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Animated Edition - Summer 2004
Breakin' Convention
Earlier this year Sadler's Wells Theatre hosted the Breakin' Convention Festival of Hip Hop dance Theatre. Here Alistair Spalding the artistic director of Sadler's Wells in conversation with JonziD the curator of the event review this groundbreaking initiative and the issues it addressed
Alistair Spalding (A.S.) - We have just collaborated on one of the most amazing events that I have been involved in my professional career - the Breakin' Convention Festival of Hip Hop Dance Theatre at Sadler's Wells and I thought it would be great to share some of our experience of working on that together with others.

Firstly, as you know there was some apprehension from yourself and others in the Hip Hop Dance Theatre community about such an event happening at an institution such as Sadler's Wells, could you talk about some of the fears that you had about that?

JonziD - The unfamiliarity of Sadler's Wells as a space for genuine Hip Hop events was a concern, mainly because of the lack of Hip Hop audiences that frequent the venue. I feel that the marketing for companies like Bounce and Rennie Harris have targeted the existing Wells audience who want to try something 'different', or something for 'the kids'. Considering the negative image of rap music in the media, I was also worried about how Sadler's Wells would react to an authentic Hip Hop audience. Will they be expecting a gang of gun-toting, young black thugs hell bent on the rape and pillage of this hallowed temple of artistic excellence?

A.S. - Yes I think that was all true but wasn't there something else - about the idea of an institution like Sadler's Wells appropriating Hip Hop Dance as a tool for our audience development. I felt that we had to go through a phase of where you got to know us and our intentions and respect for the art form once we had broken through that barrier things were different?

JonziD - Nah! You must be thinking about that geeza Vexski on the forum, I don't know him! I'd support any institution using Hip Hop as a tool for audience development. So long as the Hip Hop Artist gets the resources to excel like any other Company that performs in the building. I feel Sadler's Wells was always open to my ideas.

A.S. - I think the aspect of the festival that I was most impressed with was the direct connection between the performers and the audience - there was an immediate recognition of skill and creativity in the performances form the audience - and on the other side very little patience with anything pretentious or unreal - where you expecting that to be so strong?

JonziD - I blatantly expected that! The live Hip Hop audience always makes noise to show appreciation. It's hard to stifle a reaction when someone does over fifty continuous head spins! The fourth wall doesn't exist in most Hip Hop performance, even in the more abstract theatrical work. Victor from Rubberbandance told me he wasn't sure whether nearly 2000 mostly under 21 year olds screaming the roof off Sadlers Well's was right for their work. The crowd were feeling it for the most part, but maybe the Hip Hop audience hasn't got time for theatre etiquette. "If it's looong, then I'm gone!" I personally have sat through some tedious performance art that the average Hip Hop head would've jetted from 5 minutes in! I enjoyed the 15 - 30 minute slots per company, it helped the momentum of the festival. How does this format compare to the longer programs usually performed by single companies at the Wells?

A.S. - Well of course it varies - sometimes we have mixed bills where you have three works of around 20 - 25 minutes, or we have pieces that last one and a half hours without interval - but our average audiences follow a convention where they sit politely until the end even if they are bored to tears! This was a totally different experience for us but it was what you and I intended. It helped also that we had free seating and so people felt happy to come and go and see what was happening in other areas of the theatre. The other thing I wanted to talk about was some of the community and education work that went on all around the festival. The groups involved all had a chance to perform on the main stage during the festival and there was a great feeling that that was perfectly OK and there was no difference in perception and respect paid to the professionals and non-professionals involved. I think that says something quite profound about the art form don't you?

JonziD - It was empowering! It allowed non-professionals to show a paying audience how much discipline and hard work is put into the Hip Hop craft. The community groups gave me an overwhelming feeling of confidence about the future of Hip Hop dance theatre in the UK.

B-boy championships worldwide have had a lack of UK representation for too long now. I feel that the festival has inspired a lot of people, of varying age groups, to start practising again. It's great that Sadler's Wells are supporting the development by offering master-classes. Do you see this as an ongoing thing?

A.S. - Absolutely - having seen the potential in both the artists and the audiences I want to have an ongoing programme of work both on the main stage and at the Peacock and Baylis Theatres. There need to be events to take that audience on to and we also need to be involved in developing and supporting the artists making the work. For me Breakin' Convention was a moment in the evolution of hip hop dance theatre in the UK don't you agree?

JonziD - Definitely - Breakin' Convention revealed a sleeping giant called Hip Hop dance to the sleepy UK arts establishment. Obviously the dancers, choreographers and the audience have always been there, occasionally given a token glance by programmers and funding bodies, but the way this event came together was unprecedented. The press, marketing and promotions were excellent. A nice balance between street teams flyer distribution, and broadsheet press articles. StillBrock productions events have never had this much support, it would've still sold out as a 4 day festival! I think this was also a moment in the evolution of UK contemporary dance theatre!

Alistair Spalding is the Artistic Director of Sadler's Wells Theatre contact 020 7863 8035 email: JonziD is the Artistic Director to Stillbrock Productions, email: africockney@yahoo .com

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Animated: Summer 2004