Robert Hylton Urban Classicism

"Life in Urban Classicism"

The Place, London, UK

November 15-16, 2002
By Thea Nerissa Barnes

Robert Hylton Urban Classicism's Life in Urban Classicism begins with Hylton moving against a backdrop lit in a manner that alludes to imprisonment. Our protagonist is a prisoner but our performer has a breadth of embodied knowledge that means to break conventional conceptions of street dance. In this opening work Hylton defines theatretronics; refined subtleties of popping, waving, locking, ticking, and King tut accompanied by a vocabulary for the face and spoken text. The text Hylton speaks represents the antagonists who are both invisible and impersonated by Hylton. A simple sidestep out of the centre special and Hylton’s body narrative personifies either judge or instigator. The judge incites Hylton while the instigator challenges both being denigrator or detractor. The audience is then presented two well-crafted films Urban Classicism and Urban Voodoo. These fine films show off Hylton and director, Oliver Ashton refreshing approach to the inclusion of movement text in the film medium.

In a conversation with Hylton I learned that Urban Classicism acknowledges the roots of established lexicons of movement, ballet and the various contemporary dance forms. Hylton believes though that street dance will also gain the same status as these bona fide forms and be recognised for the creative wellspring it already is. The image of battle/challenge machismo that is usually associated with street dance sometimes shadows the requisite responsibility of the performer to “create”, to improvise to discover individuality and bring something new to the form. The intention is to re-invent. In the second half Hylton offers his “mission” to offer something new.

The second half of the program presented a seemingly endless cascade of movement that for me presented one of the most successful mutations of street moves transposed into contemporary dance abstraction. Street dance is an improvised vocabulary of shared and invented moves that change with individual performance skill. In this dance work, however, the movement design is consistent with the genre but the frame has been rearranged. Intended to be a satirical comment on futuristic oral and physical communication, “Landscapes” has the flow of manipulated gyrations, popping and locking, breakdance with capoeira flow reinvented with ingenious inverted work. Headstands slow to allow instances of breath or touching of limbs. Compositional strategies re-define space, switch focus, alter facings, flip moves, augment, fragment, then relocate the design of arm to leg. Intermittent walks characterise each dancer with his or her own swagger speaking street-ness but also reclaiming focus and switching the improvisation to another venture. The music contributed its sense of the mood being somewhat futuristic but familiar in its manipulation of turntable scratching. Its electronic-ness was layered in a manner to augment the subtleties of the movement. These compositional strategies seemed familiar and I am reminded of similar choreographic explorations by Jonathan Burrows and Akram Khan, choreographers who have taken individualised embodied knowledge and constructed personalised movement text with specialised compositional tools that make their dance works incomparable to others.

Admittedly, The Place sets the mark and provides a place for the pulse of contemporary dance to beat. The shared sensibilities of these choreographers do not speak of the influence of any one thing but signals a standard for the arc of contemporary choreography. In 1962, Robert Dunn’s composition class influenced a generation of experimental dance-makers that heralded the dawning of postmodern dance and sidestepped the geniuses of expressionist modern dance-makers like Martha Graham. Postmodern dance-makers chose objective impersonal compositional strategies similar to the contemporary art insights of Merce Cunningham and John Cage to speak of a relevance that was more interested in clarifying the landscape they lived in, not the landscape of the heart. Street dance in its various forms is a reaction to landscape. In this landscape, the disenfranchised turned bodily narrative into a weapon of defence to save identity and declare altered cultural significance. Hylton, and similarly Jonzi D and Kwesi Johnson, have taken individualised embodied knowledge of street dance and divined their own theatre. Hylton’s urban classicism offers an altered effort to define an individual expression of the genre. Hylton’s vocabulary is just aching for manipulation and Hylton is well equipped to do just that.

Katie Pearson is earth-bound and strong. Her body-locking and capoeira-like moves are weighted like cement if cement could also ooze and bend like a wire. Hylton has a different weight with different intonation. Hylton’s display of weight had flashes of a bodily narrative familiar with the lexicons of ballet and classic contemporary dance, his linearity giving way to à la seconde poses illustrating the breath of his contemporary dance experience. But this is that improvisation factor, like Charlie Parker quoting Laura in the middle of a music set. It’s just a fancy, a choice that encapsulates a remembered sensation. All gives rise to more manipulation of gyrations that are spliced together to make the transition from one movement phrase to the next. Frank Wilson’s angularity, just shy of being inhuman, is a wily caricature who delivered the sarcasm in the work with his on/off smile before the exquisite duets. Close to the end, DJ Billy Biznizz entered “Landscapes”, leaving his turntables to loop on their own, demonstrating his embodied knowledge of moves as well as sound.

The design of this dance work is a display of movement sets that segue one to the next each having its own particular harmony. Hylton’s declaration – “not to gain acceptance but to assert possibility!” – is more than aptly given. His movement abstraction is so easily absorbed that if these are the strategies of composition used to manipulate the richness of movement vocabularies available on street corners, living rooms, and dance clubs everywhere then AMEN!


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Edited by Malcolm.

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