Review: Blak Whyte Gray - Boy Blue Entertainment - Barbican

Performance: 12 - 21 January 2017
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Saturday 14 January 2017

Photo credit: Carl Fox

Performance reviewed: 13 January 2017

Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s hip hop dance company, Boy Blue, has made massive strides in bringing its art form to the mainstream in the 15-odd years it has been together. The MBE that Sandy received in the New Year’s Honours list shows how well this choreographer and composer pairing’s project has succeeded. Now, the latest Boy Blue show pushes the company farther on again. Blak Whyte Gray is a layered, meditative piece, stripped of obvious crowd-pleasing b-boy tricks and instead injected with hefty themes and emotions. It’s a beautiful, powerful work that demands an enormous amount from its eight dancers but proves to be richly rewarding for all.

Whyte is the first section of this triptych-structured piece. Ricardo Da Silva, Gemma Kay Hoddy and Dickson Mbi are held in a brutal square of light, with straitjacket-like straps hanging from their white clothing. The imagery of constraint is continued in the dance, a slow, at times almost melancholy display of superlative popping, used to make the three look as if they are striving to escape, their faces sometimes contorted in Munch-like silent screams. There is only one interlude when they experience a release, when Asante’s score switches briefly from glitchy electronica to African tribal rhythms, and the three dancers, bathed in golden light, are suddenly fluid and joyful.

Gray starts with a dancer, clad in a massive puffa jacket, again trapped in a square of light. But now there’s more of an urgency to the scenario, and as the rest of the company slide on to the stage on their backs, propelling themselves smoothly with their legs, there is a sense that these are warriors psyching themselves for a battle to come. The dance language now is krumping – muscular full-body movement with an overt aggression – the dancers mime pointing guns and lobbing grenades amid explosive routines and air-raid sirens.

Blak is the concluding piece. Mbi is at the centre of this section, weak and staggering (although, rather distractingly, topless and sporting what looks like a ten-pack), like a fallen guerrilla warrior, as the other dancers gather and try to revive him. Finally restored, he is draped in red cloth, like a Roman emperor, or a Buddhist monk – now his movement becomes regal, fusing martial arts poise with b-boy power. The battle is won, and the full-company celebration is a cathartic plunge into those African rhythms and dance moves that have been tantalising us throughout, with the dancers at once freed and finding a delighted synchronicity.

Asante seems to be referencing his Ghanaian heritage in what feels like a very personal, introspective piece from him and Sandy. It could be interpreted very specifically – the restraints that strip people of their roots and keep them from acknowledging their heritage condemn them to a life locked in frustration. Echoes of slavery, colonialism and their legacies abound. But there is also an important universality to this message about forging identity and shaking off what weighs you down that everyone can embrace. Blak Whyte Gray is a coming of age for Boy Blue – a piece that releases its pleasures slowly and with impressive mature strength.

12 – 21 January 2017
Running Time – 90 mins including a 20 minute interval

As part of Boy Blue Entertainment 2017

Created and directed by Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy & Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante
Choreography Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy
Music Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante
Lighting design Lee Curran

Produced by Boy Blue Entertainment.
Production co-commissioned and co-produced by the Barbican

Boy Blue Entertainment is as Associate Artist of the Barbican, London.

Touring to HOME, Manchester: 9-11 February

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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