Sadler’s Wells, London
October 2, 2015

Stuart Sweeney

Borderline Photo Agathe Poupeney

Photo Agathe Poupeney

Hip hop is moving firmly into the mainstream of performance dance. Five years ago the ISTD (Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing) described, “…a new syllabus that will include…old school styles such as locking, popping, and breaking to the newer styles of house and waacking,” alongside classes for teachers to help them with this new dance form. Sadler’s Wells is also a pioneer in the field with Jonzi Dee’s Breakin’ Convention, set up eleven years ago to bring dancers together from around for a short season celebrating the new style. Recently, it secured a £500,000 Arts Council England grant that will allow it tour nationally through May 2016 and May 2017.

Borderline is the first full length production presented at Sadler’s Wells by Breakin’ Convention. Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez’s production sets hip hop in a contemporary dance format and it was interesting to note the change in the audience reaction to this more serious evolution of the art form. There was no cheering, no whoops and whistles after spectacular moves, until a coda when the performers came forward one by one to spin and tumble, at which point the audience almost seemed relieved to be able to express themselves.

Borderline features harness work or aerial rigging alongside hip hop. An initial scene has two women harnessed together from a high point struggling to reach a metal frame, jumping and always being dragged back until a final breakthrough. The rigging allows not only flight but dramatic effects at stage level. This reaches a breathtaking finale with Wang and Ramirez in a tender duet, with Wang sometimes pulled rapidly back across the stage perhaps reflecting the problems of intimacy, then apparently held on one hand by Ramirez or simply floating alongside him. They are both fine dancers by any standards and Wang captivates even walking across the stage.

Photo Agathe Poupeney

Photo Agathe Poupeney

From time to time we see state of the art breakin’ from the performers. However, the various scenes do not fit together to make a satisfying whole. The overall theme is relationships, often confrontational, in an urban setting derived from a series of interviews in French given as a voice-over. While translations are provided in the programme this wasn’t much help during the performance and perhaps this language problem was part of the structural shortcomings.

The development of hip hop as performance dance will continue, and ZooNation’s treatment of the form as musical theatre in works such as the soon to be revived Into the Hoods is already a great success. Borderline shows Wang and Ramirez well down the road, but with some further work on structure required to achieve full success matching their undoubted dance skills.