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Breakin' Convention 06

The Angels, Nexus Boys, Karizma, Streetvibes, and Avant Garde Dance

by Cerise Andrews

April 30, 2006 -- Sadler's Wells, London

“BREAKIN…CONVENTION…06” The three tiers of the Sadlers Wells auditorium shout one word per tier, a wave of voices descending towards the stage – almost in unison. The vocal wave is orchestrated by masters of this most prestigious of ceremonies, Jonzi D and Kimberley jay. It’s the second day of a sold-out three-day dance festival, and the whole event has really found its feet. Jonzi and Kimberley are the bridge in the form of spoken language between the audience and the languages onstage: namely movement, rhythm and melody. But hip hop dance theatre is now a large enough entity to have forked off the main route to become many eloquent subsidiary dialects particular to nationalities, regions, cultural genres, tastes and influential individuals. And Breakin Convention not only succeeds in reflecting all this, it absolutely revels in it.

A cultural Che Guevara for our times, Jonzi D is instigating his RPM philosophy – Revolutions Per Minute, a wry metaphor that alludes both to dj culture and the radical thinking that has been at the core of hip hop since its inception. The first five items on the programme showcased local talent from around the UK. These were The Angels, Nexus Boys, Karizma, Streetvibes and Avant Garde Dance. All of these companies were strong in body, mind and sheer number.

To form an overall picture of this section of the festival, three things strike me as outstanding. First,  from my seat very distant from the stage, I noted the velocity with which hip hop dance theatre has accelerated its development of group choreography. These are not professional companies, and some of them number 40 or so dancers, but they use the stage space with attack, keeping the eye constantly moving. The choreography doesn’t just rely on the quality of the dancers’ performance or expressive interpretation: this is dance made for the stage, with the screen sensibility of Busby Berkeley. Second, the dancers are getting younger and younger! Amazing stunts, power moves and the latest street styles erupt from tiny bodies whose years (from the looks of things) have not yet reached double figures. And third, there is an unhealthy obsession with chemical suits out there! This attire featured uncannily recurrently in the costume department. And this seemed even to have spread across the waters to France: Phase T sported the trend whilst also filling the stage with finely tuned bodies, drawing on African and Caribbean traditional dances crisply infused with the present.

From Brazil, Frank Ejara took a bold, giant leap into the hitherto unexplored territory of solo performance with “Som di Movimento”. His solitary, suit-clad body then took us one step further, back in time to the heyday of postmodernism with a minimalist performance. Ejara cut a lonely figure grooving to a personal stereo. The conditions were less than perfect: I imagine one of those old-skool walkmans or cd players that hiccupped if the wearer executed any over-exuberant moves, such as breathing. This obstacle was expressed through the interrupted soundtrack that kept going quiet and his oversized headphones that fell off with predictable regularity. He carried on regardless. Then he discovered that certain of his body movements produce cartoonish sound effects. Initially this was light-hearted, but then, as it continued, the audience’s laughter subsided and something a little darker arose in the obsessive repetition of the sound-producing movement compulsion. Poignant and moving, this was a brave break from the ‘safety in numbers’ street dance ethos.

 The established UK company Boy Blue were next to represent. Going from strength to strength, not only in the number of dancers, but also in the depth of choreography, this company was for me the most emotionally resonant of the home crop. “Street Elementz” was a montage of group routines for vast numbers of dancers, increasing the power of the sharp dynamic through sheer expanse. Boy Blue also proved they could really put the ‘theatre’ into hip hop dance theatre with boy-girl romance drama(s) for a handful of dancers, proving that good choreography expands to fill the space available.

Project Soul from Korea delivered all the power-move goods you could care to imagine, and some you couldn’t. They also displayed episodes of highly original footwork; for example, traditional toprock into split leaps was unusual, but it worked. Every single dancer in the company was a virtuoso, with poise, precision, stamina and attitude with a capital A. Like the well-known battery brand, they kept on going until Jonzi’s face nervously appeared from the wing, signaling that they couldn’t go on all night, although you can bet they would if given the chance.

It was almost as if the chemical suits of the earlier companies presciently announced the arrival of the biological warfare of the final piece. The footlights came up and, instead of humans,  we got robots from French company Franck II Louise. There were six of them identically dressed in metallic body armour and face-covering helmets, and as they started to stir from their hexagonal individually lit zones, the audience was stunned by their awesome robotics, moonwalking and backslide manoeuvres. Whether or not you relate to “Drop It”’s synopsis in the festival programme about an alternative universe, this work hypnotizes from the very start. It provokes comparison between the uniformed, conformist, armoured, body that moves in set, restricted patterns and the slowly revealed human body flawed with curiosity and ambition, needing oxygen and a sense of individuality. Instigated by a renegade robot wanting to start a personal revolution, the dancers literally deconstruct the costume armour and gradually free themselves of this complicated garment, stripping down to long baggy shorts and light sneakers. The hour-long piece is truly abstract with an un-earthly quality as the movement is dictated by the changes in the pacing of the music and has no fixed narrative in time or space. The choreography’s reliance on the costumes and visual trickery also means that it is without doubt a true piece of theatre. Franck II Louise provokes the imagination and peck at fears deep within the psyche…will robots one day take over humans…? They’ll have to fool the children of the hip hop revolution first.

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