The name of the upcoming Sadler’s Wells dance festival is both a memorable pun and acknowledges that substantively, it’s breaking the conventions of both genres of performance art it has adopted. Breakin’ Convention is hip hop theatre; a fascinating affront to both contemporary dance and standard b-boying (break dancing). Somewhere between the stagecraft of bourgeois theatres and the busting energy of South Bronx dancehalls, curator and host Jonzi D has found a beautiful niche.
But what of hip hop being ‘produced’ at a venue like Sadler’s Wells? What of a movement that was once so raw, rooted in the street, moving into the realms of ‘high art’?
“Breakin’ Convention is an extension of hip hop” Jonzi tells me. “It keeps the real hip hop dynamics: graffiti, ciphers, circles, breaking… We’ve gone to the art and culture of the form, not the swagger side. We’re going deeper than the cosmetic side.”
Jonzi is one of those people you instantly warm to. We’d first met by chance at a house party in Kampala, Uganda, and then coincidentally again at Entebbe airport before sharing a flight back to the UK.
Now we talk at the Sadler’s Wells cafe. Beneath a huge bulbous hat filled with dreadlocks is a rounded, thoughtful face. Jonzi likes to enunciate words that are important, stretching them out and emphasising their syllables. He is clear and convincing. Yet still I question the philosophy of putting hip hop into theatres.
“You see, when I started getting into it, in the 1980s, hip hop was about doing something different” he says, drawing out the word, “Rappers didn’t do the same tracks. You’d be called a biter, someone copying from someone else. For me, bringing hip hop into the dance and theatre scenes was doing something different.”
Jonzi’s story goes right back to the origins of underground British hip hop, b-boying and MCing with the UK’s first wave from 1982. Increasingly drawn to breaking, he graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School in 1993 and set up his first Hip Hop Theatre in 1995.
“I was bringing together two polarised entities in my life” he says. “I thought I was the only person in the world doing it. I felt like I was a bit of a hip hop missionary.”
Jonzi began touring a production called Lyrikal Fearta around Europe that year and realised that others were also onto this hip hop dance combination; it was a genre unto itself.
In 1999 Alistair Spalding, then working at the Royal Festival Hall, saw Jonzi’s production of Aeroplane Man, about a displaced young man of Grenadian origin living in east London. Spalding recognised the significance of Jonzi’s work and five years later, as artistic director at Sadler’s Wells, he commissioned Jonzi to develop a hip hop dance festival. Breakin’ Convention was born.
They hit it off immediately. Spalding gave Jonzi free license to fully capture the essence of hip hop culture, revolving around its four elements: MCing, DJing, breaking, and graffiti.
“When Alistair Spalding supported our guys spraying graffiti on the walls of the mezzanine at Sadler’s Wells, I thought… this will work! The rest is history. We’ve been here every year. We’ve had three national tours. We’ve received money from the Arts Council. We’ve worked with the greatest breakdancers in the world: The Electric Boogaloos, Ken Swift, Mr Wiggles… We’ve become the pioneers of this culture.”
In this eighth successive year at Sadler’s Wells, Breakin’ Convention promises to capture the truly global nature of hip hop, with dancers representing France, Korea, Japan, the UK, US and Uganda.
“Chuck D pointed out that hip hop is developing faster outside the US today. We live in a global world now, with the internet and so on. Hip hop represents the culture of the world…”
One of the highlights of the programme is Ugandan crew, Tabu-Flo, the first time a group from sub-Saharan Africa have been involved in Breakin Convention. The group met at Kampala’s Breakdance Project, a non-profit organisation working to promote social change. In a country where hip hop culture is phenomenally popular, it’s a direct way to connect with young people.
The piece Tabu-Flo created for their London show is inspired by the story of a battle with malevolent spirits. “Tabu-Flo are working with a local myth called the night dancers: that humans go into trances at night; they possess people; they dig up freshly buried bodies at night and eat them… it’s extraordinary”, explains Jonzi.
Jonzi’s passion for Africa is obvious. “Africa is the cradle of so many artistic forms. To go near to central Africa, near to the Nile, and find an idea that relates to our concept is too exciting!”
Under the creative control of Jonzi, and amid the dynamics of global hip hop and diverse ethnic cultures, the possibilities are endless. The impetus is to keep exploring; to do something different. So far, Breakin’ Convention is living up to its name.