I’ll second Judith Mackrell’s judgement that the majority of the new name acts on Breakin Convention 2005’s bill presented a somewhat stilted transposition of street and pop video dance styles onto the stage.
Saturday’s programme in the main house presented through the proscenium arch what has traditionally been viewed at close quarters in the round (i.e. through the eyes of those also engaged in breakdance battles, offside spectators or the all-seeing zoom-in eye of the camera) to varying degrees of success. An abundance of slick moves based on stock stylised vocabularies from electric boogaloo, breakdance, urban dance and combinations of these, were interspersed with comprehensive displays of tricks, choreographed to mainly upbeat recent hip hop hits.
Each of the new UK crews had their own distinct hallmarks: Holloway Boyz had male charm across the age group; Status epitomised by their male and female Usher-a-like white suit costumes; and Flowzaic (a kind of movement equivalent of all-female lyrical rappers Floetry) used the stage space effectively, despite being mere six in number. The speed and dynamic of this kind of staccato, gravity-defying movement is impressive when mastered in the live human body, yet the result was at times two-dimensional. Without the mediation of the camera some configurations and small gestures simply lacked the projection to transmit to a static viewer over a long distance. Dance 2XS, however, used and played along with the pop video format creating a well-rounded piece of postmodern theatre that owed as much to ‘Phanton of the Opera’ as Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video. The costumes were witty outrageous concoctions of Goth, Fame, Krump and Rocky Horror fashion displayed with panache and self-conscious irony, all adding gravity to the piece’s surprise vampire ending. IDance were the only company to overtly acknowledge breakdance’s jazz roots and its a lineage to musical theatre traditions with their angular asymmetrical and inverted body positions, hammed-up mini dramas and episodic format. ‘Elements of the Playground’ attempted to portray a complex narrative with a theme of friendship and conflict that may have made sense if it had not been put together from edited highlights of a much longer piece.
Despite all this home-grown talent it was Russian nine-man act Top 9 who completely stole the show. Met with a standing ovation they were unanimously judged the top dogs. Top 9 first established their breakdance credentials with non-stop demonstrations of the most complex floor and aerial stunts all executed with precision, athleticism and speed, and then went on to prove they were also expert showmen. In a physically awesome onslaught of short self-contained pieces, they ricocheted across the stage with acrobatics, circus-style tumbling, clowning dressed in a selection of derivative costumes, such as dinner suits and hooded tops. This company has only been breaking for the last five years, but it’s obvious that they were dancing traditional Russian styles such as Cossack long before that.
It seems that now hip hop has officially broken into the international theatre scene, groups from overseas such as Top 9 have upped the ante even higher. Large numbers may once have been the safe formula for breakdance crews, but now audiences are looking for clever and innovative choreography to show off all the usual tricks in arresting ways. Hip hop on a theatre stage needs to make visual impact over long distances, and to weave into its stock vocabulary tried and tested theatrical traditions. Style, rhythm, energy and talent are the bare minimum. Now audiences are demanding the thrills of those old theatrics: mime; comedy; physical theatre; character portrayal and storylines and/or recognisable themes that evolve throughout the piece. It looks as though the organisers of Breakin Convention will have their work cut out for next year ‘s festival. Possibly it will expand to fill an entire week of events, and I’ll bet many dancers and spectators have put their names down for 2006’s offering already.
(A version of this text forthcoming in Undercover Magazine.)
I’m off to see Compagnie Kafig at Birmingham’s Hippodrome tomorrow to see what all the fuss is about. Dress code is boxes on heads I’ve heard.