With storms brewing in the night sky overhead, the streets of Islington were freezing cold on Thursday night. Inside Sadler’s Wells, however, was a feast of warm Jamaican sunshine, served up with fat basslines and lashings of rum punch, at the first Wild Card of 2014. Now in its third year, Wild Card is a platform commissioning young choreographers to make and curate work for the Lilian Baylis studio theatre and its surroundings. With her Dancehall Takeover, Belgian-born dance artist Cindy Claes brings an evening of winding, bogling and willie bouncing to the Baylis stage – and a theatrical take on a popular club dance style.
The event begins, strangely, with a farewell: the swansong of veteran hip hop and dancehall artist Paradigmz. The Dancehall Spirit is an extensive history of the development of dance and music in Jamaica, from its roots in the sugar plantations to the dancehall of today. Swathed in a red cloth, Paradigmz begins his solo with low-slung Africanistic steps, accompanied by the sounds of tribal drumming and song. As the history of the island and its people unfolds – from European colony to independent nation and international diaspora – so the music and dance of Jamaica develops in parallel, absorbing rhythmic influences from American jazz and lyrical influences from spiritual and political leaders.
With help from an occasional costume change (and, at one point, a willing volunteer), Paradigmz illustrates this development with an unfurling of hip-swinging rocksteady, pulsing reggae and pounding ska, finishing with the energetic bounce and wind that we know as dancehall today. With its abundance of information in music clips, recorded soundbites and Paradigmz own physical performance, The Dancehall Spirit has the air of a danced lecture – but one pulled off with such vim and personality that it’s impossible not to be entertained.
The highlight of the evening is Claes’ own piece, Is My Whining Winding You Up? Three female friends – portrayed by Claes, Andrea Queens and Natalie Baylie – meet for coffee and to unburden themselves of a litany of everyday problems. Absent fathers, noncommittal boyfriends, sons getting up to mischief with the girl next door and alarming statistics about the situation of young women in the developing world combine into a whirl of fast-paced fretting that erupts frequently into fits of high-energy stamping and booty-shaking. The performers console one another with compassionate unison, adopting one another’s moods and grievances as they share movement.
The titular whining leads to little in the way of resolution – Claes’ boyfriend isn’t shown coming to his senses, the next-door neighbor is unable to help Queens with her offspring, and Baylie comes to realise that documenting alarming statistics is not the same as making change. Is My Whining Winding You Up? ends by inviting the audience to “big up the girls”call-and-reponse style, but chiefly represents a chat and a chance to share problems between friends rather than an overt political manifesto.
The Dancehall Takeover ends with a collaboration between Jamaica’s Shady Squad and the new Dancehall Theatre Exchange Collective. Life of a Shady starts well, with Conray Richards and Matthew Richards of Shady Squad portraying two elderly Caribbean gentlemen in a codependent frenemy relationship, aggravating one another with infantile tricks and teases. Into their grumpy old man’s world bounce the five recent graduates of DTX Collective, fizzing with youthful bravado. What begins as a colourful collision of older and younger people, newer styles versus the old, drifts into a long and meandering showcase for the Shady pair with the DTX dancers clustered idly to the side. Life of a Shady suffers from the wrong kind of reverence for its subjects; there’s the seed of an uplifting piece of dance theatre here, if only someone could take the time to give the central section a severe edit and restore coherence to the work.
Ably compered by Impact Dance’s Hakeem Onibudo, Claes’ Dancehall Takeover brought a welcome ray of sunshine to the Baylis studio, left the audience with a smile on its face and a spring in its step, and offered a glimpse of the style’s dance theatre potential. Dutty.