Hip, The Place

Hip, but true cool takes more time
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The Independent Culture

The HIP festival is a showcase for black dance in Britain. It aims to boost a neglected area of dance, and although its performances are on a smaller scale than those of the Dance Theatre of Harlem or the Alvin Ailey company - which fill theatres - they have the same effect.

HIP is a company set up by the festival and given five weeks' rehearsal to prepare work by the choreographers Rafael Bonachela and David Brown. There are a few rough edges, but HIP has started to look like a company, with distinctive soloists and focused performance. It looks best in Bonachela's Vesper. His best-known work has been for Kylie Minogue's tours and videos, which has spilt over into his work as associate choreographer for Rambert. HIP doesn't have the budget for that much showbiz, and Vesper is for six dancers and soundtrack.

Oswaldo Macia's score is made up of spoken memories. Women describe happy moments, their voices layered so thickly that you can't identify the multiple languages, never mind what they're saying. Then the piece drops to a single story. Bonachela uses this as a general wash of sound. Sometimes a single soloist coincides with a single voice, but there's no acting-out of memories, no casting of roles. It may be about female memory, but it's danced by men as well as women.

In group pieces, one dancer is turned over by several others. Bonachela often breaks dances off, leaving performers standing quietly, legs braced and body relaxed. All six dancers show a new attack and precision, an authority in stillness.

They're less distinctive in works by Brown, a former dancer with the Martha Graham company. Labess is the best of these. Dancers line up one behind the other, then break out of the pattern, lifted out of the line or stepping away from it. HIP has plans to tour Labess and Vesper next year.

There was plenty of energy in Ronald K Brown's Evidence company, but it didn't quite come across the footlights. I kept wishing they'd turn the volume up. Brown's choreography draws on ballet and hip hop, but most of all on African folk steps. Torsos wind under pumping arms and shoulders, hips shake. This attention to African forms is political, part of Brown's concern for African-American identity. His London visit, following a highly praised New York season, has also been part of the HIP festival of black dance.

The great disappointment was Brown's weakness in theatrical projection. This concert had taped music, which always means a loss of spontaneity. Even so, these dances unfortunately kept losing force.

Upside Down, excerpts from a piece created for the Jeune Ballet d'Afrique Noire, had the shape of a community ritual. There were whirling group dances to music by Fela Kuti and Oumou Sangare, with dancers breaking out into solos.

These were virtuoso numbers, jumps and turns mixed in with the swaying torsos and stamping feet. It's the kind of dancing that calls for immediate applause, but we sat quiet until the music stopped. The evening ended with a standing ovation, but the audience never really got caught up.

Brown didn't do enough to shape his material. He filled the stage with dancers, but there were few strong groupings. The steps had plenty of contrasts - big turns set against tiny arm gestures - but the dancers didn't make much of the difference. They stopped, but without the impact of stopping dead.

Come Ye, Brown's latest, was better organised, with lines and opposed groups of dancers. The folk elements were still there, but sparingly used. It was a post-September 11 dance, with film of civil rights leaders playing in the background and dancers pausing in positions of heroic resolve. This was earnest, but not preachy; Brown also had a Nina Simone soundtrack and plenty of rhythm.

A few minutes into the song "Revolution", part of the soundtrack, Simone stops to berate her band. It's a moment of diva stroppiness, and Brown had fun choreographing it - one dancer stormed on undaunted, while everyone else ground to a halt. Simone's tantrum has a point. She's complaining that they go all out from the start, leaving no room to build to a climax.

It's that sense of pace that Brown lacked. The same song ends with an everybody-go-crazy finish, drums crashing and organ wailing. The dancers shuffled into place and waited for it to stop.

HIP festival ends tomorrow (020-7387 0031)

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