There was a strange moment in the autumn of 2011 when Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Beyoncé Knowles had beef. De Keersmaeker accused Knowles and her choreographer of plagiarism, saying that a number of the routines in the video to Countdown were copied directly from the celebrated Belgian choreographer’s early work Rosa danst Rosas. It was a reminder that, particularly in the world of dance, the gap between dance that we assume is niche and avant garde and the most mainstream pop isn’t as wide as one might assume.
Few people straddle these two worlds like Ivan Blackstock who has been a backing dancer for Cher Lloyd and the Pet Shop Boys but trained at the London School of Contemporary Dance and being a founding member of the hip hop dance collective Bird Gang Dance, whose aim is to change the public perception of hip hop culture by combating negativity. Blackstock has been given the chance to curate an evening of work as part of the Wild Card initiative at Sadler’s Wells (you can read more on this in Bojana Jankovic’s article here).
It is one of Wild Card’s virtues that it’s remit is open to the interpretation of the individual artist. While Dan Canham chose to invite artists whose work he admires and who have been influence on him to perform, Blackstock draws directly from the artistic family of collaborators and dancers that make up Bird Gang Dance.
The evening begins with a pre-show installation (The Awakening) that I didn’t get to see unfortunately, partly because the total number of people who could pass through it in the allotted time period appeared to be fewer than the total audience in attendance. The first piece of the evening once we take our seats then was performed by Company of Elders, a non-professional resident company at Sadler’s Wells of dancers over the age of 60. Considering Bird Gang Dance’s project and the gesture of much of the evening nothing could have been more suitable to subvert our expectations of the kind of people hip hop dance is for, who can do it, who will enjoy it. The choreography is relatively simple, of course, but a joy to watch the company looking like they are absolutely loving throwing shapes to Bel Biv Devoe’s Poison and Vicelow’s Breathe. The audience clap along, really getting behind the performance. It creates an atmosphere of positivity and inclusiveness from the start.
Continuing along similar themes, Simeon Qsyea’s What does it mean to be Hip Hop? combines spoken word from Josephine ‘Reality’ Rollings with a dance piece for four female dancers, sending up the trappings and the suits of hip hop culture. It’s entertaining and makes pertinent points about negativity, consumerism and exclusivity within the culture, though these points are often made more eloquently and economically by the movement alone than by the text. Following this is Blackstock’s own METH (Media Eats the Human) a conversation between a company of dancers and a television screen that alternates between white noise and flashes of images of commercialism. There’s a beautiful tension between chaos and order in the movement here and we get a sense of narrative emerging without things being spelled out for us.
Just as it might be in danger of political hectoring, the evening takes the first of its shifts in tone with what I felt were the two strongest pieces by some way: Ukweli Roach’s Vice and Blackstock’s BLK n GLD. The first feels like a live hip hop video based on Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. A man is at his desk, tormented by dark figures who light cigarettes and smoke in a carefully choreographed way as the bass-heavy drone of teenage bedroom producer XXYYXX wash over them. The man tries to escape from his desk but finds that some part of him is constantly attached. It’s full of ideas but doesn’t feel too busy because its atmosphere is so specific. There’s a strong sense of the dramatic and an instinct for storytelling, perhaps not surprising considering that Roach is an actor as well as a dancer and choreographer. BLK n GLD is more a series of images, an exploration of how choreography can combine with lighting, using torches held by dancers to light the stage, a reflective mirror costume. It’s restless, constantly inventive, busy but supremely confident. Perhaps it doesn’t amount to all that much but it’s tremendous fun to watch.
After the interval there is a short piece that seemed to involve some of the younger members of Bird Gang dance. Choreographed by Qsyea, Ornithology: Evolution didn’t feel as slick as any of the pieces in the first half of the evening and it was the first time I started to wonder about whether or not I was watching professional dancers (I had, with the exception of the Company of Elders, assumed I was up to this point). The final piece of the evening, Blackstock’s Reverie, was, in some senses, the centrepiece, having already featured at last year’s Breakin’ Convention. It’s very much a hip hop play without words, beginning very simply with a couple in bed sleepily fighting over a bed-sheet. The man gives up and goes to the wardrobe to get a hoodie but in doing so discovers strange goings on through the wardrobe. What follows is a kind of dream play with echoes of Strindberg and C.S. Lewis, accompanied by live cello and human beat-box. It’s very ambitious and it felt like there were difficulties in both narrative clarity and in taking too long to establish an individual motif. This was strange considering how concise Blackstock’s other pieces in the evening had been, suggesting that it perhaps demonstrated a lack of confidence in engaging with narrative.
Despite overrunning by over half an hour, Blackstock’s Wild Card doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s packed full of ideas, talent, debate: an opening up of possibilities, a celebration of what UK hip hop dance is and what it might become in the future. It could have gone on all night.