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'The Dirty Dozen'

Hip at the Place

by Emma Pegler

November 29, 2001 -- Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, London

The word “Hip” beamed from the stage as the audience packed into the revamped Robin Howard Dance Theatre at The Place. The publicity for the week of performances and workshops that were “Hip” was so explosive – close up shots, half-raunchy and half-arty, of taut black buttocks and intertwined muscular calves and thighs - that it was hardly surprising that an announcement was needed at the beginning of the evening to the effect that every ticket had been sold and therefore those without tickets should leave immediately to prevent further embarrassment.

The evening comprised twelve short solos of African, Caribbean and Black British origin expressed through the full-range of dance forms, be they well-established “black dances” such as jazz and hip-hop, or sub-sets of contemporary and classical dance. Commissioned by The Place, and mostly choreographed by the dancers themselves, each solo proved to be, at the very least, artistically worthwhile, highly watchable and certainly deserving of a second outing, and, at most, excellent.

Curtis James and Benji Reid were the ambassadors of hip-hop, body popping and break dance. James in “Ground Down” moves like liquid mercury, starting a movement at one extremity and rippling it through his whole body to another. Reid, who on stage appears so lanky that he could be a basketball player (but in the bar turned out to be much smaller), gave a piece of performance art entitled “Styles 4 3”. He body popped through a witty monologue that made me laugh out loud, making shapes with his body not humanly possible.

Melanie Teall and Diane Mitchell gave solid contemporary performances – “Portrait” by Christopher Tudor and “Seeking the Horizon” by Jackie Guy, respectively. Darren Paton performed a short classical piece which showed his body clearly to be one of the sensuous representations of the advertising literature, his slow controlled movements perfectly emphasising what I hope is natural muscle definition. Claud Paul Henry, Andile Sotiya and Alan Miller performed well in the second part of the evening but by now we were saturated with talent and hardly able to recognise the greatness of what we were seeing. (I can think of many a dull protracted evening that would have been saved if one of these guys had come on for five minutes.)

I had met Brenda Edwards, producer of the evening, before but had never seen her dance. I did not recognise her to be the elongated feline figure under the out-sized wig dancing “Coy” to “Fat boy Slim.” She moved along the floor on all fours (with good use of the floor, the poor use of which I aim to criticise out of existence) following the path of a spotlight casting a shadowy cross. Amazingly, her posture did not suffer despite the obvious weight of the wig. It was a piece which made me curious as to how it might be developed. How often do you feel that at a performance?

Greta Mendez took us by surprise. Where the other dancers had muscles, she had curves. The audience was pretending not to notice: voluptuousness is normally hidden under swathes rather than monumentalised in a tight-fitting leotard. The comical pathos of her rendition of “Yellow Bird” living high up on a luscious tree with which she compared the condition of an immigrant high up in a tower block, won the audience over. Audiences are naturally suspicious of any performer who appears on the stairs next to them, but though brash and forthright, Mendez was compellingly amusing about the condition of a newcomer to the country. By the time she proved that she could dance too, the fact that dance is not the preserve of the very young and lithe, was a given.

The highlights of an evening packed with talent were Jane Sekonya dancing “Spoti” and Sheron Wray in “IM/Perfect Soliloquy”. ‘Spoti’ is township slang for a fisherman’s hat. Sekonya, who grew up in Johannesburg, had the audience convinced that she was a portly, round-bottomed old cleaning woman amusing herself whilst going about her chores by trying on a hat she finds hanging lifelessly on a hat stand. Once the hat is pulled down over her cleaners’ turban, she starts jigging around as if possessed by a dancing spirit. The amusing develops into a serious trawl through township violence dance-acted in a way that is not clichéd, but, rather, chillingly convincing. Rarely have I seen social and political comment so admirably portrayed through dance. Plus it was downright clever and original.

Sheron Wray took Mendez’s sidling up to the audience one stage further with a call for participation. “Hip” she told us, also stands for other elements of the evening aside from the super cool performances: “highly intelligent people,” “high incentive payment” and “highly interactive payment.” Dancing her own brand of jazz/contemporary fusion to atmospheric African music with strong jazz overtones: “Doudou Ndiaye Rose” and “Simeon ten Holt,” she gave a high-energy performance punctuated by the music stopping which would prompt a member of the audience to unwrap the parcel and read a question that he or she then had to answer. From this exercise, facts are revealed about Wray that we would not discover from her dancing, such as that Wray is Scottish Jamaican. It was amusing to watch some of the audience hanging on to the parcel craving the music to stop whilst others launched it into the next row as if it were harbouring anthrax. The performance was highly original and a testimony to the following that Wray is developing was a comment made by a young dance student behind me: “I want to be Sheron when I graduate.”

The evening demonstrated not only that there exists a whole pool of black talent that needs further discovery, but also that there is in the UK, a large number of extremely good dancers and choreographers in the same person deserving to be known by those who do not know them. There is no doubt that they already have a sizeable dedicated following, but being so athletic, supple, musical and, well, hip, they could encourage an audience of dance virgins to buy a ticket to another dance production if not charge off to a dance class. Apart from being black, the dancers had in common extreme musicality: every step and pause interpreted the music.

It was also sobering to read the cvs of these hipsters. Whilst most classical dancers list roles for which they are known in a single company and most contemporary dancers can add more than one company and several works since their dance form is less role specific, these dancers had eclectic cvs showing several lines of pursuit: teaching, theatre, producer and directorships and choreographic collaborations with small companies, which goes to show just how far dancers who do not belong to a large established company have to create their own opportunities.

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