Breakin’ Convention

Sadler’s Wells

Everyone has their own specific May bank holiday rituals. Some go for a bracing hike around the Chilterns, some down tinned cocktails on the sin-wagon to Brighton, and some (Including me) pack into the already packed Sadler’s Wells for the yearly hip hop festival Breakin’ Convention.

This time the festival is celebrating 21 years. Bounding along, forgetting names, and firing up the already inflamed audience is the founder and rapper Jonzi D. Convincing Sadler’s Wells to host a hip hop festival in 2004 and subsequently keeping it going for over two decades, is quite the achievement. Yet does D stop there? Building on that relationship so much so that in Sadler’s Wells’s glinting new venue in East London a whole wing is dedicated to Academy Breakin’ Convention (ABC). Next year 20 lucky students will have the opportunity to learn, full-time and for free subjects such as rap, graffiti, beat making, popping, locking, and Krumping. This is the first of its kind, and with breaking becoming an official edition for the first time this summer at the Paris Olympics 2024/2025 is such an exciting milestone for the festival and genre as a whole.

Finally finding a permanent home, no longer merely popping up yearly, filling Sadler’s Wells with youth, life, and the smells of Jamaican patties. No now (explained in a promotion video) they have a proper home to nurture the next group of hip hop artists, expanding the fabric of the dance world. It’s enough to bring a tear to your eye, or at least certainly to my eye.

This monster of festival grows and grows every year. Consuming both the smaller Lilian Baylis studio, the main space from 6-10ish, a parking lot around the corner for graffiti workshops, and the park across the street for a bank holiday free jamming session and after-party on Sunday night at the O2 Academy. Is there a part of London BC has not filled over the weekend with exuberance, blasting good tunes and the best vibes? I think not.

The festival’s ethos of “work from around the world and around the corner” means the last act is dominated by international and more well-known acts, proving they have earned their place in the dance world’s hall of fame. Jingo Crew are a crowd drawer, with their acrobatic and playful routines. 14 or so Kpop star look-a-likes, fling themselves around the stage with unlimited energy. Kings of breakdance and to a bobbing 90’s soundtrack the flips and spins are legendary. Blitzing some of their most famous performances, they always have an eye for comedy, sporting oversized hoodies at one point the dancers pull them off, and knot them making a triangle which they proceed to jump through. One dancer headstands and then flips onto his feet, over and over again, both physical artistry but keeping alive the playful improvisational competitiveness that the genre started with.

Other International acts don’t quite hit as well. Sons of Wind from France has an improvised and deeply causal offering that feels a lot like watching your dancer friends show off in a club. There is a lack of choreography and theatricality in the show. The theme is 90’s hip-hop, and yes the overall feel is of dance-offs, and bounce-based loose movements, but without much direction, it feels aimless. The bad trip-inducing house music doesn’t help the overall enjoyment of the piece.

Marie Poppins, Lily Frias, and Dassy Lee are Femme Fatal, blending their South Korean, UK, and US heritage they strut onto the stage in oversized foot suits in beige and white. James Brown’s It’s A Man World blasts, and what follows is one of the evening’s pinnacles. Carrying suitcases, and exploring the move to America to fulfill their dreams, we get a knowing tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the gender. Suits give us Man Men but in dance form, then they are torn away to reveal white halter neck shirt remixes, thrashing hair, and seductive floor work compacts the difference cleverly. The choreography is slick, working in many elements of voguing. Insightful, the solos leap out illuminated by lights hidden inside the suitcases,  showcasing each dancer’s unique ability. Dassy Lee in particular is lethal, liquid, and completely magnetic to watch.

Traplord kick off the second act, Ivan Michael Blackstock’s surreal work premieres, interlacing comedy, and violence with the dancers dressed as SAS fighters and also a dancing pig in a tutu. Yes, that’s right, mocking ballet spins of this half-human half-pork break up an interesting choreography of urban militarism. A section where three dancers march on stage, spinning around one another, a little like Call of Duty fighters, guns jamming out, bodies tight and alert is a charged piece of theatre. Despite this gifted movement mediocre live rap work by the dancers does rather blunt the effect, but we can’t be good at everything now can we?

The evening was not all big dance crews however, there were so truly gifted duets and solos. Jamal Street introduced us to his blend of bruk up and ballet. Street from Nottingham glides onto the stage, in a glittery blue top and glowing white trainers. A little like hip hop version of pointe, up on his toes he goes, sliding one foot in front of the other, long tendrils of arms outstretched, like Christ the redeemer reaching out of Rio de Janeiro. Alien-like, both smooth and yet somehow tense, strained and fluttering his hands outstretched as his feet ice skated across the very much not frozen floor of the stage. An odd but certainly mesmeric performance.

ShaolinOrShao (UK) has all the attitude and aggression of grime in blasting piece to kick off the evening. Ekleido gives us an interlocked tangled gymnastic/contortionist-linked performance looking more like two figure skaters in perplexing rhinestone tracksuits. Create4 from the Netherlands on the other hand are as far away from sparkles as you could be. Spitting the scene beautifully with blue and yellow lights, two black men battle toxic masculinity and intergenerational trauma, leaning on but also dragging, tugging, and pushing one another in and out of their own lighted sections. Visually enchanting, but also (and this is rare with dance) with a very clear theme and aim of exploration.  GSB from South London gives the biggest krumping performance of the evening. Although spirited, and with a nice repeated movement of fists to temples, head, and necking vibrating, overall it feels rather static. Although a section where the dancers are imprisoned under a bright tight gobo is an ingenious use of light.

Despite my dedication, doing two days on the trot was beyond me. This was double a shame as Boy Blue a personal favourite dance crew was only playing on the Sunday. However, Breakin’ Convetion isn’t about seeing everything. That would be impossible. The Glastonbury Festival of hip hop dance is about seeing how far the genre stretches. Marvelling at the inventiveness of the next generation of dancers, and stumbling home with an added swing in your step. 21 years, the festival can now legally drink in America or drive a lorry in the UK, a young adult’s lifetime worth of dance, life and breaking boundaries.

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