On Wednesday, I went to see this show at the Barbican in London. In a nutshell, it was a hip hop dance performance fused with Shaolin kung fu, set to a soundtrack of urban beats fused with taiko drums, with a backdrop drawn by a Japanese manga artist, from the team that brought us a large portion of the epic London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. In a smaller nutshell, it was totally amazing.
In reality, it was so much more. Boy Blue have already got one Olivier Award under their belts from their Pied Piper show, which I caught on its second outing back in 2009. Pied Piper was a reworking of the Pied Piper of Hamlin tale, bringing it in to a low-lit and industrial urban setting. In the original fairy tale, the piper’s taking of the city’s children is unnervingly sinister, as the mountain seals shut behind them. In Boy Blue’s show, there was a thrilling sense that each of the talented youths taken away by the piper was destined to become an adult dancer just as formidable and breathtaking as the piper himself. And they did.
I digress. That happens a lot.
Boy Blue’s company of dancers is exactly that, though: breathtaking and formidable. Choreographer and Artistic Director, Kenrick “H2O” Sandy, is a taskmaster and his dancers were all fit beyond the demands of the show, effortlessly flexible and full of power.
The five of the title were each assigned their own animal style of martial arts – which translated into their own hip hop dance style. Krumping, tutting, locking, house and breaking were all transformed into fighting styles. What was so wonderful was that the seams between dance and combat were invisible. Hip hop dancers will often “battle” at social events or competitions, so it’s not an unusual thing to see two dancers duking it out to see who has the best moves. With the framework of the storyline, the battles had an emotional purpose too. Suddenly those amazing moves meant even more. A competition dance battle can be visually stunning, but sometimes lacking in soul.
This show was all about soul. The projected backdrops were lovingly detailed, rich and cleverly moved around the stage to make a simple but effective set. The music, composed by Mikey J Asante, was the perfect balance of sweeping, cinematic orchestrals, heavy urban beats that shake the heart, and eastern instruments to remind you that this isn’t your average hip hop dance show. This is not the latest chart hits cut together. This is not the most recent dance craze to take over Youtube. This was the real deal.
The dancers trained with Shaolin monks, and changed their eating and training habits to be more in line with the monks’. Even their dance posture shows the difference that it made. There was no hip hop laziness that is so often seen, no slouching to be mistaken for “swagger”. Every move was precise, placed, as accurately as any classical dance company could muster. Maybe more so. Tommy Franzen, as the five’s sensei, Wang Tang, was outstanding for his understated poise and power. My friend even asked at the end of the show if Franzen is a real Shaolin monk.
I think the strength of hip hop dancers is in their versatility. Give a hip hop dancer some contemporary or classical training, and they can quickly absorb the new style and blend it with their own. It is far harder for a ballet dancer to learn to move through the spine and rib cage, to learn how to make power look so soft – trust me on this one, I had to go through the painful transition. It took me months to even make a dent in my balletic tendencies.
Unfortunately for me, by the time I was in a position to go to some of Sandy’s classes, I was so injured and weakened that I could never really get to grips with what he was teaching, so as a student I mostly listened to his theory of dance. I remember him fervently telling us to move from within, from the centre, that this is where movement comes from. He tried to press upon us the notion that even a movement of the hand and arm is generated from the core. I remember a tai chi teacher telling me exactly the same thing, several years before that.
The show was uplifting and inspiring. It made me want to leap up out of dance retirement and get back to dance class (although I am now more injured and weakened than ever). It made me want to focus my breath and my mind rather than tearing through London life like we all do: hidden behind the Metro on the tube, frustrated with slow walkers, and pretending we’re having the best time ever. Moments of stillness on stage were reminders to the audience to take a deep breath.
The show was not without its humour, either. Some reviewers criticised the “bad dubbing”, as the voice over does not match up with the mouths of the dancers on stage. Having witnessed Sandy’s wry sense of humour in class, I’m sure it was intentionally mismatched. It’s also a nod to kung fu and anime films where there is the same problem. It’s intentional that the towering sensei of Duwane Taylor, who is an incredibly powerful dancer, has a slightly squeaky, ridiculous voice in the voice over. The final scene, complete with its animated caption flashed up on the screens, is intended to make us roll our eyes and sigh. Of course, it’s just a show…
I’m not one for dance on film, I prefer to see the body’s miracles of movement in real time and unedited. However, I can see that Five would be a wonderful production on the big screen, or even as a DVD mini series. I sincerely hope that Boy Blue Ent. get the necessary support to make a sequel. At the very least I hope this show tours in the near future. I can see this production inspiring a new generation of dancers.
For more information about Boy Blue, including listings of their classes, workshops and upcoming shows, click here for their website. If you want a banging soundtrack for your running playlist, your kung fu training, or for dancing around your bedroom pretending you’re a Shaolin master, click here to download it.