Breakin’ Convention 2019, a specially curated international festival of hip hop dance theatre, brings together performers, artists, choreographers, DJs and educators from all over the world for four days of exceptional dance and music.
I’m sitting in the first circle of Sadler’s Wells auditorium waiting for the main-stage performances to begin. Jay Z’s Big Pimpin’ is blaring out from a specially built sound-desk below, spot lights rove on and off the stage above, and a giant red-lit backdrop emblazoned with a bold logo tells me I’m in for the best of times. Slowly the theatre fills with people who are just as eager for the show to begin. The air is thick with excitement, so much so that I can’t help but jiggle a little in my seat. This is not the Sadler’s Wells of yesteryear, when a majority white middle class audience politely clapped at contemporary dance’s finest. This is Sadler’s Wells reloaded and transformed into a unifying, inclusive, yet no less diverse, space; a Sadler’s Wells where young and old connect, come together and applaud one another; where differences in gender, race, class and culture embrace in an overarching love for all things hip hop. This is Breakin’ Convention 2019, a specially curated festival of hip hop dance theatre that brings together performers, artists, choreographers, DJs and educators from all over the world for four days of exceptional dance and music.
In its sixteenth year, Breakin’ Convention is stronger than ever and comes at a time when the UK has never needed it more. Specially curated by the inimitable Jonzi D – a man who has as many accolades as he has titles after his name, not least the founder and Artistic Director of Breakin’ Convention – the festival rightly prides itself on reaching out to disparate communities and tapping into the hitherto unknown talents of young people. Although the actual Breakin’ Convention takes place once a year, its outreach program and commitment to nurturing emerging artists is continuous. Throughout the year Jonzi D and the team behind Breakin’ Convention run professional development projects, such as Open Art Surgery and Back to the Lab, which have given hundreds of hip hop dance, rap and poetry artists the support, space and skills necessary to take their work to the next level. Whilst the Back to the Lab project has produced sold-out shows for the Lilian Baylis Studio, Open Art Surgery has given performers the time and input needed to take their work to the main stage at Sadler’s Wells and elsewhere around the UK.
But it’s not only young professionals who benefit from the Breakin’ Convention’s year-long support. Children and teenagers alike can also get a taste for the decks and cyphers by taking part in Breakin’ Convention’s education projects throughout the year. Mentoring, school and youth club workshops, a Minor Art Surgery and the annual Future Elements project, where 13-16 year olds from all over the country take part in the making of a music video (see below), are just a few of the community-focused initiatives that Jonzi D, Michelle Norton, Emma Ponsford and the rest of the talented BC team have undertaken in the past year. Such is the emphasis of using hip hop dance theatre and music to support young people that London’s first ever school dedicated to the art form will be housed in the new Sadler’s Wells venue in East London. Having just announced that next year’s festival will tour the UK, Breakin’ Convention is poised to take the hip hop love to the furthest and most underdeveloped parts of the country instead of keeping it bound to the capital. At a time when councils continue to make cuts to youth and mental health services, the vital, life-enriching and transformative work of the Breakin’ Convention team not only fills the gap but leads the way in creating change for young people.
This continuous outreach work is most definitely reflected and celebrated in the four-day festival. On and off stage young dancers shine and are given the props they deserve. Every area of the building is reimagined as a cypher where toddlers, teens, semi-pros, reigning champions, elders and workshop leaders bop, pop and lock. Vibrant and vivid graffiti by the likes of UK artists Teaser, Gnasher and Niser, as well as German-based Case, decorate the foyer walls, a declarative performance all of their own. On the first floor Mr Dane teaches children how to tag, and on the upper level dancers Rowdy and Mid-Air lead workshops for tiny aspiring hip hoppers eager to find their feet. Make no mistake, this festival is a family affair; but it extends this love, pride and support to those new to the hip hop community and its ever expressive culture.
Still, it’s on the main stage where Breakin’ Convention conveys its absolute love for the next generation. Soloists and crew members range from ten year olds to fifty-somethings, but it’s the youth that steal the show each time. When Logistx (a sixteen-year old B-Girl based in LA) performs, the crowd goes wild. Heralded as a rising star by Jonzi D and a co-winner of the NBC World of Dance Season 2 with her US crew The Lab, Logistx is already an accomplished hip hop dancer in her own right. Her piece, ‘Pain is Reality’, proves she’s an emotionally adept, mature-beyond-her-years performer. Balancing a gymnastic-like athleticism with a deeply felt delivery style, Logistx’s breaking is as moving as it is impressive. Performing to NAO’s ‘Another Lifetime’ and bathed in ice blue light, Logistx captures something of the singer’s heart-wrenching realisation of a past love never to be rekindled. That windmills, headspins and elaborate floorwork could hold such poignancy and emotional charge is a wonder, even more so when coming from a teen. Clean and choreographed to perfection, Logistx uncovers a whole new emotional layer to moves usually used to entertain and impress in battles. Switching from deep feels to the lighter relief of play, the second half of the piece sees her leaping and sliding across the stage, weaving in and out of shafts of light, shedding off the throes of pain touched on at the beginning. What we see is not only a journey of multiple styles and techniques, but of tender and deeply embedded thoughts and feelings; Logistx doesn’t just navigate the stage with physical command and flare, but with an effortless ability to emote and connect with the audience as she does so. There’s nothing blandly logistical about this dancer; instead, she offers an exposing 6min exploration into the mechanics of love and loss, revealing that pain is the much neglected B-side to joy.
In fact, the ability of young performers to grapple with complex ideas and emotions, and delve into the abyss of loss, never fails to challenge and inspire. Cocojam’s ‘Kigiriki Mungu’ – Swahili for ‘Greek god’ – demonstrates this profoundly. Performing to Laura Mvula’s stirring single, ‘Overcome’, seventeen young dancers commemorate those who have recently passed away in the dance world. Brave, bold and dynamic in their expression, Cocojam could have easily been in the original video to Mvula’s song, such was their maturity and gravity on stage. I, for one, would easily have mistaken Jade Hackett’s afro-dance-inspired movement and sobering choreographic direction for Aaron Sillis’ original. A graceful and expansive emotionality drove the piece forward, echoing Mvula’s aptly sung lyrics: ‘Even though we suffer / Come together, be brave / Come together /All God’s children come’. For this was a performance that commemorated one dancer in particular: Jack Saunders, a young professional dancer who had already achieved so much and was on the brink of achieving more. Embedded within the piece were moves by Saunders, who, as Hackett observed after, ‘came alive in dance’ and ‘grew powerful’ in the ‘freedom’ it afforded him. Cocojam’s tribute to Saunders was a timely reminder that dance not only empowers and frees, but provides space for individuals to grieve and seek healing.
The entwined issues of death and grief also reappear in the more intimate solo shows of the Lilian Baylis. An extract from Kloé Dean’s piece, Man Up (What’s Left?), touches on similar themes to Cocojam’s ‘Kigiriki Mungu’, but instead highlights the systematic and social failures behind male suicide rates. Dean – a prodigious talent who has many dance credits to her name and is the founder, choreographer and dancer of Myself UK Dance Company – gives an honest and stunningly original performance on an issue close to her heart. The narrative weight behind Man Up is Dean’s own experience of losing her father to suicide. Yet she never allows private tragedy to exclude or alienate her audience; rather, the painful story of loss moves from the personal to the political through a highly charged and beautifully poetic embodiment of this narration. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50 in the UK, with around 84 men dying every week (and one death every two hours); in Man Up, Dean does not take these painful facts for granted, nor does she allow us to grow numb to them. Instead her voice, movement and gestures re-enact the tense psychological reality for the individuals behind the statistics. Rippling and locking whilst singing and using spoken word, Dean conveys the trauma of what goes unspoken. That is, with each choked-up word that convulses into propulsive, writhing, interwoven movement, Dean unravels the nationwide dialogue we should be currently having on this fraught topic. Moving with a restless fluidity, she expresses what many men who’ve taken their own lives have failed to utter. She pushes into the deepest aporias of hopelessness and hurt, intent on harnessing the phenomenal expressiveness of her own body and voice – not as compensation, but remediation for the failure of communities past and present to listen to these men; to hear and enable them to speak themselves into peace. Other recorded voices enter the narrative, bystanders who have looked dispassionately at the scene of the crime (the crime being society’s indifference and failure to listen). The intrusive, impersonal words of journalists, a passer-by and others are heard, but not the young black man who’s taken his life. Twisting her arms around a rope, Dean gasps and struggles with an invisible weight, with invisible hands that constrict around words, feelings, the pent-up internal struggle, just as they would have done around any man on the brink of despair.
Dean’s piece is a sobering, rallying cry for justice; not so much the legal kind, but that of greater political, social and therapeutic support for men struggling to cope with the difficulties life throws at them, struggling to articulate and bring into the open the difficult feelings that can overwhelm them. We need to look after the mental health of our young men, Dean’s piece powerfully asserts. We need to stop with the toxic call to ‘man up’ before we’re another man down. Another powerful piece, Fig Leaf, echoes this urgent message also. Choreographed by the talent that is Joshua Nash, whose recent performances include the hard-hitting Blacklist and Artists 4 Artists’ night of Krump, 3 Rounds of Amp, Fig Leaf also examines toxic masculinity and externalises its internal effects. Dancing with frequent collaborator Jordan Douglas, Nash creates a duet that offers shade, depth and tone to a subject frequently handled in a black and white manner. Entering the stage like two posturing boxers squaring off before a match, Nash and Douglas’ initial Krumped-up braggadocio behaviour is played for laughs. Circling each other, one’s quickness is pitted against his opponent’s force, with both failing to out-intimidate and outsmart the other. It’s a sorry sight of overcompensation and that’s Nash’s point, but when the music turns, so does the conceptual angle, as both men are forced to grapple with and battle their own internal demons.
I say ‘both’ men, but really they’re one and the same, mirroring and echoing each other’s inner strife with deft, but brutal movements. Gone are the boxer gloves, the macho sizing up, the stifling self-constructed “fig leafs” that covered no man’s pride in the first place. Instead we see the raw, passionate inner life; a tumultuous spirit at odds with itself, threatening to break loose and break bounds. A motif that recurred and passed between Nash and Douglas evoked the pained expressions of Francis Bacon’s existentially traumatised figures; threading their fingers between their mouths, willing the inexpressible to come out, both men caught the agony of feeling emotionally gagged and psychologically boxed. That’s not to say that this duet was all angst and horror; that the unmasking or detoxification of toxic masculinity is one fright fest. Absolutely not; both men revealed the beauty and tenderness that lay in the process, the vulnerability and openness that the medium of Krump entails, as well as the potential masculinity itself has to express freely and emote honestly. What Fig Leaf looked towards was a process of renewal and healing that, in many respects, lay in the relationship men have with themselves, as well as their fellow brothers. Underpinned by his own beautiful, trusting relationship with Jordan Douglas, this piece reconceives the bonds men have with each other and the bond they owe to themselves.
When it comes to fraternal love, hip hop crews have it in abundance. But none so forcefully and energetically express it than the Krump collective, Godson, formed by the masterful Theophilus ‘Godson’ Oloyade. Performed on the mainstage, the force and unbridled energy of ‘RAW’ literally overspills into the audience. Beginning with the striving solitary figure of Oloyade, ‘RAW’ ends in a rabble of rebellious Krump dancers (including Amanda Pefkou, Joshua Nash and Jordan Douglas and other dance talent) expelling unadulterated and guttural emotion. From one man comes forth an army – and an irrepressible army at that. But like Nash and Douglas’s Krump duet, ‘RAW’ doesn’t just pack a thoughtless punch and smack of senseless aggression. Rather, Oloyade’s group communicates in dramatic flourishes and intricate, embodied gestures that bring the riotous into the sublime. As orchestrated chaos it doesn’t get more classical and august than this. Watching Godson perform, marvelling at the collective and individual harnessing of fulsome energy, I wanted to leap out of my seat and join in. This piece captured the galvanizing and electric connection felt between the performers and audience during the entirety of Breakin’ Convention.
During the opening night, Godson were not the only collective to feed off the audience’s roaring applause and euphorically soar to new dance heights. The Archetype, a twenty-strong team of dancers and winners of Dance Group of the Year 2018, opened the convention on Saturday night, setting the bar high for all that followed. Unlike Godson, who exuded nothing but the sizzling heat of concentrated ire and potent passion, The Archetype were crisp, cool and meticulously collected in their piece ‘Air’. The final conceptual dance in a series that explored past elements (earth, fire and water), ‘Air’ was a refreshing rush of bubbling positivity; a stylistic fusion and blissful blitz of street, contemporary and Latin American movement that blew the cobwebs and political cynicism away to announce that Breakin’ Convention had arrived and was fresh as ever. With quick, clean and immaculately synchronised choreography, the piece felt lighter and more effervescent than the hard hitting, syncopated, deliberately dramatic though no less impressive earlier pieces of ‘Fire’ and ‘Water’. Lifting the audience up in their exuberance and joy, The Archetype’s performance looked ahead to the equally uplifting sets by expert female poppers, A.I.M Collective (UK), and the reigning breaking champions, the Jinjo Crew (South Korea), as well as the scintillating, kaleidoscopic magic of Géométrie Variable (France), whose serpentine-like interlocking of arms, perfect popping and tessellated formations were mesmerising from start to finish.
But Breakin’ Convention ended where it began: with an explosive celebration of hip hop’s eclecticism and the many individuals who’ve made it that way. By giving the stage to Boy Blue Entertainment, to the music and choreography of visionaries like Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy OBE and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante, but most importantly to the young dancers of the future, Breakin Convention solidified its own commitment to being the change, the hope, the love it too wants to see in the dance and wider arts industries. Boy Blue’s epic, awe-inspiring, roof-raising performance went by the title of ‘Because We Can’ and it’s this attitude that Breakin’ Convention certainly lives by and preaches; empowering current, emerging and upcoming dancers of the future, because it can.
Breakin’ Convention 2019 was held at Sadler’s Wells from 3 – 6 May. Follow their Instagram, Twitter, Youtube and Website pages for video updates and images of the festival, and for more information about their new Hip Hop school soon to be launched at the new Sadler’s Wells venue in East London. Click on the links in the body of the article for more information about all artists mentioned.*
Kloé Dean will be performing Man Up in Artists 4 Artists’ Double Bill held at Trinity Laban on 30 July 2019. Click here to book tickets and for more information.
To read our interview with Joshua Nash, written by Shirley Ahura (dancer and choreographer from The Archetype), click here.
*Lucy Writers would like to thank Sadler’s Wells, Alicia Powell, Charlotte Constable, Anna Goodman and the Breakin’ Convention Team for allowing us to attend and write about the festival.