I’m just one episode away from completing season 1 of Westworld, and I’ve long been getting nightmares. Over the past nine episodes, Jonathan Nolan’s series has called me to question my understanding of reality. Can consciousness be created? Will we ever match our maker? Are we all just robots put on this planet for the entertainment of Executive Vice Presidents with troubled home lives and lovely Stetson hats?
Boy Blue Entertainment’s Blak Whyte Gray asks us many of the same questions, albeit with fewer bodices and a woeful absence of horses. Nevertheless, ripe with muscular, energised bodies – which push at the boundaries set by Choreographer ‘H2O’ Sandy & Composer Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante – and full of empowered personalities that forcefully break away from the hold of these Creative Directors, Blak Whyte Gray is an elegant riot against control.
We begin with Whyte. Under Lee Curran’s assertive lighting design, which rudely locks down the house lights before the school pupils in the audience have chance to consider switching off their phones, Ricardo Da Silva, Gemma Kay Hoddy and Dickson Mbi begin popping, like automatons contending with their ability to move. It could be so tacky, but our three performers – so completely un-mirrored in physique – bring such coordination to the jilted defrosting of robot into human. Their bodies like tightly-held puppets, pulsing with un-programmed energy, they inject a scurrying sense of flight into the piece’s tight uniformity.
As the performance melts into Gray, Sandy’s choreography reminds us that hip-hop, with its subcultural origins, is no stranger to resisting control. Outfitted in camouflage-inspired fabrics, the company draws on Krump for a decidedly more resistant offering. While Whyte’s dancers pulled their mouths into silent screams, trapped in the right-angled confines of robotic popping, Gray brings a more liquid aggression and power to the stage. Gone are the cell-like confines of Curran’s square of light, and our eight dancers are now thoroughly mobile. Mobile in the sense that they have been granted autonomy, looseness and freedom to own more of their space – Natasha Gooden, in particular, brings a particular controlled elasticity to this permissiveness – and mobile in the sense that, armed with invisible guns and grenades, they have a cause. And boy, are they ready to fight.
In Blak, this army turns its attention back to the individual, to nurture and develop him, to coax and support. Dickson Mbi, our central performer, brings a glitchy yet commanding grace as fellow dancers inform and animate his movements. Sandy’s choreography is generous and social, the vision of the group empowering the individual standing in sharp opposition to the clinical off-stage puppeteering of Whyte. It’s hard to focus on anything other than Mbi, though, whose muscular physique refuses to support the notion that this piece is simply about learning how to stand, pose and move. His fitful expression under magnified shadows calls for both celebration and fear – and so, in a trilogy that explores, through mechanical hip hop, how we can break away from the machine, Blak feels like the most engaged socio-political piece of the programme. It’s an exploration of how we can shape others or conform, imitate or retreat into isolation.
Composer / Creative Director Asante makes a mark with music choked with electronic beeps and the fiery crackling of records, then peppered with reverberating philosophical musings. It’s a score that is emotive enough to be thoroughly human, but bears a pulse that is undoubtedly machine. That said, Blak Whyte Gray sounds best when it reveals its live soundtrack: the gasps of the dancers as they endure this battle towards expression, the percussive slaps of skin against skin, the bounce of feet on boards that ripple with a dappled and disorientating strobe-effect, a brutal exhale, a strength-reinstating inhale. I can’t provide the spoilers for s01e10 yet, but in this series the robots have definitely triumphed.
Blak Whyte Gray is on at the Barbican until 21st January 2017. Click here for more details.