Judging by the upbeat DJ set preceding and the chattering gaggles of schoolchildren peppering the audience of Tuesday’s performance, it was clear few came to ZooNation: Unplugged expecting a solemn offering. And yet solemnity is what this collection of dances delivers much of the time, from sober, too-cool-for-school group sketches to solos brimming with sincerity. This approach proves largely to the show’s benefit, though certain performances occasionally fall prey to their own earnestness.
Inspired by MTV Unplugged, a television show that grandstands acoustic versions of mainstream hits, ZooNation: Unplugged features street dance against a backdrop of pared back pop covers performed live. The format – a succession of unrelated pieces covering assorted themes – is something like a variety show: each time a song fades out, the band rearranges itself for another tune while dancers dash forth from their default position alongside the band to take their place centre stage. Copious nodding and high-fiving among the performers bestows a wholesome vibe that takes its flavour from Glee rather than 8 Mile : this is the hip-hop associated with after school clubs, not alleyways.
ZooNation’s musician’s give a rousing and nearly flawless performance: thunderous classics (James Brown, Lauryn Hill) and gentle ballads (Jason Mraz) receive an equally soulful treatment, with singers Vula Malinga and Elliotte Williams N’Dure heroically powering through the few sound issues plaguing the first act on opening night. Guitars, drums, flutes and violins all feature at points, as do warbling solos and rip-roaring mash-ups (a fusion of TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” provides one such delight). A steady stream of clapping, swaying back-up dancers – ie, those in between mainstage performances – solidifies the overarching theme of community and furthers invites comparisons to a youth group or gospel choir.
The quality of the terpsichore, on the other hand, is motley. The choreography reconciles a great many genres – including funk with breaking and lyrical with street – and there’s a lot to love about the general tone, which errs towards peppy rather than ‘hard’, flirty rather than raunchy; however, a casual hip-hop attitude persists throughout, prompting dancers to eschew formal transitions and thereby causing some pieces to devolve into little but tricks punctuated by some tedious side-stepping to a beat.
Likewise, the attempt to counter monotony by factoring in the odd stylistic outlier is met with similarly mixed results: the merits of a particularly rewarding Michael Jackson-inspired solo bursting with hip sways and funky splits are almost entirely obviated by an unbearably affected lyrical duet reminiscent of mid-2000s competition fodder and featuring rose petals as a prop. Of course, breaking is this company’s lifeblood, and the dancers certainly deliver on that front – headspins, backflips and some particularly acrobatic handstands drew plenty of appreciative whoops from the crowd. What’s more, the show features members of ZooNation’s youth company sprinkled throughout, and it’s impossible not to applaud the charming efforts of such enthusiastic and skilled teens.
ZooNation: Unplugged is at its best during its lively, upbeat numbers, most of which feature a large cohort and lend themselves to captivating unison dancing and tableaux; the more sober pieces tend to suffer from an over-earnest, slightly inward-looking pretence. Aside from the aforementioned rose petals gimmick, props were kept to a pleasing minimum, allowing the dancers and musicians to shine without hindrance. The costuming too was suitably restrained. Were there only little more of the frivolity the company does so well, the dancing would register as unplugged as the rest of the show.