Dust off your spin jacket, dig out your favourite fitted cap and put on some fresh kicks – it’s time for Sadler’s Wells’ annual festival of all things hip hop, Breakin’ Convention. Now in its 11th year, BC has become a permanent fixture in the hip hop calendar, and one of the few notable dance events that truly attracts a multigenerational demographic. In Saturday’s audience were b-boys and fly girls old enough to remember Kool Herc’s original bloc parties, thirtysomethings who taped Public Enemy off the radio, and preschoolers in adorable toddler-sized Nike Airs.
It’s a big ask to appeal consistently to such a broad audience; for every audience member who is attracted by the European crews pushing the boundaries between breakdance and physical theatre, there will be another who is primarily there to see hi-energy locking routines or thrilling stunts by Korean b-boys. Previous programmes have aimed for strength in breadth but have sometimes resulted in audibly confused audience members; it’s a positive development to see a greater number of artists this year pushing at the boundaries of hip hop traditions and coming to do what the name of the festival suggests.
The evening opens, as is traditional, with a brace of UK crews; this year the honour of opening the festival goes to Definitives, a streetdance ensemble that may be familiar to viewers of Sky 1’s Got to Dance. They’re swiftly followed by Spoken Movement, a young crew using movement rooted in the angular shapes and rhythmic impacts of street dance, blended with shades of contemporary and African dance.
So far, so British hip hop; the arrival of Czech circus performers IN-SI-DE The Cirque blows the air of comfortable hooded familiarity clean off the stage with The Clowns, a faintly surreal and very European piece of cabaret theatre that owes as much to continental mime traditions as it does to Tommy the Clown. There’s a strange beauty at work here, syncopated locking moves segueing into slapstick tumbling against a soundtrack of smoky café-jazz.
Canadian duo Tentacle Tribe squeeze and squirm their way through When They Fall, a contact duet about strangers meeting and sharing space for fleeting moments. Dancer-creators Emmanuelle Le Phan and Elon Hoglund both move with a pleasing, sinuous quality; when compere and event curator Jonzi D asks the crowd “How juicy was that?” he’s talking about the excellence of the piece, but he could equally be characterising the dynamic qualities of the pair’s movement.
ILL-Abilities, the inclusive crew with members from Chile, The Netherlands, Canada and the US, closes the first act with another autobiographical docu-routine. No Limits is not significantly different in structure or scope from last year’s Limitless (review).
The interval gives the audience a chance to throw down in their own circles, brush up on dance moves with b-boy Banxy and street dancer Aleta Thompson, fill up on jerk chicken and Jamaican pasties or drop into the smaller Lilian Baylis Studio next door for performances by Romanian duo Marius and Andrei, Dani Harris-Walters and Sia Gbamoi of London’s #PPL Dance Company and charming US B-boy Tom Tsai. Breakin’ Convention is as much about taking part as it is about watching the companies on stage, and there’s certainly a lot of tagging and toprocking going on during the break.
Back in the main theatre space, France’s CIE Phorn present Phorm, a liquid duet in which the two dancers form bodily hoops for each other to pass through, rolling across, over and seemingly through one another in a series of fast-moving optical illusions. Illusion plays a part in Kendra J Horsburgh’s solo, The Aviary, which finds the dancer transforming herself into a human-crow hybrid. Horsburgh, a member of the innovative Birdgang Dance Company, is a physically adept performer and The Aviary contains some interesting theatrical ideas – including a neat twist at the end that I won’t spoil here.
The expressive style of krumping erupted in South Central LA at the start of the millennium, and krump originator Ceasare “Tight Eyez” Willis and his troupe, Street Kingdom, are here to show the Sadler’s audience exactly how it’s done. Muscular, bellicose and fuelled with a distinctly masculine energy, they stomp at the stage, energy rippling through legs and torsos at spine-snapping speed.
It’s left to Londoners and Breakin’ Convention regulars Avant Garde Dance to close the show with Rush, an ensemble piece for a mass cast of 20 dancers performed to echoing taiko drums. Avant Garde has been recoding hip hop for the theatre for some years; this is Tony Adigun’s most conspicuously contemporary piece to date. With its percussive soundtrack, barefoot performers, loose white costumes and mottled lighting, Rush nods to the piece of the same name by Akram Khan; a section set on a dozen wide wooden tables recalls early Wim Vandekeybus. It’s also one of the largest ensembles Adigun has worked with, and on Saturday parts of the piece were less than completely tight; Rush could become a powerful piece with more work in the studio, but at present ithas the feel of an early draft.
Saturday’s show this year ended earlier than it has in the past – perhaps due to slicker compèring and simpler stage sets, or perhaps due to the shorter length of many pieces. Shorter evenings are no bad thing in general, and viewers typically don’t mind getting an earlier bus home, but I could have enjoyed another twenty minutes this year.