Review: Breakin' Convention at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 1 - 3 May 2010
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Friday 7 May 2010

Renegade in 'Schwarze Katze'

As Breakin’ Convention’s irrepressible curator Jonzi D reminds us, the festival is now in its seventh year as the UK’s premier hip hop theatre event. “Seven years down the line we have just gone from strength to strength,” hollers Jonzi to a packed Sadler’s main space. “Right now, hip hop dance is doing no wrong.”

Breakin’ Convention provides a platform for hip hop artists who want to move on from battle circles and traditional routine presentations to a more creative, theatrical dimension. Given Jonzi’s laudable aims for the event, it’s a shame not all of Breakin’ Convention’s acts this year – on the opening night anyway – took up that challenge.

First up were Sky TV’s Got to Dance finalists Status with a hyper-active homage to Alice in Wonderland. Supposedly inspired by the novel, for me this four-minute aerobic workout bears no visible relation to the classic text. At least it has brevity on its side, as does an end-of pier turn from 11-year old Akai, the same TV show’s winner.

Fresh from Battle of the Year, French B-Boy troupe Phase T bring humour and energy to the stage with Trop Tard! [Too late! ]. There are some witty touches to the choreography – the dancers form a human CD changer, rotating around one another before throwing down to the track of their choice, and a live rewind of an entire section is impressively slick – but Trop Tard! Is still a battle routine rather than a piece of dance theatre. The same is true of Hilty and Bosch, two crowd-pleasing lockers from Japan. The duo perform a pair of perfectly competent locking routines which, though entertaining enough, add nothing to the standard vocabulary of front-facing funk moves in tight unison and with a strictly Mickey Mouse musicality.

Far more interesting is the performance by Denmark’s Big City Brains. Remote Control uses the eye-popping technical skills of its performers not as an end in themselves, but as a means to open imaginary doors to fantastic new spaces within the theatre. Combining popping, mime and physical theatre the 18-minute piece has a magical, dreamlike quality that brings to mind film director Tim Burton. Each time one of the crew presses the button on an invisible remote control, the performers find themselves in yet another curious situation, here blowing in an unexpected wind and there surprised by a wandering psycho killer. It’s an apposite lesson in how Hip-hop troupes can use both authentic techniques and the possibilities offered by theatre to create dance work that is delightful, original, and in this case completely off the wall.

German B-boy crew Renegade welcome the audience back to the main stage after the interval with the insanely good Schwarze Katze [Black Cat]. Created in collaboration with Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Malou Airaudo, the piece has Pina’s pawprints all over it, from the clothing flung over both the dancers and the stage at the beginning, to the man standing on a bucket for several minutes before being bodily knocked off by a colleague, to the graceful stunts on a BMX bicycle that turns up at unlikely moments. Schwarze Katze is billed as a pure dance work – there’s no theme as such, but that doesn’t mean the piece is short of drama. To an urgent neoclassical score, dancers pull each other about the stage, run as if from some unseen terror, and pass contemporary dancer Elena Friso from B-boy to B-boy with clever contact work.

It’s become quite fashionable for modern dance artists to talk of fusion within their work, but it’s rare to see so complete and coherent a union of styles. The Renegade boys perform almost as much release technique here as fly footwork, and the deceptively fragile-looking Friso holds her own in the stunts and toprocks. Despite its 50 minute runtime, Schwarze Katze feels if anything too short – a superb piece of dance theatre, whether we call it contemporary, or hip hop, or both.

Seven years on, Breakin’ Convention certainly does have a lot to be proud of, but the choice of artists still raises some important questions for the future of Hip Hop Dance Theatre. The impulse to programme an event balancing prime-time celebrity acts and accessible routines with the more unusual and experimental pieces is understandable – but if the platform is to continue pushing the boundaries of Hip-hop as a theatrical art form then it would be good to see it celebrate more of the latter and less of the former.

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