TAG…Me vs. The City
Jonzi D Productions
Contact Theatre, Manchester
Saturday 18th February 2006
Dominating the set of Jonzi’s D’s new production TAG…Me vs. The City are five large multi-coloured bulbous structures that are a cross between weird-shaped sofas and cone-shaped children’s climbing frames. Their silhouetted shapes imply graf lettering, and it’s from behind, beneath, and wrapped around this free-standing set that the dancers emerge following the opening scene suggesting a torchlit police search with sniffer dogs. B-boy and graf artist Banksy then enters to ‘animate’ the dancers using his aerosol spray can, miming painting on them as they respond to the lines and shading of his imagination. Throughout the piece this seems to remain the premise: that Banksy is the b-boy-turned-sorcerer and the dancers are his puppets. And, like any set of cartoon characters of your choice, each of the dancers is assigned a 2-dimensional personality. Katie P is nervy, skittery, angular and introverted; Bboy Soopa J is all big hair, big attitude and big power moves; Tommy Frazen bounds around chirpily and energetically trying to get everyone’s attention; K is slick with super-cool krumping tricks; Nathan Geering has incredibly long legs, but prefers to spend most of his time on his head in freezes or corkscrews. There’s lots of scuttling, skirmishing, twitching, entwining and musical statues/freezes in black paint-splattered clothing.
But it’s difficult to swallow Jonzi D’s uncharacteristically shallow characterisation, since it’s clear from their wide repertoire of b-boy, contemporary dance and street dance moves that the dancers are solo artists, hand-picked by Jonzi, and capable of much more depth in terms of human interest in their on-stage interaction. In some respects, to restrict the dancers mainly to confrontational b-boy battle vocabulary, with some partnerwork added in for good measure, is to belittle their obvious talents. This is surprising, especially as it’s Jonzi himself who has made comparisons between the depth and versatility of the codes of b-boy movement vocabulary and that of other dance genres, such as ballet, in communicating in a theatre context. Perhaps this is an intentional artistic comment on the age in which we live, where everything we do is allegedly mediated by technology, and Jonzi is responding to this by portraying his dancers as cartoonish and alienated.
As for Banksy, it’s ambiguous as to whether it’s possible to sympathise with his onstage persona (the ‘me’ of the title), or whether the ‘city’ should win after all. He’s acting younger than his age, maybe to express an inner b-child, maybe to appeal to the youth in the audience (all on this occasion separated by surely less than six degrees!). Cheeky (as in cocky, not cute) and rebellious, Banksy sprays his tag on the theatre furniture, blows raspberries, pulls faces, grabs the crotch of his low-slung jeans, and drinks beer from a bottle. He seems typically ‘not bothered’ when he receives a letter telling him he has an ASBO. But, since he only speaks a few words throughout, there’s no real explanation for why he does all this and somehow he doesn’t quite cut it as subversive. A shame because there is so much here that really does work well. Seeing the relationship between the different artisitic strands of hip hop culture brought to life on stage in the clearly linked sounds, shapes, colours, movements, drama, and accompanying film animation is a celebration of the largest youth culture in the world, yet with dark undertones of something not quite legitimate. All the elements that we have seen work so well with Jonzi D’s solo work are translated here onto his new company. There is a sense that he’s really gone to town with this long-awaited opportunity to expand as a choreographer. You can almost imagine him there with his shopping list…”I want some top breakdancers, a big set that’s interactive and interesting to look at, a back-projection film of graf on a trainline (a la Wildstyle), my own original soundtrack, my mate Banksy doing tags around the theatre, unconventional lighting that throws a searchlight onto the audience and makes them uneasy… Yeah, that would make a great show.” And, because there’s so much to engage with, it kind of works.