The ice breakers: B-boys are taking their craft into top theatres
Monday 28 April 2008
You might be popping, flaring, waving or freezing. Or maybe you're locking or windmilling, head-spinning or top rocking. All the same, you'd be hip-hop dancing, or b-boying. It's more than a quarter of a century since hip-hop was spawned in New York and the rap music that is its signature in the 21st century is now a multi-million dollar industry, represented by rhyming global superstars who slurp Cristal and drip with jewellery.
Sadly, hip-hop dancing or breaking is, along with graffiti and turntable scratching, one of the three original elements of the culture that has proved less lucrative than its tattooed, microphone-wielding cousin, rap. But in venues across Britain, from the most prestigious theatres of dance to the smallest community centres, breaking is permeating the wider culture and becoming recognised as an established art form, as packed audiences at Sadler's Wells for next week's Breakin' Convention 08 will testify.
Britain's most devoted advocate of hip-hop as a dance form sits with a plastic beaker of wine in his hand on a balcony of the Royal Festival Hall in London. Jonzi D, who is old enough to remember as a child listening to the 1979 prototype hip-hop tune "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang and going to see the 1983 graffiti-based movie Wild Style when it was first screened at London's ICA, is the mastermind behind Breakin' Convention, which will feature b-boys from the favelas of Brazil, trailblazing lock dancers from Japan, and crews from Korea. "Where hip-hop dance is concerned, it's never been so big," he says. "That's both in terms of the amount of people doing it and the amount of people coming to see it."
Close by, in the heart of London's theatreland, the hip-hop-inspired company Zoo Nation is staging Into the Hoods, backed by a rap soundtrack from the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg. This show, at the Novello Theatre, is the first hip-hop production to have reached the West End. Jonzi's own company, Jonzi D Productions, will be taking its graffiti-inspired show Tag... Just Writing my Name on a British tour in June, with a date at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre booked for November. Another hip-hop troupe, Blue Boy Entertainment, from London, has won an Olivier Award for Pied Piper, its street-dance version of the Robert Browning poem, while other leading crews include Plague and Pryor, both also from the capital.
According to Jonzi, some of the most interesting developments are taking place outside Britain's biggest cities. "Places like High Wycombe have a thriving street dance culture," he says. "Newcastle has the top UK b-boy crew, Bad Taste."
The endorsement of Sadler's Wells, which is hosting Breakin' Convention for the fifth year, helps to encourage provincial theatres to give this dance form a platform. "It makes all the difference," says Jonzi. "For people to see hop-hop as a cultured art form, it's vital to have a platform like Sadler's Wells. Now lots of theatres are looking to programme hip-hop dance theatre because it brings in a new audience and energy."
Some might see breakdancing as an Eighties anachronism, its image tarnished by associations with a music genre widely regarded as trapped in a creative backwater of boring braggadocio. In some fashionable circles, rap culture has slipped way off the radar. "London is so used to moving on, it sometimes gets too trendy," says Jonzi. "It's like: 'Oh, that's so out of fashion now.' We were probably the first country outside of America to participate in hip-hop culture, but then London stepped off. I remember in the mid-Eighties acid house became really big and it was almost like the whole culture of hip-hop got swamped."
But the influence of hip-hop, and breaking in particular, has been global and enduring. In Britain, where young people who wanted to express themselves through dance, but were intimidated by the formalities of ballet, were once directed towards jazz genres such as tap or lindy-hopping, the so-called MTV generation has been drawn for the past 20 years to breaking, and the results can be seen in some of the top theatres. "Jazz is now part of dance syllabuses, and the progress of hip-hop dance is a natural development of that."
The longevity of hip-hop has extended its potential audience, with a demographic that stretches from toddlers to those who were head-spinning when the culture emerged nearly 30 years ago. "At Breakin' Convention we have circles of people freestyling on the mezzanines. Last year, there was a guy, definitely over 50, in the middle of the circle doing a little something. It's such a buzz, man."
Jonzi himself grew up in Bow, east London, which more recently has been the epicentre of the grime style of rap. Inspired by breaking, he won a place at the London Contemporary Dance School, a training that gave him the foundation for fusing street moves with other forms of dance, a process that he thinks reflects rap music's tradition of sampling. He says that the emergence of this fledgling industry of hip-hop troupes has persuaded other young performers that they could have a career in dance. "Young people are now seeing popping, locking and breaking as options."
Jonzi first broached the idea of Breakin' Convention a decade ago, but it became a reality only after Alastair Spalding became chief executive and artistic director of Sadler's Wells in 2004. This year Jonzi has commissioned the lock-dance originator Tony GoGo, who will appear with his sons. Also on the bill is Membros, a Brazilian troupe whose Febre ("Fever") attempts to expose, through hip-hop and physical theatre, the corruption and social apartheid in some of Brazil's most brutal urban environments; Jonzi describes it as "raw visual stories about the favelas – like the hip-hop dance version of the film City of God." Another highlight will be Denmark's Mr Steen, who will take to the stage on Sunday with a street version of The Nutcracker, and the French troupe Compagnie Farid'O, who use aerial rope work in their performance of Saleté ("Dirt").
Jonzi takes risks with the schedule – "when they come off it's absolutely amazing" – to push the genre to new limits. "That's the agenda of Breakin' Convention, it's not just to challenge what people think of the experience of coming to a theatre, it's also to break the convention of what people think of hip-hop."
Breakin' Convention 08 runs at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0844 412 4300; www.sadlerswells.com), from 3 to 5 May
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