Jane Oriel experiences the latest boundary-pushing performance piece from Avant Cymru, People Picture Power Perception.
What is hip hop theatre? The question has been asked, and we’re all here hoping to find out, performers, company and all. Hip hop’s flavour by reputation is as an art without formal constraint. Graffiti often leaves its mark in unauthorised areas, rap lyrics do not wait for a melody to legitimise their music, and breakers, b-boys and b-girls forever create fresh collages of mastered moves and shapes. By adhering to the structure of a rehearsed, thus repeatable show in a theatre setting, might there be a clash of cultures?
Finding our seats for People Picture Power Perception, we hear recorded voices, giving testimony to the relevance of hip hop in Wales across 30 years, since its origins with Llwybr Llaethog, then Tystion, both promoted by John Peel. Luminaries such as Alchemy, Jaffa, and Peaceful Progress are heard. One voice says of the inclusive culture, “It’s like there’s a circle and if someone isn’t participating, it takes the energy away.” For Avant Cymru and their close associates, involvement and participation is everything.
A stop-animation showing the progressive stages of a wall painting in a derelict building, introduces us to the skills of graffiti artist, Unity. It’s an ingenious way to show a large scale work progress to completion, while simultaneously leading us into the evening’s culture.
Under low lights the company trail in, making rhythms from the sound of graffiti spray tins being shaken. The aura is unsettling, and my mind feels a gang making their brooding, shady presence felt but having seen most of those involved in tonight’s show perform a number of times before, sinister, they are not.
Creator of Fur Coats From The Lion’s Den, one of the most original Welsh albums of last year, Rufus Mufasa is a compelling presence, poised behind a festooned mic stand. Her powerfully expressive voice brings a literal top note to the collective with her partner, collaborator and fellow Dope Biscuit and rapper, Jamie P. A new song, The King of Rajahs, was inspired by the owner of the famous Riverside club who, with hundreds of his regulars in the ‘90s, managed to overturn a legal threat to his licence. Hearing a modern legend woven into the aural history of Cardiff is a sweet expression of continuity.
As founder of Avant Cymru, a young Rhondda theatre company, Rachel Pedley has been the organising force behind tonight’s exploration. A dancer, choreographer, educator and actor, she has brought people together and for Jamie (Bboy Flexton) Berry, it’s his first formal performance. An astonishing creative with a style all his own, he played a man struggling to contain his emotions, while mostly sat at a table. His dance manifested an internal maelstrom, supported by organic beats from Beatbox Hann, who helped raise the intensity of Berry’s impressive work.
Dancing together, Rachel with Tommy Boost (Thomas Davies of Illumination Dance) took the gladiatorial elements of an uprock spar but instead, turned it on its head as a love story, a couple affectionately emulating and reflecting each other’s movements.
Most of the dancers, now including rapper Maple Struggle, perform a loose freestyle, throwing in power moves with a feint story line. Struggle (Ash Cooper), also performed his new single Quit Mooching.
While tonight’s show creaked a bit at the beginning, before too long, the individual jewels started to sparkle. I was moved by the table scene and it was good to see developing dancer Unity perform with the group’s most naturally fluent Bboy, Tommy Boost. Tommy’s languid fluidity is kerosene whenever he hits the floor. One of the most exciting dancers in Wales of any genre, his moves are as balanced creatively as they are potentially perilous to self. Danger is a feature of several of tonight’s set pieces, with the breakers forming themselves into various unnatural shapes on the beat. The show ends with a preview of Blue Scars, Avant Cymru’s next production in July, which is being built around youth dance groups.
Once the planned and rehearsed has finished and the company have exhaled, the spontaneous nature of hip hop jumps up in a freestyle session, bringing extra guest dancers from the audience that include two young girls. As well as joy and excitement, there has evidently been a level of stress felt by the demands of the linear show. As such, this freestyle session explodes with liberation.
What is hip hop theatre? We’re still not completely sure but there’s plenty of grist here and there’s a mill, with the next step being a collaboration between National Theatre Wales and RTC Theatres. These street arts and finding a balance between structure and informality is a rich topic worth exploring further.
Jane Oriel is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.