This special two-night engagement at Sadler’s Wells was a confluence of three tributaries coming together in a free-flowing river. First up, there is the professional ZooNation, which has grown through two long-running, fabulous shows, Into The Hoods and Some Like it Hip Hop. Both productions energised their vitality through great soundtracks but the sampled, recorded music in the former gave way to an original score for SLiHH, albeit with the music recorded on a backing track over which the singers performed live.
The second influence was ZooNation’s tenth anniversary gig – held last December – which successfully integrated Youth Company and professional dancers into the prototype of a single celebratory gala at Sadler’s Wells. And, thirdly, there is the burgeoning popularity of street dance in all its forms, brought mainstream by TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance (sadly, no more in the UK) and Sky’s longer-lasting Got To Dance. Put these three developments into a melting pot and – hey presto – out comes ZooNation Unplugged!
Kate Prince is, of course, the chain linking each of these influences. She is the founder, creative inspiration and mastermind of the ZooNation brand and a choreographer whose lyrical hip hop style reached out to the wider world through TV screens in So You Think You Can Dance. Her third full-length show is appropriately entitled Groove On Down The Road and Unplugged represents yet another step (although, more like quantum leaps) on her ambitious and very successful journey
This celebratory showcase of the ZooNation talent was remarkable for several reasons. One leit motif was how seamlessly the professional and youth dancers gelled together. The rarefied technique and timing of these youngsters was at the professional end of the skill spectrum and they performed with a degree of comfort and confidence that belied their age. Corey Culverwell was the first to shine with extraordinary dexterity and presence before it was the turn of Jaih Betote’s neat, fluid rhythms to catch the eye. A sudden hip-popping move brought an audible gasp from the audience before a dizzying sequence of acrobatic back flips (by a dancer I can only identify as Michael) was performed so close to the edge of the stage as to give any ‘elf-and-safety inspector an apoplectic attack. Ebullient, chirpy William Pascua provided the narrative link between pieces and always in the mix was Annie Edwards, bringing back charming memories of her Fairy G cameo from Into The Hoods.
I can’t imagine any other youth company performing at such a level on a big, main stage alongside their professional counterparts, not just making the numbers up but hitting solos and ensemble dances that are comparable in every way. It’s also salutary to note the complete absence of body aesthetic in street dance. These kids come in every conceivable shape but, whatever their physical presence, the irrepressible talent is uniformly super-sized.
There were, of course, also many standout performances from the professionals, both musically and in dance. The band and two exceptional singers (Vula Malinga and Elliotte Williams N’Dure) overcame some momentary early sound problems to deliver a bonzer concert, ranging from covers of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall (which I’m still singing, 48 hours’ later) to Daft Punk’s equally catchy Get Lucky and including original numbers from the later ZooNation shows.
Rowen Hawkins – complete with a Mohican and goatee – oozed cool throughout; Duwane Taylor (Some Like It Hip Hop’s The Governor) delivered a mesmerising pair of stylised Krumping solos; and Tommy Franzén – also newly minted with close-cut, shaved hair – reprised a sultry Breakin’ Convention duet (originally performed with Teneisha Bonner) alongside Lizzie Gough, now a pony-tailed blonde “bombshell”. They poured the HOT back into ‘Some Like it…’ with ripped, muscular bodies steaming up a sizzling, sensuality that took the show past the 9 o’clock watershed.
Topping the lot was an amazing vignette by the super-charged Turbo, a new- school popping legend, performing a solo of such flowing movement that it was astonishing to discover that he had never heard the music before. A finalist in the 2011 iteration of Got To Dance (and, in my view, a worthy winner in all but name), Turbo (real name, Isaac Baptiste) delivered a memorable improvisational masterclass and he is a welcome guest addition to the ZooNation gang. Let’s see some more of him, please!
ZooNation Unplugged presents a rough ‘n ready, raw celebration of an exhilarating, inexhaustible, infectious enthusiasm for rhythmically-rooted movement. In short, it was foot-tapping fun!