Review: Ivan Blackstock - A Harlem Dream - Young Vic

Performance: 20 October - 1 November 2014
Reviewed by Matthew Paluch - Monday 27 October 2014

Ivan Blackstock's 'A Harlem Dream' Photo: Bettina Strenske

Part The Great Gatsby, part downtown Lagos, the Young Vic’s tiny Maria space has a new identity for Dance Umbrella’s co-commissioned show: A Harlem Dream.

The brainchild of Ivan Blackstock ( Birdgang Dance Company ), the work revolves around two brothers (perhaps blood, or just soul) Mo and Sal – who dream of escaping Mississippi for the bright lights of Harlem during its early 20th century renaissance. The young entertainers realise their dream, but encounter tough decisions and even tougher people along the way – all ending negatively for the hopeful protagonists. The narrative, which deals with the still relevant manipulation of social, racial and gender groupings, feels a tad ‘we’ve been here before’ at times. The same however cannot be said for the dance.

Blackstock’s choreography is like his own performance of it: poetic. Hip hop as seen in recent high profile ‘cultural’ exposure (reality TV shows) tends to aim for high impact, crowd- rousing routines, whereas Blackstock goes back to the original motivation, similar to that of rap: intention.

His purpose is to use hip hop as a basis and infuse it with other styles more current in the period (Lindy Hop/Charleston/Cake-Walk/Tango). The term ‘fusion’ is often used for all kinds of wrong reasons – but Blackstock seems to take the concept and actually weld opposing fractions together. No mean feat. And with a well chosen cast, it works again and again.

The energy of the young performers is infectious, and so are their dramatic capabilities (notably Jared Garfield as Mr Deville, and Robia Milliner Brown as Constance in a heart-wrenchingly violent duet). Blackstock choreographs group numbers expertly – but when embodying his own work (as Mo), the true Poet is exposed. For me, two moments linger post show: first, a solo where Blackstock plays his own body as an instrument, like only an intuitive artist could; second, an outpouring of grief communicated through uncontrollable, yet controlled tics – suggesting a kind of melancholy ballet ‘port de bras’.

The piece ended weakly for me, an emotive tableau on slow fade; a shame, but not a deal breaker. Soweto Kinch’s score is current without being too commercial – and the overall visual impact is cinematic. A speakeasy come playwright’s platform.

Dance Umbrella’s new Artistic Director Emma Gladstone has made a shrewd move by including a hip hop flavoured work in this year’s festival. Its presence will surely introduce a new demographic. And with Blackstock part of the equation, a work of weight, genuine context and originality was guaranteed.

Continues at the Young Vic until 1 November.
Sold out – but check www.youngvic.org for last minute availability.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Part of Dance Umbrella 2014


Matthew Paluch is an ex professional dancer and teacher. He’s written for Dance Europe, Dancing Times and theartsdesk.com

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