Boy Blue Entertainment – the creative partnership of choreographer Kenrick Sandy and musician Michael Asante – have been a driving force in the remarkable growth of hip-hop dance theatre since the turn of the century. Their newest work, Blak Whyte Gray, is a significant step forward for them. Jettisoning some of the genre’s more accessible, and indeed sellable features – virtuoso spectacle, character-driven drama, upbeat music – they have opted for a more elemental focus on sound, movement and light.
The first section, entitled Whyte, signals this sparser style. Ricardo Da Silva, Gemma Kay Hoddy and Dickson Mbi wear tunics banded with buckles and ties, like straitjackets. Restraint, in fact, is the dominant quality of this trio. Drawing on robotics and body-popping, the dancers move like automata, galvanised by the jolts and buzzes of Asante’s score. At times their faces contort as if straining for expression, and while one or another will occasionally break away, they never get far: the dancers stay tightly clustered, walled in by Lee Curran’s starkly effective lighting.
The second section, Gray, for the full company of eight dancers, has its foundations in krumping, a full-bodied style which also stages a conflict between expression and restraint, but to heightened dramatic effect: barely contained emotions seem to rattle through the ribcage, exploding into outflung arms and forceful stamps. The mood, like the lighting, is dark and dangerous. Hooded figures enter sliding on the floor, as if keeping themselves under cover. The scene builds to a theatre of war in which the body becomes both weapon and battleground: ragged groups maraud across the stage, aiming their arms like snipers; arrhythmic footwork brings to mind both rifle fire and panicked flight; figures reach up from and fall back into amorphous masses of restless bodies.
The final section, Blak, is more mysteriously personal. Dickson Mbi appears as an abject creature, struggling to get off the ground. Others prop him up, but he keeps falling, failing. When he does manage to stay up, he stays apart: the others club together, twitching to a two-beat rhythm while he wanders lost among them, accompanied by smudges of sound (this elemental closeness of music with action is a hallmark of the whole piece).
Then, in a remarkable solo, Mbi comes into his own, fluently melding the rhythmic precision of hip-hop with the poise of tai chi, the arc and uplift of ballet with the fall and flight of contemporary dance. This full-bodied synthesis seems to release the piece of its tensions. Colour finally comes to the lighting as the dancers, backed by a tequila sunset, come together in an informal group and dance for their own simple pleasure, finally explicitly drawing upon African dance forms.
The work is a striking achievement for Boy Blue Entertainment – and suggests it may be time to drop that last word from their name. Far more formal and introspective than we’ve been used to, it is also more artful in incorporating silence, space and stillness into its sound and action.
If its gratifications are less immediate, that’s no loss: they are also more enduring, more deeply won.