ZooNation & Impact Dance
by Thea Nerissa Barnes
February 3-4, 2006 -- Peacock Theatre, London
Standing in for Jonzi D, Bustah, aka Susan Lawson-Reynolds, was the hostess for this presentation of hip hop dance theatre at the Peacock Theatre, 3 & 4 February 2006. Bustah presented her own rendition of the iconic running and mobile phone speaking gestures that epitomize the dance and gesticulation of the main character in Jonzi’s Aeroplane Man. She also reminded those present of the affiliation Jonzi D has with Breakin' Convention and companies ZooNation and Impact Dance. The initial Breakin' Convention was held in 2004. It was an international festival of hip hop dance theatre organised by Jonzi D and Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler’s Wells.
Breakin' Convention 2005 was equally as prolific in attracting hip hop artists from all over Britain and as far away as Korea. Breakin' Convention 2006 will be held at Sadler’s Wells 29-30 April. It will continue the celebration and provide the opportunity for artists from all over the world to come together, demonstrate the extraordinary creativity found in hip hop dance theatre, and affirm a sense of community. ZooNation and Impact Dance were present at both 2004 and 2005 conventions. Their recent performance at the Peacock illustrated their answer to the question posed by some critics whether break dancing is viable movement expression for mainstream dance theatre. It may function as a device for urban youth to vent rebellion and exuberance. It may also be used for enterprising dance schools, music industries and clothes factories to sell labels and soda. The works presented at the Peacock illustrated that hype can have a moral edge and teach a few lessons that can benefit everyone.
“Into the Hood”
A video projection of a bus ride in black-and-white begins this work. Members of ZooNation make their entrance onto the bus and we see a young child, played by Chante Simpson, sitting in her seat and not so excited about the various commotions going on around her. Contemplative, Simpson seems despondent and preoccupied with something else. The bus arrives at its destination and everyone gets off. Simpson and her friend, played by Russell Royer, run down the street escaping from the others. What encourages Simpson to seek adventure with Royer, leaving their companions and walking to strange, unfamiliar places is not clear. As the video imagery continues, Simpson and Royer are robbed and chased “into the hood,” and thus the adventure takes a scary twist.
The video imagery sets the context with a picture of the Tower Block, a mean looking high rise, as the stage fills with fourteen ZooNation dancers who perform pop, lock, freeze, and b-boy moves dressed in black hoods. The children also have their moment to dance doing adapted but recognizable break dance moves. As the story continues, the children, lost and afraid, meet the landlord of the Tower Block, aptly portrayed by Frank Wilson. With gesticulations and video imagery, Wilson’s task for the children is to obtain a white iPod, a red hooded top, yellow weave and gold trainers as birthday gifts for his daughter. When the goods are obtained he will assist the children in exiting the hood and finding their way back to their companions.
“Alice In Wonderland” or “The Wizard of Oz” come to mind for possible creative similarities, but program notes state Kate Prince, director of ZooNation’s “Into the Hood”, found inspiration from Stephen Joshua Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods (1987). The projection changes from a high rise to a kitchen and a young woman scrubbing the floor- Spinderella. More break dancing and interaction and then we move from this view to the man in 10E, aptly called Wolf. The gist is Prince’s “Into the Hood” presents alternative parodies of several well known fairy tale themes. There is a flotilla of introductions drawn from fairy tales with the lexicon of break dance providing movement expressions with connected shenanigans between tenants in the high rise.
The tenants enter from the wings or step through projected imagery on the scrim. Possibly originating in oral traditions found throughout the world or revised for publication by authors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the fairy tales represented in ZooNation's hip hop theatre included “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White,” “Rapunzel” and other sundry characters from these and other tales. Fairy tales are usually about an underdog hero who must perform seemingly impossible tasks to secure some desired fortune, with love or wealth being a metaphor for some other lofty gain. “Into the Hood” shows Simpson and Royer caught in a trap and illustrates through movement and music the use of their resourcefulness to escape.
The children take the gifts by sleuth of hand or coincidence from tenants in the Tower Block- the red hood from Little Red, golden hair from RaPon-Zel (Rapunzel), white iPod from Jaxx, and golden trainer from Spinderella. The children and the landlord are disappointed though when the daughter complains the gifts are not brand new. The taking of the goods has also caused anguish in the hood and several lessons are being taught along the way: honesty, loyalty and resilience being the most apparent.
Standing at a make believe bus stop all the characters have lost something, but in particular a sense of self. As they sit or stand, the children return the goods and restore harmony. The music, an ingenious mixing feat arranged by DJ Walde, Mark Harte, and Kate Prince, facilitated the telling the story with the odd lyric punctuating poetry in movement as well as offering metaphoric words of advice. As the work ends, the children return to reality. The adventure was a dream, and jumbled thoughts in Simpson’s mind made perfect sense in this hip hop dance theatre work that ruptured negative stereotypes and presented positive ones.
Hakeem Onibudo’s dance work is inspired by the film of the same name. Reworked for this presentation, the current video footage, costumes, and set design emphasize the context in which the story unfolds.
Behind a black scrim the opening scene is of oppressed people from an era past. The Werewolves (Lycans), Street Tuffs, are tortured and beaten as they toil away at a mill. Ropes suspended from the rigging double as jail bars but are later used for the oppressed to climb on and swing. With the music revving with increased pulsating rhythmic sounds the oppressed whip themselves into frenzy, bust their shackles, and with coordinated growls and stylized street dance moves escape their enslavement. Video projection show the creatures on stage running through undergrowth. As their ferocity increases both physically and vocally, the Lycans perform movements that resemble primates more than canines. The dance motif for this group incorporates street dance moves with occasional break dancing expressions like locking and popping, but basically they growl.
The video footage changes to a cityscape and we meet the Vampires – Elegantes whose dance motifs and costumes resemble the film, “Matrix.” Street dance, popping, locking and low rock expressions punctuate the Elegantes dance motifs with some full body sequencing. Primarily however, this group confronts the audience with vogueing and face offs. There is a confrontation in the form of a mock fight between the Lycans, lead by Steven Eniraiyetan and Leticia Simpson, and the Elegantes who are lead by Anthony Mills, A’Jai Felicisimo and Natasha Bisarre.
This hip hop dance theatre work resembles a jazz ballet incorporating conventional moves like chaîné turns and parallel pirouettes alongside its multiple expressions drawn from the lexicon of break dance. As the story evolves through movement and gesture, Bisarre falls for Eniraiyetan with the product of their union being a baby boy. The Father takes care of the child despite his partner’s consternation played impressively by Leticia Simpson. Time moves on and the Lycans are still battling the Elegantes.
Finally a confrontation results in Eniraiyetan’s killing. This leads to a battle between the factions. Ultimately this dance story is a pretext for the danced predilection of hip hop culture- the challenge. As each group sends its soldiers into the dance circle, each dual answers a challenge with individual styles of performance: particular ways of b-boy and b-girl, body wave, popping, locking, crazy legs, windmills, freezes, chest, arm and full body ticking.
Both sides are fierce but Simpson deserves a mention not just for her exceptional movement virtuosity, which was a blend of acrobatic and street dance moves, but because she transcended the trendy physicality that break dance incorporates. Simpson infused her gestures with honest dramatic inferences that made her characterization as Eniraiyetan’s partner honest and multidimensional. Simpson’s dramatic interpretation afforded a deeper understanding of the plight of the Lycans that superseded the typical “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” scenarios that “Underworld” conjures up. Rival gangs face off and do battle, but love, whether for man or child, has no time, place or ethnic boundaries.
Impact Dance’s performers have exceptional movement skill but seem more versed in street dance vocabularies than the classic break dance techniques. Impact Dance performers also demonstrate tumbling that is more akin to Capoeira and acrobatic techniques. ZooNation is more refined as an ensemble, boasting exceptional street dance practitioners with locking and popping being the specialty of choice. Low rock and associated quick foot dexterity was performed by individuals in both companies.
“Underworld”, like “Into the Hood,” are danced metaphors using what Jonzi calls physical calligraphy, visceral movement and verbal text to speak to a generation about life and living positively in a global, culturally pluralistic world. Identity and harmony are global issues that can be achieved, and we are given possible solutions by the youth of these companies. The message is delivered through hip hop dance theatre, establishing and confirming the cultural and artistic value of this art form.
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