Hip-hop dance is moving from street to stage. This month saw the fifth anniversary of the hugely successful Breakin’ Convention festival at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, followed by a hip-hop themed “half-term show” aimed at kids in the Lilian Baylis auditorium.
Earlier, the Peacock Theatre had a successful season of Insane in the Brain (a hip-hop version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Meanwhile, at the neighbouring Novello Theatre, Kate Prince’s Into the Hoods – a street dance take on Sondheim that had already scored a hit in Edinburgh – has just had its season extended until the end of August, which at 24 weeks will break the record for longest running dance show in the West End (easily beating the 17-week run of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake).
That is a sea change from six or seven years ago. Then, the chances were that the only hip-hop dance theatre you’d catch was Rennie Harris’s Puremovement company, which made occasional from the US. Or perhaps some smaller-scale home-grown work by pioneers such as Benji Reid, Robert Hylton or Jonzi D (who went on to become the curator of Breakin’ Convention). Today, hip-hop seems to be busting out all over, and its choreographers and dancers are coming from around the world – France, Sweden, Russia, Brazil, Korea – as well as across Britain, not just from cities but from places like Cambridge, Swindon and High Wycombe. All that, together the form’s youthful practitioners and even more youthful audience, points towards a growing future on stage.
But I predict some fall-outs too. As street dance becomes a product as well as a practice, commercial as well as communal, there are likely to be arguments about ownership, with accusations of sell-ups and sell-outs. Such wrangles – with potent ingredients that include money, race, class and celebrity – have surely been rehearsed and played out many more times in music than in dance. Will it be different in dance? Perhaps: with less at stake – less money, fewer viewers, a lower profile – there is simply less to fight for.
There are also liable to be disputes over authenticity, with charges of corruption or pollution. Because it is certain that the stage will change the style. Dance critics (myself included) have moaned about the theatrical limitations of current hip-hop theatre – strings of short numbers, lots of solo turns or unison formations, the slenderest pretexts for plots. The stage brings its own demands to bear, and successful hip-hop dance theatre will rise to them.
Hip-hop certainly provides a rich resource for theatre dance – a wellspring of talent and ideas, levels of technical skill that attain phenomenal heights. But perhaps, as it moves from street to stage, its future lies in dilution and disappearance. Look, for example, at how martial arts have infiltrated theatre dance.
There are, to be sure, distinctive martial arts shows such as Jump or Shaolin Monks, which focus on amazing physical feats and popular entertainment. But more fundamentally, techniques such as tae kwon do, capoeira and tai chi have become so absorbed into the genetics of current contemporary dance that you might not see them at all – like an ancestry or an influence that is no longer visible. Hip-hop, I think, will follow a similar route.