I lie in bed at night thinking, Oh, what am I doing? What have I done in my life? It's nice to have the opportunity to remember.

Arts Council England Worcester Municipal Charities Baily Thomas Charitable Fund Eveson Charitable Trust United by 2022 Legacy FABRIC People Dancing Professional Member Arts Award Supporter

Dancefest is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation and also gratefully receives funding from Worcester Municipal Charities, Baily Thomas Charitable Fund, The Eveson Trust, Dumbreck Charity, Albright Grimley Charity, and WA Cadbury Charitable Trust.

Our Masterclass and Stopgap work is part of Keep Moving, which is produced by FABRIC, generously supported by United by 2022, as part of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Legacy Enhancement Fund through West Midlands Combined Authority.