On a bright morning in the heart of affluent Kensington, a couple of dozen young dancers are stretching their limbs, cooling down after an arduous session. Many of them wear identical T-shirts, bearing what seems to be a statement of intent: “I am here to express, not to impress.” Which is all well and good but, judging from the fragments of dance I have just witnessed, this happens to be a mightily impressive troupe of movers and shakers.
They are in rehearsal for next week’s revival of the Sadler’s Wells show Some Like It Hip Hop, which performed to great acclaim last year and is set to embark on a nationwide tour. Not only did it impress critics and audiences alike, it is also attracting the kind of demographic – young, curious, diverse – that has become the prize target for cultural institutions everywhere.
Kate Prince, writer and director of the show and founder of the ZooNation company, says the slogan on the T-shirt came from Sarah Bernhardt, via her therapist. “I was worrying too much about what other people thought of my work,” she says in the quiet garden of the company’s rehearsal base. “I say to the company, just be the best that you can be. Then you will impress, because you are really good!”
But how did this all happen, I ask? How did hip-hop, a movement that emerged from the American underground in the late 1970s, and that continues to be enshrouded in shrill polemics for its controversial subject matter, make it to the mainstream of one of the world’s leading dance theatres? That is quite a journey.
“It has grown beyond all expectations,” she replies. “But it is such good fun to do. It doesn’t take itself at all seriously. And when you think about contemporary dance … well, I think I have had some bad experiences. I haven’t felt particularly entertained.”
Of the four pillars of hip-hop culture – DJing, rapping, graffiti art and dance – it is the virtuosic movements of its dancers that are its most exuberant expression. Hip-hop originated in a climate of racial tension, and in its early days at least, called explicitly for political action (think “Fight the Power”). A splinter movement went on to become gangsta rap, celebrating bling, drugs and violence, and unsurprisingly attracted widespread condemnation.
But the dancers have always been something else. They made your head spin, by literally spinning on their heads. Breaking (from New York) and locking and popping (from California) slowly became the new global body language of the young. Moves invented on the street have become, as the former Shalamar member Jeffrey Daniel attests, a new dance orthodoxy, deserving of a more respectful label: he calls it urban contemporary.
Prince doesn’t mind what you call it, as long as you have a good time dancing it, and watching it. Some Like It Hip Hop is a family show, she stresses, a mash-up of a Billy Wilder movie and Twelfth Night, not without its messages, but also not encumbered by too much urban angst. It is a word-of-mouth show, and the word is good.
Hip-hop theatre, she says not without pride, is a British phenomenon. The US, which invented hip-hop, has yet to embrace a sub-genre that seems to be such a natural fit of disciplines. “Of course I would love to do America,” she says like a dutiful 1962 Beatle, “but it needs to be done carefully.”
How hard is hip-hop? “It is incredibly hard, of course. But you have to make it look easy. It is all about freedom to do what you want, but there is great discipline involved.” Paradoxes are pouring out of her. “The synchronisation is so difficult. There is a world of difference between 20 elbows being here” – she juts her own arm out with deliberate inelegance – “and here. It is as disciplined as ballet, I think. But we go out and make sure we are enjoying ourselves! In ballet the discipline can almost suck the passion out of the dance.” She looks like she knows that she has said something heretical. “Ballet is incredible. Of course.”
Some forms of hip-hop might have been devised to fight the power, only to find themselves, in terms of musical popularity and influence, all-powerful. Hip-hop dance, in the meantime, has quietly gone about its business, becoming codified, specialised, professionalised. The new generation of 15- and 16-year-olds are “ridiculously” good, says Prince. “You can take classes in things like krumping.” (Look it up on YouTube.) “I can’t do it at all,” she adds.
Some Like It Hip Hop is Prince’s second major venture into hip-hop theatre, following her equally successful West End debut Into the Hoods. I ask if she has another on the way. “I haven’t had the idea yet. I don’t want to make a show for the sake of it.” And then she confesses that there is the “germ” of something in the back of her mind. “The thing is, every creator is going to have a flop. I just don’t want it to be the next one I do.”
‘Some Like it Hip Hop’, Peacock Theatre, September 20-October 13, www.sadlerswells.com