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Robert Hylton Urban Classicism

'Two Sugars with My Hip Hop Please', 'Innocence', 'Urban Voodoo', 'Landscape'

When does Hip-Hop become classical?

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

April 2004 - Purcell Room, Royal Festival Hall, London

Just what is meant by ‘classical’ when applied to the movement vocabulary most associated with hip-hop? 'Classical' implies an established, easily recognised body of knowledge that has survived for a number of years and is accessible enough to be shared between dance communities worldwide. Despite several decades and contexts of use in different locations, embodied knowledge of hip-hop with its particular aesthetic, bodily architecture, and dynamics has most definitely survived. Passed from generation to generation, this expression retains nuances in movement that distinguish it from other dance forms even if this disparity confirms similar origins. By attributing ‘classical’ to urban dance expressions one acknowledges a legacy of exploration that has continued since the jook halls along rural tributaries that connected the dance and music of urban communities after the American Civil War to the first break-dancers who signalled their arrival in the early 1980’s to the present.

Hylton’s Urban Classicism is an affirmation of this legacy. Hylton uses contemporary dance as his default while making the movement language of street dance his creative force. Hylton’s compositional strategies seek cultural fulfilment and offer his own form of social critique. Language, dance and music comments on or subverts hegemonic practices while tapping into a communal base of knowledge: reinvention or reclamation destabilizes hegemonic discourses. The dancing body in Hylton’s art seeks to legitimise counter hegemonic interpretations. Hylton’s compositional strategies discover fresh individuality and use its own resources to strengthen cultural bonds.

"Two Sugars With My Hip Hop Please" is a film conceived and produced by Robert Hylton, directed and edited by Curtis James with music by Billy Biznizz. Workshops with residents and staff at Philip House in Kilburn, London led to a two-day shoot around the South Bank Centre site. With the camerawork of Curtis James, David Laird, and Billy Biznizz, the film was pure engagement laced with bits of humour and delicacy. The film’s visuals expressed an ethos of sharing and exchange. Wonderful that street dance could be the vehicle to bring together and excite such a mixture of cultures and levels of maturity to explore communication between self and others. The ensemble of gestures revealed separate body narratives but spoke to the plurality of laughter, enjoyment, camaraderie, and mutual appreciations. Differences sparked new discoveries while shared recollections induced cultural bonds. It was wonderful that these moments of dance were moments of fulfilment as a result of explorations in hip-hop.

"Innocence" -- standing upstage right our protagonist, Dizzi, danced by Robert Hylton, moves. A simple sentence of one total body gesture after another seemed to mimic our protagonist being hit on the head with a sledgehammer. There is resilience, a bounce back retaliation in the movement that continues facing different directions. A further sequence travels Dizzi to the centre. More moves, body pop and flow, body waves in arms that sequence to the legs as the torso lowers to the floor that slips and slides. These sideways motions make the knees seem elastic, the arms pedestals for the body to stand on and the hands gestures lending a lean to the body stance. This body narrative speaks an attitude, a sense of self.

The video flashes words and pictures, a visual as well as a sonic rhythm displaying other hip hop performers. Our protagonist picks up the moves, adding his own nuance: the dance becoming a metaphor for a vocabulary of confidence that is re-invented with a different tension. There are moments when our protagonist seems to challenge the audience or some other antagonist; or, is it with himself he wars? The video now shows an altered form of our protagonist. As these images move on the screen our protagonist seems to battle an inner turmoil. This is followed by a contest. Can the protagonist vary his statements and meet the demand? Can the protagonist endure this taunt to do or die? What are the strategies of survival when the hegemonic flaunts their pillage of the form but disparages the practice?

In the end it seems a draw and then a reiteration or is it reconciliation. Dizzi returns to the beginning and continues the journey but this time with accompaniment. The visuals illustrate other dancers, other partners or are they reminders. There is a legacy, the notion that the intention is to re-invent. There is also the need to claim a sense of self in a vocabulary where everyone is encouraged to add their own intrepretation; to gain their separate successes and affirmation even if this success disparages the practice. The counter point of Dizzi and the projected dancers fulfil a promise to the art but has Dizzi made his point? This solo illustrates numerous sensate notions regarding hip-hop as it eschews contemporary dance vocabularies to present an exposé on the efficacy of hip-hop expression. That’s a lot for one dance to do.

"Urban Voodoo" has been seen on numerous occasions and is a treat every time even if the playback in this venue wasn’t so great. A feast for the visceral eye here we have Hylton and Oliver Ashton’s master DJ calling those who are susceptible to the beat. It is the beat that conjures up the spirit for inspired muscular gyrations on a chequered mat.

"Landscape" first seen 2 years ago is like "Innocence": using street dance vocabulary while engaging contemporary dance as the default theatre form. In this performance, Frank Wilson, Katie Pearson, Nathi Mncube and Billy Biznizz affirm the efficacy of Hylton’s excursions in movement abstraction. Street dance in its various forms is a reaction to landscape providing a visceral commentary on its practitioners’ lived experience. In "Landscape", Hylton manipulates this form with contemporary dance composition in contemplation of future existence. Hylton’s compositional strategies, with the adept performance skill of his dancers, reveal fresh bodily narratives that legitimise hip-hop interpretations of urban life. This performance did not include the personal performance of Hylton but in his stead, Nathi Mncube, brought a new bodily excellence. All together, inspired prowess with a bit of naughtiness, this is a great piece of choreography that continues to intrigue at each viewing.

Edited by Jeff.

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