From Thursday 27th April to Monday 1st May, Sadler’s Wells hosted the annual Breakin’ Conventions, the International Festival of Hip Hop Dance Theatre. The event is organised and presented by Hip Hop guru Jonzi D and, once again, it offered a wonderful opportunity for Hip Hop enthusiasts to see, not only the development of the dance form in the UK, but also in the rest of the world. This year’s guests came from Switzerland, USA, Germany, France, Brazil and Korea. Alongside the performances, the audience can also join workshops in the theatre, classes and other events held at different areas of the building.
I attended the performances on Sunday. I was sorry to miss Zoonation’s “Harry Popper and the Hip Hop Battle”, as I was looking forward to seeing this group after seeing their performances at the Peacock Theatre earlier this year. Still, on Sunday, there were other interesting British groups to discover, as well as international artists coming over from France, Brazil and Korea.
Atmosphere in the theatre was great, though not as buzzing as I remembered it from my previous visit last year. As for the performances, they were good overall, though there seemed to be a big gap between the technical abilities of the British participants and those coming from abroad. Of course, this may be down to the fact that the international guests are professional performers and the British ones come mainly from youth dance groups. Still, one thing seems certain, Hip Hop is here to stay. The number of young people interested and practising this dance form is increasing and it seems its appeal is also developing their skills and numbers!
The afternoon started with The Angels, a young group that performed “Into the Light”. Their performance was good and they managed to warm up the atmosphere in the theatre. The second group was Nexus Boys, who presented “Gangs of New York”. We were told at the beginning of their act that there were girls in the group as well, though I had more than reservations about the way these were presented by their choreographer Anthony Dantae “Mega” Johnson. Unfortunately, this representation of women was reinforced by another group, Boy Blue, later on in the evening. Choreographer Kenrick “H20” Sandy created their act, “Street Elementz”.
Hip Hop is an evolving dance form. If, at the beginning, it was accused of not including women in it, by now, it has to be said that, especially in Britain, it has gone a long way in this respect. However, I was shocked by some of the imagery and fetishism that was used to present young women on stage. Presenting women as male sexual fantasies is dangerous in itself, to do so when working with such young women is at least worrying. Hip Hop is an empowering dance form. Its dynamics, pace and physicality are aspects that show how powerful this dance form can be. To adapt this for the women, as some male choreographers seem to do, and have them playing sexual objects for the men in the group is, at the very least insulting and dangerous in the way this may be perceived by the rest of young people. When Boy Blue had a fight between two women - used to showcase locking techniques -, and this ended with one of the young women slapping the other, some members of the audience clapped and cheered. I felt disturbed and consequently, left the theatre.
I am not arguing that young choreographers cannot explore whatever territories they choose to in order to pursue their choreographic quests. What I am arguing is that as young artists, they have accountability for what they do andmore thought should be put into the effect their work may have in their audiences.
Having said that, there was another area of concern that was reinforced throughout the afternoon-evening, and that is the ability to make hip hop evolve by fusing its elements with other dance forms. It is true that some of the groups, like Zoonation or 2XS, have already done this. Their performances are a joy to watch because these young people are not limited by hip hop conventions, but enlarged by its possibilities. The problem most of the groups I saw had, was that, after ten minutes of their performances, there was nothing new to be added to their pieces. In narrative terms, they were constricted by their lack of awareness of theatrical and dramatic elements that could enhance their showcases, and technically, after two hours of hip hop performances, the acrobatics and movement vocabulary seemed repetitive. Of course, this is not something that affects only hip hop. The same could be said of an evening of classical ballet’s pas de deux… there is this much you can do, until the audience becomes tired of seeing thirty two fouettés coming at the end of each one of them!
Avant Garde Dance presented an interesting exploration into the creative process in dance and I found this piece the most satisfying, both in terms of choreography, by Tony Adigun and the Company, and in terms of conveying the dramatic content it set out to tell.
The international groups I saw were Phase T and Frank Ejara. Phase T came from France and they showed a technical display that was simply brilliant to watch. However, I missed the pure genius that the Russian group Top 9 showed last year by not only putting on brilliance on stage, but also taking the form miles ahead in its possibilities.
Frank Ejara, from Brazil, brought a most interesting piece “Som di Movimento” and I found his work the most compelling to watch. It was a one man show and it had moments of pure genius in the way the dancer put together a display of movement and rhythm with the most simple elements.
It was a great festival and it is obvious that it has got its place in the annual programme of the theatre. Maybe that is why it should be expected that, from now on, Breakin’ Conventions starts becoming more aware of its possibilities and tries to nurture the great talent that it has managed to recruit in its years of existence. Young people need platforms and this is undoubtedly a great one. However, they also need guidance and role models they can aspire to. It would be a shame if those in charge of the festival could not manage to provide these for the future of their art form.