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Arts & Culture

Blumenthal Reaches Diverse Audience By 'Breakin' Convention'

The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center broke convention last weekend with an “international festival of hip-hop dance theater” that represents the center’s efforts to extend its cultural reach—and Charlotte’s. 

In the five years since the Levine Center for the Arts was completed in uptown Charlotte, the center has tried to be a world-class cultural campus in an increasingly cosmopolitan city.


No one thinks Charlotte is a dancer on the world stage yet. But what happened at the Levine Center over the weekend has to be some kind of landmark.


“Breakin’ Convention: An International Festival of Hip Hop Dance Theatre” held shows at the Knight Theater, part of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.


Blumenthal patrons are used to Broadway plays, opera, the annual BachtoberFest. This was something else. Founded in London in 2004 and touring around the world, Breakin’ Convention—you can probably figure out the double meaning—is equal parts street jam, ballet, house party, creative workshop, and multi-act play.


Hip-hop artists and choreographers from Europe and from Charlotte scorched the Knight Theater stage with gymnastic dance routines, while outside, graffiti artists and patrons decorated the lobby columns at the Blumenthal’s invitation.


This was not the usual weekend fare.


“When we first moved, there wasn’t a lot of culture going on in Charlotte, and I’m so glad there’s more and more culture coming to Charlotte.”


That’s Kim Harrison, a corporate recruiter who moved here 10 years ago from New York. Harrison grew up in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop. She has fond childhood memories of the DJs and b-boys on the streets in the movement’s formative years.


Now 43, she’s coming off two hip replacement surgeries but still grooved to the beats outside the theater, drawing a bemused glance from her 12-year-old daughter. “You can take the kids out and see everything that’s going on. I’m glad it’s growing that way.”


The Blumenthal has worked out a three-year deal with Breakin’ Convention. It’s part of Blumenthal President and CEO Tom Gabbard’s attempt to “surprise and delight” its patrons and bait the hook for new ones.


“One of our goals is to see our audience look like Charlotte. We want it to be as diverse as Charlotte has become. This kind of programming opens us to a segment of the community that in some respects hasn’t had reason to come into our facilities. We’re giving them that reason.”


If the Blumenthal’s commitment to Breakin’ Convention reflects Charlotte’s desire to move forward, the show in one critical sense tries to pull hip-hop back to an earlier time.


Its artistic director, Jonzi D, grew up in east London. Now 46, he says he experienced hip-hop as a culture of peaceful street art, dance, music, and community, not the “gangsta” vibe that came to dominate American hip-hop.


“The ’hood is not just about violence. There’s so much love and building and family in the ’hood, and these are aspects that are not reflected in the current state of hip-hop.”


Jonzi wasn’t sure Charlotte was the right place for Breakin’ Convention until he visited for a few days at Gabbard’s invitation. That was enough to convince him.


“What was really exciting for me was the connection between Blumenthal Arts and the local grassroots hip-hop community. There’s a new relationship that sparks off, and it’s got a lot of mileage. We’ve only just reached the tip of the iceberg as to what can happen.”


You needed only to glance around the 1,200-seat theater Friday night to catch a glimpse of some kind of shift, among the kind of crowd seldom seen in Charlotte: men, women; black, white; Asian, Latino; middle-aged, young; parents, children; all moving to the beat, eyes glued either to the stage or to their smartphones’ video functions.


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

It was as vivid a vision of diversity as you could hope for in a city still trying to figure out how to bring different races and classes of people together.


Before intermission Friday, Charlotte slam poetry master Bluz Rogers encouraged the crowd to grab markers and freely scrawl graffiti on the columns in the theater lobby. (The Blumenthal is repainting the columns this week.)


In the future, Bluz said, you can say you were there when we messed this place up, and it was beautiful.