Jackanory meets Diversity: Hip Hop culture – when dance becomes theatre

Lucy Crowe

House lights lowered and a hush rippled through the audience.  Darkness enveloped us deeper into the well worn padded flip seats.  All facing front, all designed for our eyes to collectively draw on to the crimson mohair curtain - the proscenium curtain, hung from the proscenium arch, dropped a sight and sound barrier between worlds.
 

It's that moment.  
I am one face anonymous in the assembly, 
open in Frank N. Furter worthy antici        pation, 
that moment.  Open in childish enamour 
a safe space for my adult projection, to test my questions 
on life.  To be entertained.  Moved.
Open in that moment,     for     magic.


The mohair, slow to raise, was seamed with the weight of over 2,500 years of theatre, dripping deep red in tradition.  Lights flashed illuminating a score of dancers on stage in total unison, synchronised with a heavy baseline, punctuated by the sound of gunshots.  Each ra-ta-tat-tat brrrrrrrrrrtt slaughter is accompanied with all but one performer dropping low.  The last man standing jumped high, pulled a freeze, or whipped an unrehearsed air flare.  The audience around me responded suitably to a spectacle.  The pre-recorded soundtrack introduced some vocals, usually male, usually comedic or pop political.  The youngest or most aesthetic company member mimed the words and after a moment         of poignant stillness and silence         a piece of classical music filtered through the speakers.  Enter a semi naked male dancer for his solo exuding 'raw emotion.'¹ 


'60,000 people all jumping out their seat.  The curtain closes they're throwing roses at my feet.  I take a bow and thank you all for coming out.  They're screaming loud, I take one last look at the crowd, I glance down I don't believe what I'm seeing'², the audience were trying to work out if we'd had an authentic Hip Hop experience by quietly counting the number of Black artists on stage, whilst the theatre programmers were evaluating the percentage of the audience who were non-white, disadvantaged, and economically inactive, and how many of us had received comps.

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Hip Hop is a culture with its own behaviours, attitudes and belief systems, with music, art and dance at its core.  As details of the culture became marketable and profitable - headed by rap music, followed by fashion - the culture began to break down into sub-sections.  The dance scene especially, separated further into style specific communities, and became more remote from the unity of artforms which had been synonymous with the culture from its birth in the late 1970s.  40 years forward, there is an influx of dancers and dance companies identified under the Hip Hop umbrella, who have walked out, Leo walked and top rocked from the wings to a centre spot of a Hip Hop dance theatre production.  Jackanory meets Diversity:  Hip Hop culture – when dance becomes theatre is an introduction to Hip Hop as a narrative form and why it is a missed opportunity and never enough, to simply stage a battle, a freestyle or a Millennial's remix of Hot Gossip and label it Hip Hop Theatre.

 

I have been attending the theatre since childhood. The annual Christmas pantomime was as ingrained a family tradition as baths on Sunday.  In 1987 I joined the local youth theatre run by Classworks, and with Saturday morning acting at the Arts Theatre, and school holiday theatre programmes at the YMCA, I was supported to tread my first steps on the boards.  My debut was landing the role of Pertelote.  An all singing dancing hen, favourite hen-wife to Chanticleer, the rooster with the most beautiful cockadoodledo in the land.  Chanticleer was performed excellently by Brad Baloo of Nextmen producer/DJ fame.  We both wore our teacher's stockings on our heads.  I know every theatre space in Cambridge intimately as an amateur and subsequently many theatres further afield from 'London to the Bay'³ in my professional career, and have never felt so at home as sat in the dark staring up at the rig having lost all sense of time while teching a show, until 2017.  The autumn season had opened at the Arts and I settled into my stalls seat to watch the internationally celebrated Balletboyz on their Fourteen Days tour.  House lights went down and elevated conversations collectively descended into the opening music.  My attention however, was reeled to a disharmony behind me.  I could sense her agitation before she prodded my shoulder, and without waiting for me to turn, told me to     take     my     hair     down         as I was ruining her experience.  I didn't need to look at her to recognise my 'other-ness' in her sense of entitlement.  To know that highbrow arts and culture and the buildings that house them, are not for people like me.  If I'm honest, I had been conscious of her side eye and mutterings as I'd searched for my seat number on arrival but like so many of the indiscretions faced on a regular, I allowed it, not wanting to muddy the evening.  But        my hair...  and in that moment, I was no longer open.  Shut down in my black tracksuit, 'it took the entire [journey] home for my adrenaline to stop pumping'  but unlike The Daily Express, my takeaway was not of the show.


So what? Call me out for pranging, or being over sensitive, but that interaction roused me to return to our company audience development plan asking, not how do we encourage our peoples/ diverse audiences/ the disengaged to engage, but fundamentally why does the theatre not feel comfortable, welcome or relevant to a broader sector?  We are not innocent in discrimination damage and spawning a sense of dis-ease.  Rap's adolescence was tarred with a reputation for promoting misogyny and homophobia.  Now grown we spit compunction and evolution with prominent artists including Common making u-turns on their younger content.

Hip Hop as a culture empowers the underdog, nurtures new generations and celebrates community.  It is innately about inclusion and belonging, 
Let me stand
trembling before you
For you    kindle my soul
when I am nada but bone.
Ram up my soma, to bring me home
to 5ft 10         and rising, still         

 

Hip Hop as social commentary is nothing new; the culture was conceived in the ruins of a post-industrial New York, to give a mic to the local communities who had been economically and politically marginalised.  A decade later in June 1988, artistically motivated by the socially conscious album What's Going On, Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, which continues to be revered as one of the most influential albums of all time.  And perhaps the most infamous export of Hip Hop as social commentary is the work of political activist Banksy who's Sothebys listings are currently auctioning for 5 – 6 figures.

Hip Hop as art displays creativity and imagination in expressing emotion, beauty and conceptual ideas with a level of technical proficiency to rest abreast any of our peers from contemporary dance to classical painting to jazz composition 'on and on and on and on'.


Hip Hop as theatre has all the winning ingredients with its immediacy; rap's recurrent universal themes of rags to riches, coming of age, respect, and love; the dynamic dance moves; lived experience - but it is currently falling short.  Now that theatres are programming Hip Hop shows, we as creators have not only the opportunity but crucially the responsibility to change the landscape by producing relevant and thought provoking work.  Thought provoking doesn't have to always mean weighty topics, equally it is about challenging people's perception of Hip Hop,
'she said she thought Hip Hop was all guns and alcohol... Oh hell no.  But yes it's that too'
We can expand our audience's minds during a light-hearted evening of pure entertainment, if we know the craft.  We know that a cypher is a fast exchange between dancers responding to the music, with each controlling the space for about 30 seconds.  Cyphers can open up anywhere at a jam and at any point.  The circle can close just as quickly.  The energy would be disrupted if, for example, a Morris dancer jumped in and laid a pair of clay tobacco pipes on the floor and began to skip across them with sticks, swords and handkerchiefs.  Or two crews are balls deep in battle and part way through a concerto pianist started to roll her baby grand down the centre, sat and dumped her keys large into a spot of Rachmaninoff.  Mate, its neither the time nor the place.  Hip Hop theatre has a tendency of falling into the trap of just showcasing throwdowns and battles, or Janet Jackson and Anthony Thomas Rhythm Nation style group choreography because well, that's what we do.  That's what we do at jams, competitions and music videos.  If we are going to move to the realms of theatre it is crucial to switch up our approach.

 

Let's Artful Dodger it and re-rewind to the rehearsal studio with three prompts


1) We know Hip Hop.  We live Hip Hop, Hip Hop is our culture.  We are Hip Hop. With this, we know what we have to offer, we know our stories, our technique is on point, and we know what is at stake.

2) Theatre as form.  Study and explore.  Being OK with our vulnerabilities as artists is a key stage in development.  Our exposure allows audiences to recognise themselves in our narrative, to make an honest connection with our work.  The ability to be open begins by acknowledging the ego-driven fear and admitting we don't know everything, and maybe signing up for a course on theatre as a discipline, reaching out to a mentor who perhaps isn't from within our community but brings an expertise in the craft of theatre which is second to none.

3) This idea, unformed but ebullient with colour and sparkle and all the excitement of a first kiss.  This idea for a new piece.  Why theatre?

 

Plug your AirPods in, play anything Dilla and take a walk.  Allow your mind to wander.  When your circuit is complete and you are back at base, kick off your Jordans and return to point 3).  Why theatre for this idea, why not a showcase at an event, dance for camera, a commercial contract, or a series of social media posts, tiktok... Why theatre?
   
If after re-considering the marriage between prompts 1) and 2), you can still say sans ego, that this idea is mos def for a theatre platform then take a breath and pull out your 12” of Ante Up,  from your record collection.  Play it loud through actual speakers – not earphones or your phone or laptop, and shockout.  Think of nothing.
   
Catch your breath.
We got work to do.

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'What we're gonna to do right here is go back, way back, back into time'¹¹ and look at the foundations that have been laid for us.  The traditions of Western theatre have been around since 6th Century BC, ancient Greece.  That's a lot of R&D so there is no need to try to reinvent the wheel, scan or scroll back for point 2).  Jam on the Groove was the first Hip Hop musical which opened in 1996, sponsored by Calvin Klein, and devised and executed by GhettOriginal - a dance company with the most incredible cast including Ken Swift, Honey Rockwell and Popmaster Fabel.  Being able to represent the culture in its true form by people who have helped to create and shape it was crucial to the company.  Ken Swift explained, 'far too often you have kids who've just come along and gotten into the music and culture after watching a video and they inadvertently and oftentimes intentionally distort and exploit Hip Hop to fit their own means.'  Jam on the Groove responded to the disintegration of the culture as witnessed by the company during the 1990s by reuniting dance, a live DJ and graffiti style creative on stage with themes of possibility and power.  Mr Wiggles set the scene by addressing the audience with GhettOriginal's 'want to destroy all the negative myths about Hip Hop culture today.'  Imagine if, twenty five years on and after, we internalise the essence of Jam on the Groove to establish the Midas touch¹².  Not gold though, everything we create for theatre becomes Hip Hop.  


Hip Hop as a narrative form is problematic as a terminology and is currently undergoing further development but is able to give a Funnybones¹³ skeleton to this inquiry. 
    • Hip Hop uses intertextuality inherently.  Music production is sample heavy, rappers quote other rappers and reference pop culture, specific bboy techniques are a pastiche of Kung Fu and other forms, beatboxing reinterprets every available sound creating a grandiloquent interrelationship between audios... to simplify, one key feature of Hip Hop is sampling, preferably with the help of an E-mu SP-1200.  
    • Traditionally, as Hip Hop artists we gain our stripes through battling, whether that's being called out on the dance floor, having your piece painted over or lined out, a scratch battle, or a vociferous rap battle.  These are all call and response scenarios.
    • Remember the proscenium arch under whose enormity we sat throughout the show?  This is also where the fourth wall is built, an invisible convention which allows the performers to hold space in a state of public solitude.  Hip Hop eschews the fourth wall each and every time.  Hip Hop is not a spectator sport, feedback and active engagement is expected.  Consider the role of the original MC, to host and toast, to hype the crowd.  Hip Hop carves out space for people to become crew – the families you choose, crews generate activity which swells to community, all on an exchange of energy.  Believe the hype, Hip Hop is not a passive dip the tip.
    • The last key feature to consider is Style.  Style is more than fashion.  This isn't about Lees and shells, this is the attention to detail, coming clean correk, boxed fresh and fully dipped.  Style can't be learnt, taught or bought.  It's innate,

 

you already know me.  Mighty
I'm the one girl, criss in the crew
naturally Bionic, majestic, touch my breast did
you clock my stance,         word choice and 
sentence structure as I 
rupture the standard, un-conform to the norm.
this is my manners, by my design.
wicked and wild my name is Style

 

Sampling        Call and Response        Violation of the Fourth Wall and Audience Participation        Style                 become our four main features of the Hip Hop narrative form.  It is an expository approach from a specific point of view which compels our audience to a valuable conclusion.  How we respond to this structure is up to us but already it provides a starting point for an authentic Hip Hop experience which has not been re-imagined for theatre, or is a theatre version of, but instead a holistic cultural expression specifically for theatre.  As makers it is our responsibility to continually re-evaluate process and content from our cultural position with a spatial-appropriate awareness.  Step into the Quantum Leap accelerator and 'driven by an unknown force to change history for the better... striving to put right what once went wrong,'   we can re choreograph this article's opening show.  The first lighting state revealed a full stage.  If there are twenty dancers on tour, it is unlikely they are all getting p's.  A massive part of elevating our art is to stop devaluing it by committing to opportunities with little or no fee.  Ken Swift impressed back along with Jam on the Groove, that that was why it was essential for Calvin Klein to step up their financial backing.  Casts may need to be refined to quality over quantity, opening a separate discussion for another day, Crew into Company: boundaries for art and professionalism.  

 

It's the end of September.  I am late with my deadline but will not ever be entertaining the shameful excuse of 'Hip Hop time,' another stereotype that we ourselves have perpetuated.  Outside the leaves are retiring from their branches and we are blowing through the Autumn equinox, when the sun shines equally on the northern and southern hemispheres.  A time for harvesting and sharing, for shedding what we have outgrown, and remembering the deceased.  And every passing of the seasons brings change.  I hope fam, we have grown up from gunshots and unison accentuated with a tokenistic bboy move.  And bboys, which I am using respectfully to refer to all genders, when you are choreographed to perform a move, honour your craft and rehearse it.  Each and every.  No marking.  Just like any other dancer would expect to.  Directors, don't acquiesce to the notion that its a hardcore technique that can only be realised in the moment.  If it can't be done in rehearsals how is the dancer ever going to build the strength and stamina to safely perform it on repeat on tour?  

 

During the 1990's and into the 2000's, Battle of the Year provided a unique platform for bboy crews to consider choreography in a developed form.  Prior to this the general extent of a crew's group choreography would consist of an 8 bar tops routine, a couple of short commandos and maybe a link, all with the strategic aim to a) lengthen a battle round, b) prevent other dancers from entering the circle or c) bolster the rounds of your weaker dancers.  To qualify for Battle of the Year which was for many years, the most important international battle and held in Germany, your crew would be judged on a choreographed showcase designed to flaunt crew unity and also demonstrate individual members' strengths and idiosyncrasies.  This is an interesting template to harvest and after more than 30 years of ripening, it is crucial to acknowledge its limitations as the base for theatre work and to sift the wheat from the chaff in order to develop high cailbre long form work.  An artist who has been choreographing in long form for many years, is Robert Hylton.  I caught his Verse and Verses show in 2006 when one of my crew members, Ladybug, was dancing on the tour.  The work was deftly removed from the stereotypes, presenting an abstracted vision for Hip Hop theatre.  The challenge here was about negotiating the physical demands of the company – how to extend the type of energy and muscle use required for a full power 30 second throwdown into an evening's work.  Not dissimilar to the contrast between a 400 metre sprinter drawing on phosphocreatine and a marathon runner's oxidative system.  We simplify, we deconstruct, we take yoga and meditation to learn how to breathe fully and maximise our capacity, and manage our stamina.  Then we get to produce a piece of theatre such as The Ruggeds, Between Us which was received with a standing ovation on opening night at London's Peacock Theatre earlier this month.  I'm there, I'm in the audience, thankyou Karine @BreakinConvention.  I have enjoyed the show but I am wondering how many of the assembly whom I have shared this experience with, are bboys.  For crystal, I appreciated and savoured the evening but I have seen The Ruggeds in circles.  I have seen them battle so I know that the choreography in Between Us is a fraction of what they are capable of.

 

The darkness folded me again into the well worn velvet seat, designed with an innovative tip-up mechanism that provides numerous advantages including maximising seating capacity.  Taking space on the stage doesn't directly equate to reaching house capacity with our community.  But if we stand strong with integrity to our own heart and strive to portray the essence of our culture through our work, whilst recognising all that theatre can provide, we have a remarkable platform to tell our stories with our voices.  When I was pregnant with my youngest Chaya, I took a school trip to The Place to watch Jonzi D's Aeroplane Man.  The students were emerging bboys I was mentoring.  Not interested in theatre – or Shakespeare, ballet or opera, to paraphrase.  I had told them to look out for the dance techniques they'd been working on and to write down what inspired them.  The piece has little dance in it.  It's a monologue.  Chaya is now 22.  Aeroplane Man is still my favourite piece of Hip Hop Theatre, and it opened the door for those students to have a sustained interest in theatre.  As with the nature of Hip Hop, success is about collaboration, teamwork, Strength In Numbers.  An ingenious marketing lead who understands and respects the balance between cultural markers and accessibility, alongside education activity will go a long way to demonstrate relevance to a broader sector.  A driven contact at the theatre who has the authority to implement change and a genuine interest in developing Hip Hop Theatre, rather than just box ticking, will foster new audiences to feel welcome.  And then, in part, back to us to decide how comfortable we want our audiences to be.  


'If you say it with your eyes I might just believe you.'

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Footnotes

  1. #standard review with probably a comparison to something irrelevant but recognisable and safe for the traditional theatre audience demographic: circa 2005 – 2021

  2. Eminen, When I'm Gone: 2005

  3. MC Hammer, U Can't Touch This: 1990

  4. https://www.cambridgeartstheatre.com/whats-on/balletboyz-fourteen-days

  5. Common, Between Me, You and Liberation: 2002

  6. Lucille Rococoa, sampling The Love Song for Shu-Sin: 2021

  7. Erykah Badu, On & On: 1997

  8. Marvin Gaye, What's Going On: 1971

  9. Outkast, Humble Mumble: 2000

  10. M.O.P, Ante Up: 2000

  11. Jimmy Castor Bunch, Troglodyte: 1972

  12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRbEBf_ShDA

  13. Allan Ahlberg, Funnybones: 1980

  14. https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/FullyDipped

  15. Lucille Rococoa, innate: 2021

  16. Deborah Pratt, Quantum Leap: 1989

  17. Jenny Culank, Classworks Theatre: 2015

Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021

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Lucy Crowe


Lucy is a writer and dance artist, specialising in bBoyin and creating work underpinned by Hip Hop culture. She makes art to revisit, capture, deconstruct moments, and test boundaries. Raised by Hip Hop culture, Lucy experiences art as a communal event, a dialogue of stories. She was born in London in 1975, and grew up with her adopted parents in Cambridge. By seventeen, Lucy was expecting her first child and expelled from sixth-form. She began her career as a professional dancer with the Sinstars bBoy crew five years later, and has performed, competed, and judged internationally, with a legacy of students.

 

Lucy has been devising subversive, Hip Hop based theatre work since 2000 to define, reinterpret and extend the boundaries of bBoyin as a performing art. Her first degree was in Communication Studies, analysing of a range of cultural and communicative practices for which she produced a film on the portrayal of British bGirls. Lucy gained a Distinction for her second degree, an MA in Creative Writing, exploring the intertextuality of Hip Hop in written form. Supported by Arts Council England, Lucy is one third of the triumvirate of directors for the arts organisation, SIN Cru.

Lucy credit Simon Richardson Photography.jpg

Lucy Crowe, Credit Simon Richardson