Street Dance Has Come of Age

Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co, dancers Dilyon Graham and Aisha Webber. Photo Elliott Banks

In January last year, I had the great pleasure of covering POPCityUK’s international Hip Hop and Popping 2020 competition in London. Hundreds of dancers descended on Shoreditch Town Hall. The artists ranged in age from 16 -30, and the variety of styles displayed that day, showed me that Hip Hop and Popping were more than just acrobatics and energy – that they had become an art form. I remember leaving the event wondering where all this talent was going to be funnelled as street dance is much underrepresented in contemporary dance companies.

To address this problem Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co, a dance studio with Joseph Toonga at his helm, aims to attract young dancers from the Hip Hop community, and to support and train them up to be professional dancers.

The first step has been to create a unique pilot scheme, in which five dancers after a 3-month stint of hard training with choreographers, perform long form dance pieces to an audience.

The film, now available on Eventbrite, shows the results of this innovative project which brings together apprentice dancers, eminent choreographers, musicians and film-makers.

The interviews preceding the show gives the viewer an insight into the dancers and how they approach the different works with the choreographers.

Performing in a dance company of course is a huge step up from the dancing contests where the dance, while still having its set moves, can be widely spontaneous, improvised, as the contestant spars with his opponent in a ‘dance battle’.

In interview, Penelope Klamert from Vienna, (one of the apprenticed dancers) said she welcomed the discipline of choreography and of notated dance steps.

On film, it is interesting to see how the street dancers reined-in through choreography, develop and learn together and work as a whole. It’s a hard graft but their commitment is high.

The longform dances highlights for me were:

Kenrick Sandy’s Til Enda. This is a mesmeric piece, showing dancers ‘walking’ through life in a trance-like state, then breaking off the invisible conveyor belt to perform dances illustrating episodes of their life. The emotive music was superb by composer Ólafur Arnalds.

Meanwhile Botis Seva’s Dad’s Skin packed a punch. The camera zooms in on a dancer’s muscled back. The dancer’s distress is shown by his shoulder muscles popping and straining – George Floyd is never far from our thoughts. With a voiceover spoken dialogue, film effects, this was more about straight drama, filmic effects than dance per se. Highly effective though in shocking the viewer.

Shaun Aimey’s piece Elevation takes a step away from horror and suffering. Aimey claims this particular work to be “conceptual” rather than a narrative. The emphasis was on movement. Near-floating, weightless dancers, bend and flex in all directions, linked together by some invisible thread. There is a sense of togetherness and also of release. After the heaviness of lockdown, this work is a wonderful antidote to negativity – I loved Aimey’s light, whimsical vision.

Joseph Toonga’s finale, It’s Us!! Not ‘I’ was breathtakingly beautiful.

In the opening, Aisha Webber dances in silence. Her mood darkens as she starts to stamp her feet and slap her body. Her clean, precise gestures build up into an amazing dance of solitude and anxiety. The mood lightens, the company gathers in joy to Childish Gambino’s track This is America. This dance is full of shadow, light and love. The ideas of community and support were beautifully evoked through dance. A particular move has stayed in my memory – two dancers with their backs to each other, lying back to form a ‘V’ and resting their heads and upper body on their co-dancer’s outstretched leg.

It’s Us!! Not ‘I’ is an inspired, mature work and should be allowed to grace the Sadler’s Wells stage (if it hasn’t done so already!)

All in all an inspired film and project. Look forward to seeing Just Us Hip Hop Apprentice Co tour 2022


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