The Maria Studio at the Young Vic has been turned into a dark, smoky Harlem Renaissance club for the short duration of this new dance theatre production from hip hop choreographer and dancer Ivan Blackstock. Joanna Scotcher’s design looks like a slightly heightened cartoonish version of the iconic images of the Cotton and Lenox clubs in the 1920s and ’30s. There are two stages connected by a walkway with various steps and alcoves. As well as traditional rows of theatre seating on either side, some audience members are plunged into a more cabaret like configuration sitting at tables right next to the stage.
Darren Charles enters and addresses us directly. He plays Sal and, as well as being our compere for the evening he is also our – slightly unreliable – narrator. He and his parnter Mo (Blackstock) are dancing in clubs in Jackson, Mississippi when they piss off the wrong guy and have to flee. This isn’t a problem for Sal though as it gives him the perfect excuse to escape to what he refers to as “the black Mecca”: Harlem, New York City.
From there, it’s a classic story of the Faustian rise to power with Sal’s ambition eventually turning him into a monster. As a narrative it feels incomplete: the rise to power but not the fall. It also trades in a lot of well worn clichés about rags to riches narratives and the corrupting influence of power. The characters travel through the world of segregated early twentieth century America with a strange air of naivity, casually asking the white club owner why they can’t get paid more since they bring in most of the club’s income for example.
The impression is of a narrative born of an existing interest in the music, fashions and décor of a particularly fascinating cultural moment for black America. Blackstock’s project with BirdGang Dance is focused on hip hop choreography and here he draws connections between two distinct traditions. Pushing hip hop dance to show its relevance beyond a specific cultural context is an exciting and worthwhile endeavour and there’s no doubt that Blackstock and the rest of BirdGang care deeply about this form and want to push it further. The perfection of the timing and the geometric formations are almost Busby Berkleyesque, which is a particular achievement in such a tiny space.
But there are questions being asked by this remixing of an old cultural moment that A Harlem Dream doesn’t seem to explore and this frustrated me. The story itself didn’t reflect this revisiting and the constant returning to the text meant that the choreography couldn’t develop a dramaturgical arc of its own. Nonetheless, it’s a commendable move for the Young Vic to give dance theatre a run of this length, treating it as, you know, theatre. I hope it’s a sign of things to come. As this work gets seen more often in traditional theatres, more questions will be asked of its dramaturgical underpinnings. Right now, Blackstock and co don’t seem to be able to answer all those questions. They are pushing things forward though and when Blackstock finds a storytelling technique that can really match the inventiveness and irreverence of his choreography, well, that’s the dream…
A review of Ivan Blackstock’s Wild Card night at Sadler’s Wells.