By: James Banyard, TRP Reviewer
Breakin’ Convention – the Sadler’s Wells hip hop culture takeover of TRP – is back in town for the first time since 2012. I’m outside the theatre drinking a hot flask of tea in the baking afternoon sunshine, while a seagull atop Messenger watches the guys set up the Bao Bun stall. What am I, a middle-aged man with a sore neck, drinking hot tea on a hot day doing here?
But, looking around, everyone is here.
Small children practice their parkour skills on thick crashmats outside the theatre, led by sensible looking men in khaki t-shirts. Teenagers spin on their heads to fresh DJ sounds on the pop-up dance floor by the bar. Proud parents of some of the local performers tonight shoot film for their social media followers and practice making graffiti tags upstairs. Even grandparents are here to hold everyone together. I spoke to one Plymothian grandmother, originally from the East End of London. ‘Dancing is for everyone’, she tells me. ‘It was what you had when you had nothing else.’ She is excited because her granddaughter is appearing later on stage with the Groovement Project. Hip hop dance culture is one of the most welcoming of scenes, as host, MC, and artistic director Jonzi D will say later, ‘None of those differences matter. We are one people.’
So, I catch the welcoming vibe, shoot some footage of the DJ’s for my social media followers, and stop worrying about my receding hairline. Breakin Convention is at heart an old-fashioned variety show with some of the most incredible dance acts from, as Jonzi D says, ‘Around the world, and around the corner.’ Tonight is a mix of global dance talent and real Plymothian grassroots youth dancing, together with a takeover of the foyer areas and the public spaces outside around Messenger. No wonder the audience is so vocal, freely shouting compliments at the performers, whooping, cheering, and rising to their feet. They take their cue from Jonzi D, who as MC is so full of energy, he makes Mr Motivator look like he is having a permanent duvet day. From the moment the show starts I feel like I am on a rollercoaster.
First up is Plymouth’s street dance studio Rhythm City. The stage opens to a group of young dancers lying on the floor who quickly spring up and give one of the punchiest performances I have ever seen. Quick, snatched movements, rising and falling together, it is a super-confident start to the evening.
To clear the palate after that, solo Plymouth performer Perry Johnson, a bare-chested man dances with total commitment to a recorded motivational speech called Keep the Faith. The former Street Factory dancer blends beats with speech, and I am pinned to my seat unable to take my eyes off him.
Poppin’ Ollie, back solo after performing with Rhythm City, is introduced as an autistic young man who found himself through dance. His routine, Different not Less again uses inspirational vocals while he provides smooth mechanical movements that I itched to practice myself in the interval.
Completing part one, MOVER, a crew of six powerful dancers from South Korea pushes the form to the limit. In ensemble they create machine-like structures that rotate and ratchet, and also complex heaps that morph and disintegrate in beautifully fluid movements. They create a drum machine by tapping performer’s feet – this is revealed later to be a real human beatboxer. The beatboxer – who is polyphonically brilliant – then introduces ‘The King of the Power Move’ – a squat muscular guy who spins so fast he appears to levitate like a tube of pure muscle. I shake my head and turn to my neighbour and we both share a moment of ‘What the ****?!’ Reader, I whooped.
The party atmosphere continues in the interval, where the DJ’s return to their decks. I bump into the grandmother I met earlier by the parkour: she is beaming. I say something like, look at all these children here tonight, and she says, ‘This is so different for this theatre.’ We both agree tonight there is a unique buzz.
Part two opens in a contemplative mood with Netherlands based pole dancer Yvonne Smink. You might think pole dancing is seedy, but watching Smink adhere to her pole like glue, use it gracefully to ‘swim’ through the stage, and then appear weightless as if standing at perpendicular to it, you will see it in a different light. Aquatic lighting, shimmering blue backgrounds, and chilled out beats convinces me we are under water.
The Groovement Project appears as the final local group in a dynamic, action packed sequence. The stage is rammed with teenagers synchronising powerful and angry moves in a piece called Purpose about pursuing your dreams, no matter what the obstacles. Many dreams come true tonight on stage for these young performers.
Headliners for the evening are Ghetto Funk Collective, a six-piece dance group from the Netherlands who look like they have beamed in on a groove direct from a New York City sidewalk, circa 1978. In flared trousers, tank tops, flat caps, and tight jackets they slip and slide around the stage, pulling inconceivable splits, and firmly establish a funky rhythm. Most powerful is a music-free section, which they could get away with after implanting the funky beat deep in the audience’s minds.
I hope I don’t have to wait another 12 years to see Breakin’ Convention return given the weight of local talent on show tonight. The whooping multi-cultural and multi-generational audience this evening found a perfect home at TRP. Get your funk on, Plymouth.