Why Hip Hop show Breakin' Convention has the original spin
Hip hop culture may have been born in the Bronx but it thrives in Scotland. In celebration of this we’ve drawn together this hip hop special of sorts, and to kick off, Kelly Apter celebrates the return of Breakin’ Convention, a show that brings international street dance names to the theatre stage
In May 2007, hip hop came to Edinburgh. A laughable comment for those already immersed in the scene, but for many people it was the start of a beautiful friendship. Having taken London by storm every year since 2004, Breakin’ Convention finally branched out into the rest of the UK, and turned the Edinburgh Festival Theatre into a den of hip hop dance theatre.
Two years later, it’s happening all over again. DJs, beatboxers, graffiti artists and breakers will create a pre-show buzz in the foyer, while on-stage, three world-class hip hop acts will rub shoulders with local talent. And if the 2007 event is anything to go by, everyone from toddlers to pensioners will have a ball. ‘Edinburgh was amazing,’ recalls Breakin’ Convention’s artistic director, Jonzi D. ‘The venue was filled with energy and excitement and the local acts were incredible. And I think that Edinburgh will be amazing again this year, because the word is out and people have got a sense of what it is.’
Hip hop dance in its various guises has been around for decades, but access to it hasn’t always been easy. Until fairly recently in the UK, if you wanted to take in a spot of breaking, popping and locking, you had to head for the clubs. Thanks to Breakin’ Convention, companies such as Zoo Nation (Into the Hoods) and Boy Blue (Pied Piper) have found their way into mainstream venues.
‘Some people argue whether theatres are the correct arena for this kind of dance,’ says Jonzi. ‘They say it should only be done in clubs or on the streets. But that’s just limiting the potential, because once it’s seen, it’s enjoyed. And I’m really proud that we’ve been able to wedge a huge foot in the door of this theatre environment, because it’s important that we increase access to hip hop dance theatre.’
Another major strength of Breakin’ Convention is the seamless blend of old school and new. Vintage acts which blazed a trail share the bill with young pups still wet behind the sneakers. Together, they celebrate all that’s good about this athletic, feel-good and increasingly artistic artform. One of the most anticipated acts this year is the VII Gems Rock Dance Division, led by original Rock Steady Crew member, Ken Swift. The group specialises in ‘rocking’, which pre-dates breaking and involves lots of top movement before going down to the floor.
‘Ken is really committed to bringing rocking back,’ says Jonzi, ‘and showing people that it’s a significant movement in the narrative line of hip hop and urban dance.’ A b-boy since 1978, when as a 12-year-old he would take to the streets of Manhattan, Swift is credited with the creation of many widely used dance moves. ‘Life truly does begin at 40 – even within hip hop,’ says Jonzi. ‘It’s not just a youth culture anymore, it’s been around long enough for people to have lived their whole lives with hip hop culture. So it’s really exciting to be able to document that history with VII Gems.’
The USA may have got the ball rolling, but when it comes to modern-day breaking, South Korea is the leader of the pack. An amalgamation of some of that nation’s finest crews, MyoSung has created a thought-provoking yet humourous piece about dictatorship. ‘Obviously they’re greatly influenced by their North Korean neighbours,’ says Jonzi. ‘But the fundamental thing is MyoSung’s blistering technique – that’s what I think is so strong about this work.’
Completing the international line-up is Solah, the man dubbed the ‘French Charlie Chaplin’. ‘He’s a comedic genius,’ says Jonzi. ‘His solo show is beautiful and sensitive – he takes the audience in the palm of his hand and massages them gently, it’s really cool.’ Sharing the stage with such acclaimed acts is privilege indeed, and earlier this year Jonzi was spoilt for choice when a host of local talent turned up to audition.
‘The technical level of dance in Scotland is really good,’ says Jonzi. ‘And the integrity of the Scottish b-boys is intact so I was never worried about getting the talent – if anything it was about choosing it.’
The man responsible for sourcing those local acts is Tony Mills, who also had a hand in the 2007 event. According to him, Breakin’ Convention has had a positive impact on the Scottish hip hop scene. ‘The last one was a good springboard for some of the local acts,’ says Mills, ‘which is what I hoped would happen. It encouraged dancers to band together and produce their own work – and move into a different format by taking it into the theatre as well as doing battles.’
This year, the local line-up will feature the Inverclyde Breakers, Flyin’ Jalepenos and Psycho Stylez on Monday, followed by Heavy Smokers, SIN Cru and Mills’ own group, Random Aspekts on Tuesday. Mills also organised the foyer activity, including a circle dedicated to first generation breakers from Scotland who are now in their 40s. So whether you’ve bought a ticket or simply walk past the glass-fronted Festival Theatre, Breakin’ Convention is likely to turn your head.
‘When you see young guys and girls doing crazy things with their body and the energy it exudes, it’s really engaging for everybody,’ says Mills. ‘It doesn’t matter what you’re into – if you see that kind of thing happening, you want to stop and look.’
Breakin’ Convention 09, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Mon 18 & Tue 19 May.