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Hip Hop Festival

Breakin' Convention:  International Festival of Hip Hop

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

May 15-16, 2004 – Sadler's Wells, London

Fantastic, awesome, are some of the superlatives that can be used to describe the breakin' convention held at Sadler’s Wells 15 and 16 May. Sadler’s front of house turned into a youth world summit where young folks from about 5 to elders came to watch the breakers, DJ’s, MC’s and stand in hopefuls and knowledgeable freaks strut, bounce, pontificate, whirl, fly, spin, snap, and pop. The Sadler’s main stage stalls were turned into a standing room, or, if the feeling moved audience members a dance area. People walked in and out at their leisure checking out what was on stage or moving to the foyer areas and Lilian Baylis Theatre to catch more dancing or the Kahn Theatre to see notable dance film presentations. As the house bells rang the main theatre filled from the back of the stalls to the top, all in anticipation of what promised to be an outstanding presentation of speech, movement skill, and persona from youth crews and renowned hip hop dance artists.

The breakin' convention, an international festival of hip hop dance theatre, is the culmination of two years planning between world famous MC/poet, director choreographer Jonzi D and Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler’s Wells. Jonzi was the curator while Sadler’s Wells and Still Brock Productions with support from Bloomberg provided the space, production and education resources. Between the break dancers, deejays (DJs are those who manipulate recorded sound with speakers and turntables), emcees (MCs are those who rap), and videos this event was representative of the magnitude of hip hop art practices. Although slightly over thirty years old, dating from early seventies New York Bronx and the west coast of United States' African American, Jamaican, and Puerto Rican communities, this art has had a phenomenal influence on young and old as well as music and dance industries on both sides of the Atlantic and currently the Pacific.

This was not an event to celebrate as much as it was a gathering to acknowledge the veracity of these art practices. Breakin' convention aimed to illustrate the efficacy of hip hop dance practice by providing the opportunity for artists to come together, demonstrate extraordinary creativity, and affirm a sense of community. Youth crews from the UK: Poison Ivy, Impact Dance, Virus, 100%, Independence Performance, Boy Blue Entertainment, and Holloway Boyz choreographed biographical narrations about fighting, dieing, and making choices or exhibitionist type explorations into the technical prowess of break dance movement. Experienced and quite notable practitioners: Hip Hop Collective (UK/FR/USE), RubberBanDance Group (Canada), Electric Boogaloos (USA), Tommy the Cown (USA), ZooNation (UK), Vagabond (FR), Rennie Harris (USA), Project Soul (Korea), Compagnie Kafig (FR), and Banxy, Robert Hylton, and Twitch from the UK strode either side of a binary: form or content, prophet or brawn, delivering of a message or proposing yet another way to make dance theatre. The UK DJ’s were the En4cers: DJ Pogo, Cutmaster Swift and Billy Biznizz with MC Mell’O and Jonzi D were the glue that kept both days of performances together.

After the breakin convention, when everyone had gone back to their patch in urban enclaves in the States, Britain, Europe and Asia, clarifying the global context with its varied dimensions revealed possible how’s and why’s for the Breakin Convention’s profundity of expressions that spurred the questions: “Should Hip Hop dance stay on the street?” “What is High Art?” for a panel discussion held Sunday 16 May in the Lilian Baylis Theatre. Notable originators from the Electric Boogaloos, Poppin Pete and Sugar Pop along with Alistair Spalding, Jonzi D, Ekow Eshun, writer/journalist and Colin Prescod as the chair along with members of the audience highlighted important issues that the next generation of breakers will need to address. Hip hop dance is “one big family” but there are distinctions and a need to clarify varied histories and give the credit, respect and recognition to those who either worked in the art or mined it for their own aggrandisements.

As stated emphatically by Prescod: “This is the most exciting thing happening in British theatre” but it has yet to establish itself as a bona fide form within the hegemony of mainstream dance present in this British dance community. An impression is hip hop culture and thus its dance practice is founded on a rejection of an older generation’s values by pubescent yearning or capitalises on the innate abilities of exceptionally talented individuals. Perceived as the outpouring of urban youth rebellion and exuberance its youthful ness works against a transparent engagement of its dance work. The dance also loses legitimacy when used as hype to sell fashion labels and soda. Some of the more prolific pioneers and practitioners are long in the tooth for these kinds of dismissive descriptions plus a discriminating observation will note some of the composition strategies have gone beyond the yearning to impress mates with power moves. The medium of dance is the negotiation of energy but the movement vocabulary of hip hop has given and still offers alternative approaches to the negotiation of energy that mainstream practices have benefited from simply by being in the same contextual proximity.

A culture onto itself hip hop’s main art practices, break dancing, rap (rhythmic accented poetry) music and graffiti evolved in relation to one another. Where one could say the music and graffiti were new inventions, rap and its associated dance practice, breakin’, have deep roots in Africanist aesthetics. One can trace the craft of rap to the Jamaican practice of toasting or the practice of testifying or signifying characteristic of Africanist banter. Rap is also associated with the work of The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron and H. Rap Brown and the practice of “dozens” rhymes and jailhouse speak that uses metaphor for social critique and cultural subversion. African and European dance practices transliterated by African slaves and African and European freedmen laid the foundation for social dance forms done in the juke halls of America’s rural south before becoming the performance strategies of minstrelsy. Cab Calloway used a synthesis of these early dancing and speaking practices while the jazz dance done in Harlem’s Cotton Club appeared in Broadway and film musicals of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Jazz dance taught in countless dance studios all over the world benefited from these early Africanist roots. Just as the twentieth century entertainment industry received its creative juice from the popular forms of jazz, street dance, a coinage given to the movement vocabulary taught in dance studios catering to dancers for the current crop of films and music videos gets its creative juice from hip hop culture. No dance practice is done in isolation and is quite often the progenitor of something else. Dance expressions result from interaction, mimicry or exchange whether intentional or by osmosis. Despite the disparity, despite appropriation and piracy, commodification and bastardisation there are elemental propensities that bind the cacophony together.

As a counterculture that nurtures itself with the reclamation and revitalisation of Afro-Caribbean/Afro-American musical, oral, visual, dance forms and practices, breakin developed in several contexts with a multiplicity of associated life histories and mitigating political, social, and commercial circumstances. It is the tension within the dynamic relationship between hip hop and larger mainstream social, political, economical forces that fuels this creativity; a creativity bourn out of consequence. The DJ’s of seventies disco spun songs with a circularity that emphasised seamless fluidity giving dancers the sustained beat they needed for dances like the Hustle, a partner dance that can be very smooth or punchy with occasional posing (vogue). At the height of this emphasises on continuity came a choice to extend the breaks in and between songs. The break is a section separated from the harmony and melodic elements of a song highlighting the rhythmic pattern set by the bass, drums or guitar.

While each community had its particular evolution of DJ manipulation, film and television shows, music concerts and the media continued the momentum of break dance craze with the presentation of inspirational dancers. DJ’s manipulated the technologies of samplers, drum machines, and engineering boards to produce a sound dynamic that incorporated the repetition of break beats with looping and cutting techniques. With the dancers it was also the manipulation of technology. The architecture of repetition, flow, suspension, and use of space giving rise to distinct bodily narratives that created fresh approaches to embodied movement knowledge. Break dancing like the DJ’s looping of bass lines was conceived to rupture; a rip from melodies and harmony, fragmenting linearity to augment the rhythms set by the bass line. It is this propensity to manipulate and transform, to take control and embody alternative imagining that has fuelled this dance form from its first appearances.

The dancing associated with hip hop is a bit more than thirty years old commencing on both sides of the States around 1969. It’s difficult to acknowledge much less credit and thus respect all contributing factors and persons but there are notable artists and practitioners. Jamaican born Kool DJ Herc (pioneer of extending breaks by using two turntables), the circumstance that precipitated the development of hip hop culture in the neighbourhoods of New York Bronx and then LA, the formidable dance performance of James Brown and his cut “Get on the Good Foot”, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Kings and their pioneering creativity that evolved the mock combat “up rock” or “top rock”, Rock Steady Crew, an off shoot of Zulu Kings and members of Zulu Nation evolution of “power moves”, spinning on head, hands, back, essentially the acrobatics of the form. Boogalo Sam and his group the Electric Boogaloos originated popping, locking, and boogaloo moves that came out of the funk movement in the 1970’s in California. In Britain the form came in the early 80’s via recorded cuts, underground connections, British mainstream television, commercials, performances by notable originators like Rock Steady Crew and classic films like “Wild Style”, “Beat Street” and “Breakin” that perpetuated the form by providing imagery and spirit to inspire crews like Kaliphz from Manchester.

Hip hop culture employs strategies to replicate or re-imagine urban and rural experiences or appropriate urban spaces by injecting its alternative bodily narratives, dance language, visual art and sound for the purpose of transformation. History has demonstrated that these strategies to reshape are often subverted for alternative purposes. The vogue of the Hustle became the freeze of break dance; an improvised move that “broke the beat”. Singular partner interactions turned into community groupings that circled improvising dancers who “performed” alone or in competition showing off rapid footwork, acrobatics, and pantomimic moves. B-boy or B-girl were dancers who performed when the DJ broke the beat. Possibly among other things, the exposure to martial art films in the 70’s incited the addition of “freezes”, poses on the ground requiring extraordinary acrobatic skill and “footwork” that incorporated a skittering motion transferring the weight to hands to make a space for flips, splits and more aggressive pirouettes on head, hand, torso. Making a space was also a way to enter the circle to declare a presence and take command or steal attention from an opponent. As a kind of mock fighting where the intention was not to touch your opponent, a philosophy and form reminiscent of Brazilian Capoeira, these competitive encounters served a purpose for some practitioners who used the opportunity to settle scores turning dance oriented gatherings into brawls that the media sensationalised and film industry turned into movie scripts. In that early landscape and currently, no one owns an idea once it goes public and ideas owe nothing to heritage, ethnicity, or politics. Eventually all ideas get synthesized or regurgitated then redefined. Demonised, iconised, and plagiarised, the art forms of hip hop culture have inspired, been made redundant, pushed underground then re-invented by the media, music and film industry who through news coverage and creative ventures used the forms for their own purposes. The honest toiling of dedicated hip hop artists though stuck with transformation as a means to transcend. The move from social context to theatre settings brought about scant or massive re-configurations depending on purpose.

The Breakin Convention demonstrated that there is as much disparity and contradictions in purpose within the tradition as there is a shared movement language and allegiance to the basic tenets of hip hop culture. Alistair Spaulding admits there were some tribulations in the choices made by he and Jonzi D as to how to present this event so it would be representative of the diversity and sophistication within the genre, not lose street credibility and not further stereotypes or alter the nature of the form by diluting it and softening it for mainstream sensibilities. Safety and integrity of art practice had to be considered. Barriers for the ticket booth, electronic surveillance, pat downs and bag searches at the door, cueing ropes, and security guards seemed excessive but given past engagements with hip hop populations by similar establishments and the images portrayed by the media plus the fear etched in Britain’s history from its many encounters with public anarchy and terrorism of all kinds, Sadler’s tactics just seemed cautionary. For some though the presence of force and the cordoning off only served to insult. Sadler’s altered spaces though gave audience members and dancers free range of the events, alternative spaces for performance and the ability to respond vocally to support or protest the antics and language of artists who offered their aesthetics within the context of a major “mainstream theatre”.

Compagnie Kafig in "Recital", image by Daniel Tivoli

Every dance presents choices and these choices are the result of both taste and necessity. Each observation of a performance revealed a cultural/political dimension. Compagnie Kafig abstracted the movement vocabulary of break dance and accompanied it with audio and video technology. The movement kept its integrity making the continued change of costume, props and set the only innovation; art mimicking life instead of being life. Korea’s Project Sol with its barefooted dancers dressed more like tai chi practitioners waved, locked and popped to pan pipe versions of the classics and used audio rhythms as the starting place to perform intricate body rhythms. This work ended with several dancers, one in particular spinning on his head, dancing with strings of small white electric lights wrapped to their bodies. Project Sol illustrated a kinship with the tenet of hip hop practices used using their particular histories to transform the movement vocabulary to satisfy their own aesthetics. With Rennie Harris in the US and here in Britain Jonzi D and Benji Reid there is the concerted effort to use the investigative aspects of hip hop art practices to re-invent contemporary dance theatre. Jonzi D and Reid in particular use the compositional tools discovered in their contemporary dance experiences to transform their break dance/MC skills into poignant autobiographical or biographical narratives. These narratives critique social, political, economic conditions speaking for the disenfranchised by illustrating varied situations, desperations and aspirations.

During the panel discussion, pioneers Poppin Pete and Sugar Pop, members of the legendary Electric Boogaloos spoke from a position of nearly thirty years experience between them. They postulated the form has been in theatres in the States since the 1980’s and France since the 1990’s making the question is breakin a theatre form redundant. For these originators there is no such thing as high or low art and art practice is not predicated on lightening design, hegemonic recognition, or a proscenium arch. To make this work there is a tradition to be learned and this tradition requires hours of study. For Sugar Pop: “The stage is just a stage, its what you bring to it”; his recognition on the street increases his credibility in the theatre world and vice versa. From the street to the club to the theatre there is no difference in standard for Sugar Pop. Poppin Pete’s tenet is to “bring the kitchen to the stage” to keep the integrity of his practice on display in whatever context he performs. Dance for these artists is a performative act re-presenting who they are whether in a “theatre” space or not. As history illustrates dance reflects artistic parlance becoming the manifestation of an individual or a people’s effort to assert self and define place. Hip hop culture and its art practices have offered an unfathomed amount of creative energy at the dawning of the millennium; its influences comparable to the effect jazz had on early twentieth century art practices. Starting as a social form and almost one hundred years old, should jazz have stayed on the street or considering its impact and longevity, is it considered high art? The question itself is a perception but those of us who know don’t have to ask.


Edited by Jeff.

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