A shamanistic character appears on the pitch-black stage. An eerie sight, he wears a balaclava over his head and an ornate robe that glints as it catches some light. He holds a microphone and two drum sticks, which silhouetted in the dark look like The Wolverine’s claws. Slowly, he paces in circles, the thud of his glam-rock platform shoes reverberating through the sound system.
As the lights come up, fragments of limbs appear from behind the panels up-stage – a foot, a leg, an arm. It’s a surreal image as they materialise on different horizontal levels. Finally, the dancers emerge, lurching towards us, arms splayed out like zombies under the spell of the shaman drummer.
Gradually – and it is a slow burn, the battles begin but not against other hip-hop crews. This is a battle between movement and music and the musician/shaman seems to be in control of what unfolds before our eyes. From isolated monster-walks, ungainly fractured movements, and general chaotic disunity the dancers form a compact organised team. As they respond to the sound-cues, they weave together a coherent language of unbelievable virtuosic hip-hop balances, shoulder stands, head spins and inverted splits.
Rarely seen in London apart from performances at Breakin’ Convention, French choreographer Pierre Rigal brings something different to the hip-hop dance theatre scene with Scandale. With his company of six exceptionally skilful hip-hop dancers and musician drummer Gwenael Drapeau, Rigal uses abstract sounds, electric percussion, and experimental voice work – words, cries and chants as a trigger to manipulate the dancers and create fantastical hip-hop choreography.
There are some magical sections as when the dancers freeze in gravity defying off-balance formations, like the painted mime artists in the streets around Covent Garden; shape-shifting which could only be crafted by film techniques or divine intervention. For a moment I think they are indeed superhero dancers until I notice the invisible ropes attached to their limbs. It’s still an impressive device to enhance the fluid, athleticism of the hip-hop vocabulary.
While they are all indeed phenomenal hip-hop virtuosos, the two women, Amelie Jousseaume and Camille Regneault stand out as exceptional. They demonstrate strength and agility that I’ve rarely seen women breakers perform. Compact yet released, precise yet adventurous they glide effortlessly from floor work, tricksy fast foot-work to single-arm inverted balances.
In another scene, the magician creates a sound score from both his roaring laughter and that of the dancers. Radom, hysterical laughs feed into the microphone and result in a pulsing, percussive wall of sound which then grips the performers in frantic antics until they collapse to the ground.
When erratic poses and technical feats explode into action phrases, Scandale is exhilarating and flowing, but there are boring moments in which both sound and choreography seem to stall while the relationship between the shamanic drummer and his zombie subjects becomes tedious and repetitious. There’s too much attention on the character of the shaman at the expense of the dancers who are reduced to performing puppets, devoid of gritty, urban attitude.
While showcasing great acts of artistic endeavour, Scandale reads more like a magician’s show with inventive effects rather than one that reflects on any deeper content or the social context of hip-hop.