Boy Blue Entertainment's Pied Piper is a hip-hop retelling that fizzes with invention. Street dance, acrobatic and martial arts moves turn dancers into scorpions or swooping bats. In the original tale, the Pied Piper charmed away rats, then took the town's children. This time, the rats are the young people, faces hidden in black hoodies. They scurry about the stage, group formations suddenly forming out of anarchy.
This show, which won an Olivier award for its original run at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, makes brilliant use of Boy Blue's forces. This hip-hop company trains young dancers, who can progress through its different performance groups. Many go on to professional careers. With absolute confidence, Pied Piper puts several generations of hip-hop performers on stage, from young children to adults.
The production is choreographed by Kenrick "HO" Sandy, with design and direction by Ultz. The set is a bare urban space, with graffiti on a concrete wall and a caged area. The storytelling is a mix of dance and video footage. Television news headlines scream about hoodies, ASBOs, a town terrorised. The governors – suited dancers with big, papier-mâché heads – wring their hands and call in the Piper.
Sandy, Boy Blue's founder, plays the Piper. He's a stylish dancer, and an impressive presence: his dancers respond absolutely to his authority. In the main battle, he confronts and finally dominates his troupe. He also has a group of doubles, shadows who can demonstrate the range of his abilities in unison. These skills are, of course, street dances: in different styles and in different confrontations.
As street dance takes to the stage, there have been many attempts to make narrative use of this style. Hip-hop dance is full of virtuoso display, which lends itself to fighting and confrontation scenes. Choreographers have often struggled with other aspects of the narrative. But not this time: the storytelling is direct and confident. Confrontations between governors and Piper are told in clear mime. Sandy and Ultz built dance setpieces into their tale and, despite this, the story is never derailed by the dance fireworks.
Some of the strongest come in that first meeting with the governors. The Piper presents his CV, showing a series of struggles with defeated infestations. I loved the mosquitoes, hoodie'd dancers whose white gloves glow in the darkened stage. Their fluttering hands could be insects, but they're also picking pockets, darting around the bodies of potential victims. The vampire bats are a virtuoso group flipping somersaults or diving down from perches on the walls.
The large company – 37 performers – switch easily from role to role. The youngest performers are children, charmed away after the governors refuse payment. In an epilogue, we see them in the Piper's training camp: a new generation of young Pipers, preparing and performing. This time, they have their hoods down: confident dancers, training for the future.
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