Day 1 – Nomadic Souls, Myself Dance Company, #PPL Dance Company, 10 Tens, Ukweli Roach, Zamounda, ILL-Abilities, Kompany Rep, NextLevel Squad, Project Soul
London, Sadler’s Wells
4 May 2013
Each May bank holiday, Sadler’s Wells is transformed into London’s biggest Hip-hop party. Not only do some of the world’s best-known crews take to the main stage, but every foyer in the building pulses with funk-driven breakbeats, the walls are covered with fresh graffiti and the floors are filled with top-rocking and backspinning as a trainer-toting crowd throws down. Now in its 10th year, Breakin’ Convention aims to pull the wider dance community into Sadler’s and show the contemporary face of Hip-hop in a theatre context. Over the years, the event has been a launchpad for UK touring companies including ZooNation, Birdgang, Avant Garde and Impact Dance, as well as a place to see top international perfomers from Europe, the US and Asia.
As per previous Breakin’ Conventions, Saturday night’s programme kicks off with a series of shorter routines from local crews. Those who enjoy tight, front-facing unison are well-served here; Nomadic Souls kick off proceedings with a likable set of high-speed, high-energy locking performed in fluorescent t-shirts and accompanied by an onstage rhythm section. Female collective Myself Dance Company burst into sprays of fierce street dance as slick as their costume of wet-look leggings; London’s #PPL Dance Company bring Africanistic spine-snapping and a thumping percussive soundtrack into the mix.
Stealing the early part of the show is 10 Tens, a youth collective of 10-year olds drawn from all over the UK and choreographed by Boy Blue’s Vicky Mantey and Bruno Perrier. Their six-minute piece is a super-cute rush of energy performed with skill and plenty of personality. Mantey and Perrier’s soundtrack keeps the feeling party-light and pleasingly retro, and there are choreographic nods to the four core elements of Hip-hop (DJing, MCing, Graf and dance) that are represented all over the Wells this weekend.
Perhaps the most inventive of the pieces shown in the first half is Ukweli Roach’s Vice. Seated at a desk, Roach slaps and taps out anxious rhythms on the tabletop that bring Wim Vandekeybus to mind; puffing on a cigarette he summons nine mysterious black-clad figures that swirl around in a cloud of nicotine smoke. The figures – manifestations of his vice, or maybe of the inner demons Roach is trying to slay with his habits – pin him to the chair and prevent him taking action, even when confronted with the girl of his dreams (beautifully danced by Shannelle Fergus). An ingenious physical sequence sees Roach seemingly stuck to the table, thwarted by inertia and left to seek solace at the bottom of a boozy-looking bottle. Vice is humorous and thought-provoking, a very promising outing from this young choreographer.
French all-female troupe Zamounda bring the 1990s to the Sadler’s Wells stage with CrazySexyCool, an energetic synthesis of B-girl moves, New Jack and waacking that gets heads nodding and trainers tapping all the way to the back of the second circle. The first half finishes with a half-hour set from ILL-Abilities, the international “super-crew” of disabled dancers. Less a fully-realised theatre piece than a show-and-tell exposition of the challenges each dancer faces, Limitless has each member of the crew arrive on stage to a pre-recorded voiceover explaining his particular disability. The tone is earnest, the music documentary-channel uplifting, the message reach-for-the-stars positive. There’s a missed opportunity here: more ensemble work and movement dialogue between the cast members would add texture; less voiceover would allow more of a visual focus on the crew’s unique skills. Where it triumphs over one set of limitations, Limitless reveals the distance Hip-hop has to go before it reaches the bar set by other integrated dance companies.
Irish Choreographer Robby Graham represents the more theatre-led, experimental end of the Hip-hop spectrum; with his new Kompany Rep Graham presents Men on a Mission, a male quartet delving into the murky side of recreational drug use. Graham segues fluid B-boying danced with expressive skill into long-limbed contemporary motion; the effect is darkly mesmerising, the quartet of coiling bodies springing and unspringing beautiful to watch. Men on a Mission ends with a stark image of a young man with a tourniquet around his arm; how it got there and what it means are left opaque by the choreography. Graham’s piece feels like a good first draft, a work-in-progress that should hopefully grow into something more complete.
Brooklyn’s NextLevel Squad make their UK debut showcasing their eyepopping “bonebreaking” style, in which dancers’ joints appear simply not to exist in the way that they do for the rest of us. The six crew members wrap arms and shoulders into some genuinely jaw-dropping configurations, all the while maintaining a rhythmic flow that makes the insane hyperextensions appear almost natural. I found myself involuntarily twitching my own shoulders for hours afterwards; still, despite the slight squick factor, this was a unique piece of top-drawer entertainment.
Think of Korea and you probably think of two things: the sunny, YouTube sensation-spawning South and its militarised Northern neighbour. Hiphop fans might also think of Project Soul, the acrobatic B-boy crew that lit up the first Breakin’ Convention back in 2004. Urban Arirang is the troupe’s playful riff on Korean heritage – folky bamboo flutes on the soundtrack, military drills led by a khaki-clad sergeant, and yes, that bouncing “invisible horse” dance seen and shared a billion times on a certain social network. Project Soul’s 13 athletic B-boys hit the ground with some fierce footwork and gravity-defying freezes; it’s very much an extended battle routine rather than a dance theatre work, but that doesn’t disappoint the capacity crowd one bit.
Saturday’s programme perhaps contained more in the way of Hip-hop as crowd-pleasing entertainment and less in the way of Hip-hop as boundary-pushing experiment; Sunday’s and Monday’s artists may have more to offer on that score. But the crowds – from the six-year-old toprocking on stage for a prize t-shirt to the octogenarian gentleman seated next to me in polite raptures – were most definitely entertained.