'Breakin‘ Convention': preview

Sadler‘s Wells isn‘t the obvious venue for street dance performances – but then Breakin‘ Convention, a festival now in its fifth year, lives up to its name. Time Out discovers b-boys will be b-boys

  • 'Breakin‘ Convention': preview

    Brazilian hoodies? Members of Membros attack violence through dance (photo © Dominik Fricker)

  • Billed as the UK’s first international festival of hip hop dance theatre, Breakin’ Convention initially blasted its way on to Sadler’s Wells’ stage in 2004. It was a huge undertaking, featuring films, seminars, workshops, freestyle DJs in the mezzanine and, above all, two long but exhilarating evenings of performances by youth groups and professional companies.

    ‘I don’t think we understood what impact it would have,’ says the Wells’ artistic director, Alistair Spalding. ‘I remember thinking there was an audience with a real hunger for something like this to happen. They created a fantastic atmosphere: supportive, inviting, positive – things you don’t normally put in the same sentence as hip hop.’

    For festival curator, performer, director and Wells associate artist Jonzi D, the festival is a great counterbalance to that view. ‘Hip hop has always been associated with violence, sexism and homophobia,’ he says. ‘In my experience it’s a gathering force that allows people of different economic and racial backgrounds, genders, sizes and generations to come together and just be dope.’

    Festival curator, performer, director and Wells associate, Jonzi D

    A specialist in a form of theatre that he dubs choreo-poetry, Jonzi D has no qualms about shaping what was a street-based art form for the stage. By doing so, he hopes to explore such fundamental questions as: How do we value our disciplines? How can people who are not ghetto recognise the beauty of ghetto? And how can we break down the barriers between high and low art?

    What the Wells did in making room for hip hop was, in Jonzi’s view, more than just a token gesture. ‘It filtered down into the underground,’ he says, ‘giving the participants of the culture a sense of their own worth.’ What’s more, hip hop has by now become such a significant part of dance history that Jonzi feels it has every right to be showcased in such a top-flight venue. ‘But I knew that the only way it could work was if we completely gave the place a hip hop makeover, to actually house hip hop rather than just show it.’

    That first festival was an unqualified hit, cramming the Wells with an all-ages audience, many of whom had never set foot in the building before. Its success was repeated the following year, stretched to three days and showcasing, among others, championship b-boy crews from as far afield as Russia and Korea performing alongside American icons the Electric Boogaloos.

    Although French and Brazilian crews provided undeniable highlights in 2006, exhaustion started to settle in. ‘I lost my way a bit when it came to the clarity of the programme,’ Jonzi admits. But the event bounced back last year, to the point where the Wells joined forces with the Dance Consortium to take Breakin’ Convention around the UK.

    Such extracurricular activities will continue until at least 2011 thanks to £435,000 from the Arts Council fund. ‘Breakin’ Convention has a profile now where it’s easier to plan ahead,’ Jonzi says, adding, ‘I definitely wanna spread the flavour around the country.’ But why stop there? As he says, ‘We’re also in a great position to start making things happen internationally.’

    The roster for BC ’08 is again strewn with tantalising possibilities, from the European debut of locking pioneer Tony GoGo (an LA native living in Japan), to excerpts from a Danish hip hop version of ‘The Nutcracker’. ‘We’re really trying to break convention,’ says Jonzi, ‘by presenting stuff that is surprising and beyond good, bad or other judgmental terms.’

    Several pieces carry a political edge. In ‘Saleté’ (Dirt), France’s Farid’O use spoken word, aerial rope work and poetic imagery to tell the story of an Iranian flower seller. ‘Febre’ (Fever) by the Brazilian company Membros boasts an even stronger dramatic statement. Jonzi compares their work to ‘an open wound. They let us see all the gory details of how violence strips away people’s humanity and spirit.

    ‘Quite often we talk about hip hop culture being fun,’ he continues. ‘It is. But as its popularity has increased, the political element has pretty much been dropped. Membros pushes the audience.’

    ‘Febre’ is the second part of a trilogy that began with the all-male ‘Raio X’ (X-ray) in 2003 and which will conclude with next year’s premiere of the women’s piece ‘Medo’ (Fear). Each piece addresses human cruelties and social injustices that extend well beyond South America.

    ‘We say a prayer before going on stage,’ explained company member Jean Gomes, 22, when I saw ‘Raio X’ recently in Sweden. ‘It’s the same as putting on armour before entering a war. Our choreographer says it’s not like we’re doing a dance show. We’re on a mission.’ Then they’re coming to the right place.

    Breakin’ Convention at Sadler’s Wells starts May 1.

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