Two years ago, Sadler’s Wells received an invitation. The Apollo Theater in Harlem, the legendary New York music venue that helped launch the careers of stars from Ella Fitzgerald to the Jackson Five, wanted us to bring our annual hip-hop dance festival Breakin’ Convention to Harlem for three days. Obviously, we said yes.
Months of rehearsals and preparation later, I’m on the aeroplane, excited but a little bit nervous. Will taking hip-hop to New York be like taking coals to Newcastle? We’re about to find out. We launched Breakin’ Convention in London in 2004, riding a wave of interest in hip-hop as an artistic form that could be as compelling on stage as more traditional dance forms such as ballet. We were lucky enough to have Jonzi D – rapper, choreographer and general evangelist for hip-hop in all its forms – running the festival each year, choosing new artists and touring the UK. This is the first time the show has travelled abroad but I can’t think of a more appropriate venue.
Arriving at JFK, I jump in a cab and travel north on the Grand Central Parkway and over the East River. I’m a frequent visitor to New York but my stamping grounds have been defined by the dance ecology of the city, from City Center and the Lincoln Center in midtown, down to Chelsea and the Joyce Theater, with forays to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. So Harlem is new to me. Despite gentrification, it’s still refreshingly different from the rest of Manhattan. Street vendors line the pavements, selling stud-encrusted baseball hats and jazz CDs. A crocodile of Sadler’s Wells supporters making their way to the Apollo – mostly downtown residents – stands out. Harlem still has an edge, which I’m somehow relieved about.
My first port of call is a dinner hosted by the American Friends of Sadler’s Wells, where I get to taste the food of one of Harlem’s new pioneers – the chef Marcus Samuelsson, who is also on the board of the Apollo. We’re eating at his restaurant, the Red Rooster, just a few minutes’ walk from the theatre. I can’t help thinking that, like the chef, the food is a perfect example of New York’s melting pot qualities. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, then adopted by a Swedish couple following the death of his mother. Hugely influenced by his grandmother’s Swedish cooking, he trained as a chef, moved to New York and became executive chef at the Nordic restaurant Aquavit, before setting up the Red Rooster in 2010. Soul food with a Swedish twist, cooked up by an Ethiopian-born Harlem resident – it’s delicious.
After the meal, we head to the Apollo, taking our seats for the first performance. The 1,500-seat theatre is almost full, and I can’t help feeling apprehensive. Will the hip-hop aficionados appreciate our interpretation of something that New Yorkers can rightfully claim was born in their city? Hip-hop has evolved since its emergence on the streets of Harlem and the South Bronx in the 1970s, integrating moves from across the world. This year, Jonzi D has collaborated with dancers and choreographers from NYC to create a programme that is diverse, fun and, at times, breathtakingly beautiful. New York’s Rennie Harris is muscular, testosterone-filled; the French-born Sébastien Ramirez offers a more subtle game of sensual playfulness with his Korean partner. We see crack choreographic precision from the UK’s Boy Blue, while Brooklyn’s Storyboard P is a sliding, shape-shifting hybrid of Michael Jackson and Charlie Chaplin.
Jonzi D sums up the dilemma of many second-generation immigrants in his 1998 performance piece Aeroplane Man, where, fleeing racism at home in London, he tries to make sense of his identity on an imagined plane trip to Grenada, Jamaica, New York and Africa. Performing the piece at the Apollo is a risk for Jonzi – are the Harlem audience going to tune in to the experience of an east Londoner’s troubled identity? He needn’t have worried; after a bravura performance they are on their feet.
On the plane back to London I read Jennifer Homan’s Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (2010). The book caused controversy on its publication as Homan concludes that after 400 years, the art form is going nowhere. I’ve reached the part where Britain creates its first serious ballet company. It was 1931 when Lilian Baylis asked Ninette de Valois to form the Vic Wells Ballet, which became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and eventually the Royal Ballet. Homan recounts the triumphant debut of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1949 in New York, led by Margot Fonteyn. I doubt Baylis ever ventured up to Harlem but, knowing the principles that lay behind her founding of Sadler’s Wells (that we should “present great art for the artisans of Islington”), I feel confident that 60 years later this has been a good place for Sadler’s Wells to visit – with arguably the dance form of the future, hip-hop dance theatre.
The trip to New York has also made me ponder the lack of US government support for the arts. America has long pursued a philanthropic approach. While this can lead to generous situations for some, it can be hard for the innovative to thrive. Whereas Arts Council England, venues such as Sadler’s Wells and European festivals have nurtured new performers and choreographers, the same can’t be said for the US. Having seen the alternative, I’m all the more determined to fight for state funding of the arts.
Two weeks after I return from New York, I spend a couple of days at the Montpellier Dance Festival in the south of France. On Saturday night, flamenco star Israel Galván fills the Opera Berlioz. His show explores the genocide of gypsies by the Nazis – a big subject for any dance production and an unexpected one for a flamenco performance. But Galván is no ordinary flamenco artist. His radical take on this ancient form has attracted violent opposition from more conservative contemporaries. His articulation is razor-sharp and his solos are an onslaught of rapid-fire movement from his lithe, angular body. In today’s increasingly diversified dance world, it is likely that the next Nijinsky or Nureyev will not come from ballet but from hip-hop or tango. Or maybe I’ve just seen him onstage in Montpellier.
Alistair Spalding is artistic director and chief executive of Sadler’s Wells