Breakin’ Convention 2016 kicks off at Sadler’s Wells at the end of April. Now in its 13th year, it’s become one of Britain’s most vibrant dance events. David Mead talks to the man behind it, artistic director Jonzi D.
Breakin’ Convention was an immediate success, but how did it come about? “I was touring Aeroplane Man, my hip hop theatre show,” explains Jonzi. “I used rap and some hip hop dance styles, but I felt like I was the only one doing it at the time. When I started to look around Europe, and especially in France, and seeing a lot of other people doing it, I said, “Yeah, right. I think I need to do something to show everybody that this isn’t just some weird anomaly that just Jonzi does.”
It was Aeroplane Man, says Jonzi, that helped him find a sense of belonging and his place in the artform. When he performed it at the Southbank, he connected with Alistair Spalding, and sowed the idea of a festival. “Then when Alistair became Chief Executive at Sadler’s Wells, in his first year, he said, ‘Jonzi, let’s do this.’ And the rest is history.”
I really just wanted to help other people say whatever was burning for them.
It was a calculated risk in many ways. It was not only the theatre’s first in-house production of any sort, but no-one else anywhere in Britain was giving such a platform to hip hop. But right from the off it was a huge sell-out success.
Not that Jonzi ever had any doubts. His question for everyone was, “How can a dance style that’s so dynamic, and so changing frequently, which is truly contemporary, how are you telling me that can’t be theatre?” As he points out, if you look at the history of work that started in the black community in America, all of it has become successful, commercial, even mainstream, and loved and adopted by the rest of the world. Jazz music is perhaps the most obvious example, now a staple of modern theatre. He says the thing about hip hop is that, “It’s not about race. It’s not about social strata. It really is for everybody. For me it was a no-brainer.”
Every hip hop head knows that real hip hop is big.
Breakin’ Convention has changed and developed over the years. Initially, Jonzi wanted to show all that hip hop dance was offering. In the early years there was a lot of street dance happening, on Britain’s Got Talent and music videos especially, he says. “But I think it got a bit jaded after a while, and I consciously started to look for more challenging interpretations of hip hop.”
“Then there was a period where there were people creating pretty much contemporary dance with little bits of hip hop ideas in it,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Is that what I meant?’ I don’t think so. Then I started getting back to presenting technique for techniques sake. For example, in this year’s programme we have the Skeleton Movers from Soweto and they’re just going to present, their busking routine. It’s a very new dance form that hasn’t been seen that much.”Audiences have changed too. At the beginning of Breakin’ Convention there was definitely a larger percentage of non-white people, remembers Jonzi. There was a certain amount of ticking the diversity box going on, he feels. “We had to address diversity, but I don’t think it was quite affirmative action, more a rebalancing exercise.” And he stresses, it is important that theatre should reflect the diversity of the cities that they are in. “White people are actually a minority in the borough of Newham. How are their voices represented in theatres that are part of the subsidised sector? For me, there must be a responsibility for all that. It’s about practical, sensible, activism rather than any particular pocket or vision; and about presenting excellence across a wide range of things.”
Yes, it is for young people, but it’s also for older people.
Jonzi agrees that hip hop does still have the image of being a ‘young person’s thing’, though. “It’s understandable,” he says. He recalled Ken Swift of the original Rock Steady Crew talking about the whole form being created by under-10 year olds. “The term ‘B-boy’ maybe gives a little clue into that. But, he continues, “There’s been a devotion to this culture. Those same young people, who were young in the 70s, they still love it. As for the idea that we refer to it as something only for young people, I’d like to think that Breakin’ Convention presents an option to that.”
When it comes to selecting artists, getting a wide diversity of approaches to hip hop has always been important to Jonzi. “We’ve always had a local community element to the programme. We’ve always wanted to fill the main stage with the biggest stars from around the world and the local stars in the community, because everybody started there.
Looking ahead to this year, Jonzi suggests a few acts we should look out for, first coming back to Soweto Skeleton Movers from South Africa. “Arguably, the concept of hip hop started in the Bronx in New York, but this is a departure from that. It’s actually looking at street dance culture around the world.” The form happened around the world at the same time, so there are particular global political similarities that have contributed to the dance styles, he explains.
“She killed it last year, but I’m going to mention her again: Antoinette Gomis from France. She’s doing a solo about Nina Simone inspired by the words of a Waring Cuney poem. We’ve also got some excellent work from a guy called Ivan Blackstock. He is part of BirdGang, well respected within hip hop dance theatre, the commercial world and the battle circuit, and who’s presenting some new work under the moniker SWNSNG. He’s working with grime music, which is a very specific UK hip hop style, and krump dance. That’s really exciting.”Jonzi also recommends catching Kloe Dean, a British choreographer whose work he says has been maturing fast. “She used to do street dance but she’s really pushed her style. She’s working with Myself UK, an all-female crew.” That’s still pretty unusual but as Jonzi explains, hip hop dance emerged from breakin’ and was a dance form for boys. “There were a few girls, but mostly boys. I guess balancing on hands, headspinning, dirtying your clothes, rolling around…I think these are very boy type activities.” Nonetheless, he explains that the B-girl community has been growing strongly over the years, and that he’s always had a representation of that in his programming. “It’s about balance. It’s not all about guys. Girls can do it too. I do try to push that. But I don’t know how soon we are going to get a solo B-girl champion.”
It’s a most exciting context to work in, because you’re constantly discovering things.
With hop hip now in mainstream theatre and just about everywhere else, is there any danger of it losing its edge? “Absolutely not,” says Jonzi, “because of the constant reinvention of the form.” He explains that many new forms have sprung out over the last twenty years. Some claim that some aren’t connected to hip hop at all, he continues, for example flexin’, which comes from Brooklyn, New York. “It has similarities to poppin’ but it’s quite distinctive. A lot of it is done to dance hall reggae music. But that’s a new dance form, and to me, you have to be influenced by that.”
Since its beginnings in the earl seventies, every new hip hop form has presented a whole new palette of movement style, he says, rap styles, DJ styles, music styles. “As soon as one aspect of it gets a bit dry and played out, there’s always some underground thing bubbling up ready to just amaze people again.”
“Bone breakin’, how can I forget that? That came out of flexin’ as well. That’s the purposeful dislocation. You’re trained how to dislocate your shoulders in order to dance.”
I think we need hip hop today.
“Hip hop has always made art out of the ugliness of human world. The essence of hip hop is taking something from nothing. It takes from the morally corrupt and makes something beautiful out of that, as well as the need for revolution. It makes revolution beautiful.”
Besides touring around the UK, Breakin’ Convention has made two trips to New York, and this June it can be seen in Luxembourg. New York was magical, says Jonzi, who explains that hip hop in Europe has an almost mythical connection with Harlem through geniuses like James Brown and other great music acts who influenced the dance of today.
He says there was a lot of disbelief that they could come from the UK and Europe and show the Americans something new. ‘Are you trying to tell us what hip hop is?’ was the feeling. “But the reality is that hip hop has developed and grown outside America in a similar way to how jazz musicians had to get respect by leaving America and doing their trade in places like France. There are thriving hip hop scenes all over Europe but it’s no surprise, I think, that outside of America, France is the most advanced hip hop scene around the world.”
Hip hop in America has suffered an almost institutional onslaught, he says. In particular the media has frequently presented unfavourable images of it and connected it with hyper-violent excessive materialism. “But we know it’s not like that. It is getting into theatrical realms, and particularly with Breakin’ Convention I’m trying to maintain that. I see it as a vehicle to present hip hop culture, its nuances and high level skills, show what potentially it can do, and put it on the same level as those so called high arts.
Jonzi remains busy away from Breakin’ Convention too. He talks with great enthusiasm about his acclaimed solo, The Letter: To Be, Or To MBE?, the story of how and why he turned down the offer of an MBE for services to British dance. “I still tour occasionally. I’ll be doing it in Wisconsin at the end of the Breakin’ Convention tour.” He’s also directing a show for Soweto Kinch, assisting on a new work with a B-boy group from Holland called The Ruggeds, and working on a project in Tivoli Gardens in downtown Kingston, Jamaica.
What he is most excited about right now, is presenting a keynote speech at the European Culture Forum in Brussels (April 19-20). “I’m going to be talking about, surprise, surprise, diversity. I’d better get writing! Yeah, loads of good stuff, I just have to try and fit it all in the schedule somehow.”
Breakin’ Convention 2016 opens at London’s Sadler’s Wells on April 30 and May 1 before heading off on a tour of eight English towns and cities through to June 1.
For full details of artists, main stage and foyer events, workshops and tour dates visit www.breakinconvention.com.
For Sadler’s Wells tickets visit www.sadlerswells.com