For one weekend each spring, Sadler’s Wells is transformed. Its foyers throb with sound and throng with young people, and on every floor you come across eager displays of move-busting. It’s the Breakin’ Convention festival, going strong since 2004, which aims to connect the innovative techniques of hip-hop dance with the theatrical potential of stage choreography. Inevitably, its offerings are always mixed.
Opening night began with the Cambridge-based Dance Offensive, in an inoffensive piece that hinted at young people’s “issues” – isolation, bullying, sexual coercion – without ever grappling with them. Breakin’ Nest, a British-Korean group, showed a cute little piece based on Where the Wild Things Are. The little-monster headgear and catlike flips of its young performers were captivating, but its many non sequiturs made it hard to fathom. Ugandan group Tabu Flo’s Myth of the Night Dancers was most interesting for its seamless blend of hip-hop with African dance, and for physical wit – stiff dancing, for example, to portray an animated corpse. Chicago Footwork’s turn was a display of juking, an in-the-ring, improvisational style with ferocious footwork. It was damn impressive, but not adapted for the stage.
The two most successful acts stuck to safer ground. Kenichi Ebina’s RoboMatrix was virtuoso entertainment, Ebina teasing the audience with his seemingly battery-operated moves before wowing us by outclassing the slow-motion Matrix backbend and the forward lean from Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. The formation team Plague followed a familiar street-dance format – slick moves, split-second timing, surprise stunts, visual gags – and served it up with high polish and consummate skill.
The main piece of the evening, the hour-long Asphalte, by Pierre Rigal, buzzed with disparate ideas. Set around a large light box that glowed in neon colours, its montage of scenes played variously with mood (urban-warrior attitude, boisterous high jinks), visual gags (shadowplay, comic chicken dances) and offbeat dramatic scenarios (imagine Monsieur Hulot in the ghetto); but the sum was no greater than the parts.
Much of the choreography seemed inspired by audiovisual technology: rewind, stop-frame and sound-synching effects. But two of the most intriguing dances were unabashedly emotional. Ella Mesma’s Evol (co-choreographed with Marso Rivière) was a disturbing exploration of the boundaries of sexual consent, with suggestive use of hip-hop’s lock-legged positions. Best of all was Theo Olayade’s high-tension solo, Calm Before the Storm. Alienated from his body, his breath escaping like hisses of steam, Oloyade built up to a contained, krump-style explosion that warned something would have to give: his head or his heart.