Rennie Harris' Legends of Hip-Hop, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Hip-hop goes back to its roots
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The South Bank Centre's big Easter show, Legends of Hip-Hop, is half documentary, half gala night. The Philadelphia choreographer Rennie Harris has arranged an evening of star appearances, held together with video links and a team of house dancers. It's a mixed bag, but there are several terrific performances.

Harris is one of the best-known choreographers in hip-hop, and one of the most serious. He's interested in hip-hop as a theatrical form in its own right, moving away from pop videos. With his own company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, he has made hip-hop dramas. He also has an academic side: the film clips in this show draw on hip-hop conferences, with discussions of different styles.

Though Harris doesn't appear in this show, it brings the two sides of his work together. Legends of Hip-Hop started out as a Philadelphia festival, a week of performances and discussions. It was a huge hit, and started to tour internationally. The show includes dancers from the 1970s and 1980s, the inventors of the boogaloo and the lock. There's an insistence on historical roots, a wish to explain the development of different styles. But the history isn't allowed to get too sober.

James Clotfelter's set frames the stage with scaffolding. The film screen is made from strips of battered fabric, hanging above the three DJ platforms. Dancers' reminiscences are blasted over a rattling sound system - thunderously loud, but sometimes hard to follow.

There's more scene-setting from the Mop Top Crew. Music and costumes suggest different eras. The boldest performance comes from a woman in a gigantic afro, stalking about to remixed Aretha Franklin. Other dances slide into music-video territory. The unison strutting is energetic but short on texture.

The Rock Steady Crew are more ambitious. Hip-hop is full of stunt steps: headspins, twisting jumps and dives, robotic pops. There's no shortage of wow moments, but it's hard to push this style beyond them. The Rock Steady dancers had plenty of stunts, but the surprise was their sense of rhythm.

One dancer plunges over the stage, bouncing from hand to hand, feet kicking, torso bucking. Last-minute twists send him in different directions, allow him to put a hand or foot down a split-second later than you expect. The timing is brilliant. The musical rhythm isn't complicated, but the dancing tweaks and teases it.

The DJs don't have such subtlety, but there's plenty of showmanship. DJ Razor Ramone and Evil Tracy scratch and change records, adjusting the sound with elbows and noses, knocking turntables in and out of sync. Shaun Roig does a beatbox number - all the beats and scratches of a turntable, done with voice rather than machine. Roig's act is astonishingly clever, but it doesn't go beyond clever.

This show had two official legends. Greg Campbellock Jr is proudly introduced as the inventor of locking. Now over 50, Campbellock keeps an air of dignity as he folds in on himself, freezes, unfolds again. It's a lap of honour. Sam Boogaloo is the other legend. Dressed in huge pinstriped suits, the Electric Boogaloos look like the 1940s throwbacks of hip-hop. Their dance is popping, a robotic dance with limbs suddenly jerking into position.

It's an upright style, often stiff-limbed, but the group includes a fluid next-generation Boogaloo. The youngest of these dancers uses the same style, same steps, but there's a rippling flow to his dancing. He spins on the spot, letting one leg wind round the other. Having tied himself in knots, he shakes himself loose in a single, boneless wriggle.

Ends today (0870 401 8181)