Breakin' Convention: Social DisDancing review – a gripping hip-hop hour

Sadler’s Wells, London
The audience whoop behind their masks at a muted, Covid-era iteration of the festival, ending with a note of hope

AIM Collective lightened the mood.
AIM Collective lightened the mood. Photograph: Belinda Lawley
AIM Collective lightened the mood. Photograph: Belinda Lawley
Lyndsey Winship

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 04.11 EST

Compared with the annual Breakin’ Convention festival, this was always going to be a different beast, a socially distanced hour in the theatre instead of a noisy, crowded, all-weekend event with people dancing in the foyers. It is impossible to match that atmosphere, but if anyone was going to have a go it is Jonzi D, Breakin’ Convention’s artistic director and indefatigable MC, who has the audience whooping behind their masks.

The evening features three acts and two films (screening while they deep-clean behind the curtain) and, being a product of their times, the blanket mood is unavoidably dark. There is one party scene the whole night, courtesy of female popping crew AIM Collective. Their piece Suspended starts with bodies in stasis, moving but getting nowhere, but it ends with a big-smiling upbeat number, as if maybe this dancing, this crew, these women are exactly the thing that’s keeping them going.

Elsewhere, these are times of struggle. For choreographer Jamaal O’Driscoll of O’Driscoll Collective it is a struggle with mental health. In One%, he and Marius Mates dance a subtle battle between two sides of the same psyche, coming up against each other not in combat but wary uncertainty. Both are highly skilled b-boys who offer bursts of physical flair and technical flourishes woven into their characters. With an oppressive soundtrack, One% could do with some light to go with its shade but it is a sound piece of work.

Between acts Jonzi addresses directly the amount black artists contribute to our culture. He’s had his own part in that, nurturing talent and giving it a platform over the past 16 years. One company that has trained a lot of London’s hip-hop dancers and performed at every Breakin’ Convention is Boy Blue, and this show’s no exception. Their piece unTethered 3.0 moves in shadows and harsh spotlights, like an interrogation where bodies bend double then jump up for breath. Choreographer Kenrick Sandy’s tight stylings are bound to the syncopations of Michael Asante’s beats, and there’s forceful intensity from the seven dancers (the only woman, Nicey Belgrave, hitting it just as hard as the men), who seem restless, desperately trying to speak, to throw their voices out into the world and be heard.

Both of the films shown were released earlier in the year: Jonzi D’s excellent roar of resistance, Our Bodies Back, confronting the violence meted out against black women such as Breonna Taylor, and Botis Seva’s Can’t Kill Us All, which is much more powerful on a big screen. Can’t Kill Us All is a story of the pressures of dealing with what Seva calls “two global pandemics” – racism and coronavirus – and his character is losing it in lockdown, body itching, jumpy, thrashing; exterior troubles invading inwards, interior angst erupting out. Torben Lars Sylvest’s music provides just the right amount of unnerving, and it’s claustrophobically filmed by Ben Williams, in aerial shots and closeups, sometimes just the back of Seva’s head, following him running, running, running to escape from the world – and from himself.

A moving coda from Seva’s mum, in voiceover, brings warmth and hope, which is what we all need right now. Maybe by the time the next Breakin’ Convention comes round, the masses will be back in their seats and there’ll be more for everyone to feel hopeful about.