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Jonzi D on Hip Hop Dance Theatre Show Breakin' Convention

11 May 16 words: Ali Emm
"Theatre doesn't really acknowledge what's happening in its own backyard; there's this high-art approach that distances art from what the people are producing"
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Jonzi D. photo: Ben Wachenue

Breakin’ Convention brings the four pillars of hip hop together and is billed as more than just a show – what can the audience expect?
Expect music from a DJ from the mezzanines, so even as you walk past the theatre, you’ll hear music already. There’ll be graffiti outside and inside, and there’ll be improvisational cyphers as you walk into the space. Immediately there’s this broken fourth wall quality – it’s like a party as soon as you arrive. The onstage shows are the best hip hop from around the world and round the corner. This is one of the mantras that Breakin’ Convention has had since the beginning – always acknowledging the activity locally, and having them on stage as well as these global hip hop artists. This year we’re bringing world champion b-boys, The Ruggeds. We’ve got Antoinette Gomis from France presenting a beautiful solo to the poetry of Nina Simone, and Iron Skulls from Spain. They’re the first Spanish crew we’ve worked with and they’ve got quite a dystopian vision. How they approach the stage is very interesting.

Do you feel this is the direction of modern theatre?
It’s definitely here to stay in relation to theatre’s rich diversity, or at least technical diversity. I think part of the problem with theatre is that it doesn’t really acknowledge what’s happening in its own backyard; there’s this high art approach that distances art from what the people are producing. It’s been like that for years. I like to think that Breakin' Convention can usher in another way of looking at what art is in the theatre, and hip hop is very comfortable in that space. There’s a big audience that believes that also.

Have you noticed a shift in the recognition that breakdancing and hip hop theatre get as an art form in the last decade or so?
A lot of breakdancers and body poppers have gone on to train in contemporary dance, and vice versa. There are people doing contemporary dance that have discovered the hip hop form and think, “This makes sense to me.” There are choreographers training contemporary dancers – great names across Europe – that are working with hip hop dancers and using hip hop techniques, like Akram Khan. As artists, they’re really beautiful in the way they almost disguise the technique within their vision. I’ve always believed hip hop dance had a future where it would permeate people’s visions because of the amount of options of movement it gives. Russell Maliphant has been working with Dickson Mbi in the piece he created that’s influenced by Rodin – he understood how popping techniques made sense to some of the shapes he was trying to present. There’s definitely been a shift, and long may it continue.

With the local elements of Breakin’ Convention, how do you go about selecting the performers and artists?
It’s a lot to do with engaging a local rep. In Nottingham it’s Rebekah Roberts from NuProjeks, she’s the connection between the theatre and the hip hop community. The reps put the call out for local artists, get them together and send us some videos. We create a shortlist, and then hold a day of auditions. It’s a system we’ve made work over the years.

Music-wise, is there a very distinct beat and rhythm group that works best, or can you pretty much breakdance to anything?
Breakdancing, for me, always looks best on breakbeats. That music inspired us to dance like that. I get it with theatre that people go, “Let’s mix breaking with classical music.” Sometimes it works, but sometimes it just looks shit, if you ask me. You also wonder why this collaboration needs to happen and what is that really about? I think the reason it’s done is because they feel that they’ve got to use classical music to justify that they’re doing it in theatre. Classical music is the theatrical vehicle, but anyone who understands music knows you can use anything in a theatrical way. Surely we should be thinking more about what we’re exploring in our work? If it’s justifying ourselves as a hip hop artist in a theatre, then that’s just weak – move on.

In 2011 you turned down an MBE for services to British dance – can you give a brief reason as to why you did that?
I appreciate that you said brief. It’s the name, [Member of the British Empire] and I’m glad that I still feel the same way. I have no regrets. It’s insidious and I don’t play that – I think that me rejecting it highlights the insidious nature of the award.

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Ruggeds. photo: Paul Hampartsoumian

The Letter, the show created around the MBE, includes a lot of physical impersonations of your own family and friends – was that challenging, or is it something you regularly incorporate?
For this particular piece, the challenge was to not hear from Jonzi D, but to hear people close to him and what they thought of the MBE. I didn’t think there’d be enough of a night of theatre if it was just my opinion – as you heard, I can summarise it into two words: the name. To just harp on about the name, “The name! It’s a bad name. Sod the name. Name name name. Change the name.” That’s boring. What was more interesting was hearing other people’s points of view; I tried to present most of the arguments that got to me in some way, and made me think twice about what I was doing.

I like to try and see things from someone else’s point of view. I’ve got mine, but to learn about other people’s opinions and see the world from where you’re sitting is an exciting thing for me.

Part of your ambition in your career was to gain artistic recognition for breakdancing and hip hop culture – are you glad that you managed to make a political statement as well as getting that recognition?
It was a perfect triple whammy for me. To be able to get the acknowledgement and to create a show out of it, which then presents a political statement. It’s been great for all of those reasons.

Do you ever see a time when you’re not dancing…
I’m sitting on my arse most of the time because I’m directing or on the phone. Every now and again it’s like, “Shit, I’ve got a show coming up, back in the studio.” I’ve got no real regiment in my life, I’m always travelling, I spend half of the time away from home. But these are all just excuses and I should fit it into my schedule.

Do you not miss it?
Not in that way – I’ve been doing it for forty years, so enough already. Especially when you see young people doing things that you would never possibly imagine doing with your body. I don’t want to limit the development of the dance as a genre by trying to do it myself.

You’re always going to be busting out the moves in the privacy of your own home, though?
I would never, ever stop doing that. That’s just life. I danced before I was born to my mum’s heartbeat. I’ve always had rhythm and I’ll never lose it. It’s just a thing that I do. Dance is not something that I chose to do, but it was something I chose to make a career in – they’re two very different things.

Hopefully the show will inspire people in many ways. What would be the first steps to getting into dancing, and have you any pearls of wisdom for them?
Speak to your local rep, Rebekah. Connect with her. My advice: work hard. That’s one thing – dance is no play thing. Yes it’s enjoyable, but if you want to be a dancer, work hard, train hard.

Breakin’ Convention, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Tuesday 17 - Wednesday 18 May, £10/£15.

Breakin' Convention website