Review: Unleashed - Barbican Theatre

Performance: 23 & 24 November 2012
Reviewed by Josephine Leask - Tuesday 27 November 2012

Boy Blue Entertainment 'Unleashed' - Nicole Antoine-Annan Photo: Mark Allan

There is something so satisfying about seeing the stage swarming with performers, especially when they are full of energy and attitude as were the communities of young people taking part in Unleashed. Directed by Walter Meierjohann and co-directed by Kenrick Sandy (choreographer and artistic director of Boy Blue Entertainment), Unleashed is the culmination of an eighteen month long joint project involving 167 young participants of the Barbican’s Creative Learning ensembles: Future Band, Young Filmmakers, Drum Works and Young Poets, in collaboration with Da Bratz and Da Bluez, the youth groups of Boy Blue’s street dance company. It’s urban, edgy and celebratory – a positive affirmation of youth culture.

What both Meierjohann and Sandy have managed to harness in this large-scale performance, together with the help of their artist leaders, is a visceral response from the young artists, many of whom are from deprived backgrounds, to what it feels like to grow up in London, in a climate which seems to be becoming increasingly tougher and bleaker. While their reactions convey anger at being ignored, ostracised or criticised by the ranks of the establishment, in the aftermath of the London riots and through cuts to youth services by the government, equally expressed is the will to make a better life. The directors have succeeded in giving the young people autonomy and allowing them to own the work through writing and performing their own personal scripts, whether that is through poetry, dance, film or music. Consequently performance values are high and content is delivered with utmost sincerity.

The London riots feature in the nonlinear narrative of Unleashed, as does postcode gang violence and the striving to find some kind of identity. The dance groups and the drummers battle it out with impressive shows of bravado and virtuoso, in a metaphorical fight over territory. Footage of the riots flickers menacingly around the stage and a skip filled with flames placed centre-stage creates a convincing visual landscape to the confusion and mayhem of summer 2011. The physical side is communicated through the tense and fractured moves of body-popping and break-dancing, nowadays the ultimate body language to express the emotions of most young, urban youth. Politicians arguing and clumsily trying to regain control are represented through news footage but also a hysterically funny team of dancers wearing David Cameron masks.

There’s also an engaging moment when a group of younger children, each perched on a battered piano discuss their personal responses to the riots. Their understanding and wisdom of the situation tells us so much more than the politicians’ puffed-up, out-of-touch wittering.

The input of rap poetry is also essential in conveying feelings of despair and powerlessness amidst post code gang-lands and the evocative poem Squares and Circles , written and performed by the charismatic Kieron Rennie is heartfelt and powerful.

The other central theme in Unleashed is that of young people’s hopes and dreams, shared through voice overs and live renditions of individual aspirations. Touching and poetic, enhanced by film there are dreams of making a perfect marriage, of travelling the world making music, of opening dance schools for underprivileged kids or buying a huge house in the country. Nothing that seems too wildly impossible.

The witty Dream Dealer by Kareem Parkins-Brown, is a poem rich in language, references and colour, in which the teenage boy pleads us to chase our dreams and hang on tight when we’ve found them. As he closes the show, I’m filled with a feel-good confidence that young people can not only turn around their lives if given half a chance but also fulfil their ambitions. Drama, art, dance and music are some of their most beneficial tools – let’s not take them away.

Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider.

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