Breakin’ Convention, a three-day festival of hip-hop dance theatre, brings Sadler’s Wells a different audience from the usual. There are more black people, though it’s not overwhelmingly black; more men, though it’s not overwhelmingly male. It is, though, overwhelmingly young – and that points to hip-hop as a growing force in the future of dance. There are a lot of young performers, too. In the opening-night programme, the dynamic Urban Strides group features a charismatic boy who looks no more than 10 years old, and compere Jonzi D introduces a crowd-pleasing turn from a girl of five.
The lineup, different each day, shows the range and reach of hip-hop. The first programme includes cocky rhythmic trio Manic Boiz, jazzy body-popping from UDP and avant-garde musical face-offs from French group Styl’O’styl. Tony GoGo and the GoGo Brothers, from Japan, are as slick as a computer animation, and polished British ensemble Plague even throw some tap into the mix. For technical brilliance, nothing tops Top 9, a six-man group from Russia who turn springy somersaults.
The levels of vigour and skill are astounding, but there are limitations: a lot of formation dancing, little partnerwork, too many medley-style numbers. But everything changes with the headline act, from Brazilian company Membros. In Febre (Fever), the dancers flip flat on their backs or spin each other by the neck – not as stunts, but to enact an emotionally bruising drama of gangland violence and drug-driven degradation. Theatrical imagery adds power to the physical punch: brutality pushes a prayer from humility to humiliation; the lighting narrows to a thin white line, the narcotic centre of the drama.
The audience is gripped, though it takes a while to realise that Febre uses hip-hop not as display but as a means to an end. That, not the adult content, is what makes this grown-up hip-hop.