Robert Hylton Urban Classicism
Verse & Verses
This latest show from hip hop innovator Robert Hylton looks a bit like a Gap advert: a gang of brightly dressed young dancers with smiling faces and streetwise moves. That formula might successfully sell a store-full of jeans, but it’s not as cutting edge as you might expect from Hylton.
Putting hip hop on stage is fairly established now in the dance world, and after marvelling at the headspins, windmills and other gravity-halting moves, the issue soon became how to make theatrical hip hop more than just a dance-off.
Some choreographers, like Rennie Harris, have chosen the narrative route. Others, like Hylton, look to meld hip hop styles with other dance forms, particularly contemporary, to create a new movement language. The cast Hylton has assembled for Verse & Verses, while being well-schooled in the vernacular of breaking, popping etc, all have their own distinct backgrounds, which they bring to the show.
Paula Vacarey, for example, is a real B-girl, a member of battle crews Sinstars, Foundationz Cru and Outbreak, who has competed internationally and finally banishes the notion that girls can’t breakdance. Her fellow female performer, Rose Chu, by contrast has a much more contemporary line and fun, funky presence. Mickael Riviere’s acrobatic background comes though clearly in his gymnastic poses and balances, in complete contrast to ballet-trained Jake Nwogu. This diverse mix goes to make the company a little rough around the edges, but that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, and Hylton plays each one to their strengths.
There are plenty of familiar hip hop elements here – the DJ on stage, the cult of vinyl well in evidence as images of spinning records are projected onto the stage and backdrop – but there are also steps away from the traditions of the battle, the performers’ circle and the succession of physical tricks. Hylton’s dances are structured, with pattern and direction, and a finishing point that isn’t always back where you started. Instead of making each dancer fight for attention he joins them together to turn two single breakdancers into tumbling partners. He also decides against a relentlessly energetic soundtrack, choosing more laid back sounds and atmospheric electronics instead.
While these are all interesting developments, the final result lacks focus. There are 18 short sections, and the overall effect is too episodic to get a grip on. The material is undeveloped and not nearly as inventive as you’d hope. Perhaps they were short on rehearsal time – the show could definitely do with more polish. Having said that, there are moments where you can see what Hylton might be getting at. One solo from Jake Nwogu sums up exactly what Urban Classicism could mean, as he slams his ballet technique up against a hip hop beat, attacking the floor with ferocious jetes and high speed soubresauts. This is exciting choreography, this is a real culture clash, but it also feels like a true expression of the dancer’s physical identity. This is what we’ll hope to see more of next time.