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Arts & Culture

Breakin' Convention Flips The Modern Dance Script

Paul Hampartsoumain

 Charlotte Viewpoint 

No one could possibly have imagined the reverberations when, in 1973 in the rec room of the 1520 Sedgewick Avenue apartment tower in the South Bronx, Clive Campbell—known hereafter as DJ Kool Herc—happened to notice that club-goers preferred the instrumental breaks in the funk, soul and reggae records he was spinning. Eager to tap into that enthusiasm, he soon found a way to keep two records looping to keep the break-beat going and, copping from the tradition of Jamaican dancehall DJ’s toasting over the music they played, began chanting over the beats to the delight of the audience.

From that rec room-epiphany sprung what eventually became a world-wide cultural movement under the umbrella of hip-hop, built on the triumvirate of tagging, break-dancing and rapping. Within a decade it would sweep cultures from white suburbia to Parisian ghettos, riding the popularity of '80s MTV to become, in its varied forms: the biggest grossing music genre through the 2000s; a highly prized art form in galleries and auctions; and, most recently, a game-changer for modern dance. The latter is at the center of a week-long celebration in Charlotte that culminates this weekend with Breakin’ Convention on Friday and Saturday night at the Knight Theatre, which has already been transformed by local graffiti artists into a suitable hip-hop-flavored venue.

Breakin’ Convention is an international hip-hop dance festival created in 2004 by London’s Sadler Wells, one of the foremost dance venues and production houses in the world. The two-day festival features hip-hop artists from around the globe, as well as artists from Charlotte’s own neighborhoods and the surrounding region. Along with the ticketed performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. (tickets range from $19.50 to $59.50 for VIP section), Breakin’ Convention will offer many free activities and daytime performances on Saturday, Oct. 10, at the Levine Center for the Arts grounds and in Knight Theatre.

“We launched Breakin’ Convention in London 12 years ago, 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,” Sadler’s Wells CEO and Artistic Director Alistair Spalding said in a press release. “The festival has returned annually, choosing new artists and touring throughout the UK. We are delighted to bring Breakin’ Convention to Charlotte’s Levine Center for the Arts for the first time following huge success at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 2013.”

Credit Charlotteviewpoint
The work of local graffiti artists adorns the columns of the Knight Theatre as part of the Breakin' Convention festivities.

Though Breakin’ Convention has quickly become a staple of the United Kingdom dance scene, this Charlotte visit is only the second time the event has traveled to the U.S. in 12 years and the first time it’s been held in the Southeast. “It’s going to be an incredible experience that brings all the energy and excitement of hip-hop dance onto the stage, showcasing it as the dynamic art that is it,” Blumenthal President Tom Gabbard said in a press release.

International crews from the Netherlands (The Ruggeds), the UK (BirdGang Dance Company), France (Antoinette Gomis) and Argentina/France (Compagnie Phorm) will perform both Friday and Saturday, and the American crew, Street Kingdom, will also participate Friday. Local crews performing will include Aquaboogy, Breakers for Life, NC Dance District, Reliablebrother #TwinNation, collectivUth, Queen City Bittys, the Nouveau Sud Project and the Vongolas. (Clips from many of the performers are available at the Blumenthal Youtube channel.)

But that’s the tip of the hip-hop iceberg, as Saturday’s events include outdoor activities like a Graffiti Jam at the former Goodyear Service Station at South Tryon and an Obey Your Verse stage on Levine Avenue of the Arts, which will include DJs, spoken word artists, dance ciphers and plenty of food trucks. In fact, the festival officially kicks off Saturday at 10 a.m. with an official invitation for local crews to come and strut their stuff until 4 p.m., and first-come/first-served master and beginner classes with Antoinette Gomis (10:30 a.m.) and The Ruggeds (12:30 and 2:30 p.m.) at Spirit Square. Indoor activities include DJs Shogun (Friday) and Steel Wheel (Saturday) spinning in the Knight Theatre lobby, as well as Tiny Totrock sessions for kids to learn to bust a move and a Graffiti Zone for tagging tips.

These local elements are an integral part of Breakin’ Convention, part of the event’s aim to provide a big stage for emerging artists and help elevate, as Gabbard said, hip-hop dance into “the art zone that a company like Alvin Ailey resides.”

The artistic director for Breakin’ Convention is Jonzi D, a a noted emcee for groups like The Roots and Gangstarr in the 90s, a Def Jam Poetry vet, and a graduate of the London Contemporary Dance School. He’s been instrumental in developing hip-hop theatre, creating notable productions Lyrikal Fearta (1995) and Aeroplane Man (1999) in the art form’s early years. He’s since performed and created pieces throughout Europe and the U.S., as well as Russia, Israel, Cuba, South Africa and Australia, among other far-flung spots. He is, in short, a well-suited advocate for hip-hop who, as Gabbard added, “understands the power that art has to transform lives and build community.”

With his dance background, Jonzi D has also witnessed first-hand the revolutionary turn hip-hop has injected into modern dance, typically considered the purview of highbrow elites and dance aficionados. But as it has done throughout its history, hip-hop has brought street art—what in other mediums is called “outsider art”—to its rightful place at the fine arts table. Bringing "something from nothing," as Jonzi D puts it in an online video.

This piece was produced through the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to covering the arts.

 “Breakin’ Convention has had a seismic effect on not only the hip-hop community across the UK, but also the contemporary dance theatre community that has begun to question what it means to do modern dance,” said Jonzi D in the press release. “Breakin’ Convention is a platform designed to give awareness and value to the advance made within hip-hop dance. Blumenthal has acknowledged the skill within their local community through their excellent spoken word development for over 10 years. I’m excited to see the hip-hop movement in Charlotte and the local areas representing hip hop theater this fall.”