Tag... Me Vs The City, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Dancing graffiti tells an urban fable
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The Independent Culture

There's an eager audience for hip-hop dance. Street dance shows fill theatres, bringing in an enthusiastic young public, but choreographers are still struggling with a stunt-laden style. TAG... Me vs The City is the latest attempt to build flashes of virtuosity into coherent theatre. Director Jonzi D does make hip-hop moves tell a larger story, but both dance and narrative are muted.

Jonzi D's background mixes rapping, b-boying and the London Contemporary Dance School. He is now an associate artist at Sadler's Wells, where he masterminds the theatre's annual Breakin' Convention. Here he's working as a choreographer and a director, pulling a show together with a group of collaborators.

The dancer Banxy plays an obsessed graffiti artist who finds that his art, and his life, are spiralling out of control. Jonzi D's brightest idea is the way this production turns the dancers into animated graffiti, uniting the two visual strands of hip-hop culture. Banxy rattles a spray can, hissing between his teeth as he mimes spraying, while the dancers adjust their bodies to make the lines he draws. The conceit is worked out with affectionate detail. When Banxy blows on the dancers, setting a painted effect, they adjust fingers or facial expression to pull the pose into focus.

So far, so good, but much of the dancing here is limited. The cast of six spend a lot of time climbing into letter poses: arms out to make a T, leaning together for an A. The hiss and spray becomes a way of starting a solo, a dance growing out of the opening pose. Given that freedom, the dancers then stick to quiet wriggles and pedantic footwork.

TAG moves away from the flashy explosions of hip-hop, but can't find enough to replace them. The dancers are neat but not extraordinary. Tommy Franzén provides the evening's virtuoso moments. Banxy is a shambling figure, though his hisses and paint-can splutters are startlingly lifelike.

The narrative is an off-the-peg tale of a tortured artist. Banxy is not so much set against the city as overcome by his work and his own frailties. He gets drunk, gets an Asbo, grabs his crotch or pees against a wall, without persuading us that he's trying to create something important.

As his life gets out of hand, so does his work. The letters, the dancers, start prodding and sniping at each other, fading back into the scenery or angrily returning from it. The striking set, credited to The Collaborators, is filled with fleshy plastic structures, padded shapes with exaggerated curves and spikes. They suggest both stylised human figures and the letters of graffiti artists. Dancers curl up in and around them, leaning against the pointing arms and squiggles.

The city is evoked by Benjamin Wachenje's video animation. A cartoon train slices through a city of parks and skyscrapers, ducking out of sight before reappearing with a rattle of tracks. The carriages blur as they pass, staying just clear enough for you to make out the new graffiti scrawls and pictures on the sides.

The soundtrack, by DJ Pogo and Sparkii Ski, mixes samples and hums. It provides atmosphere, keeping the plot moving, but rarely drives the dancing: the rhythms are resistible. Shirley Williams dresses the dancers in black, with blocks of spray-paint colours on their tunics - part of the urban landscape, but able to stand out from it.

TAG is a tightly knit production. The dancing is part of the story, not stuck on afterwards; the collaborators work well together. Yet the energy fades. At the New Wolsey Theatre, Jonzi D gave the show the flavour of a music gig when he announced a cast change at the start. Cheers went up from a young audience asked to make some noise, but though TAG held their attention, that feeling doesn't last the evening.

Touring to 18 March (see www.jonzi-d.co.uk)

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