An Alumni of the London Contemporary Dance School, Jonzi D had noticed that there was a niche in the dance market missing. There didn’t appear to be any training provided by dance schools, or many dance opportunities for Hip Hop performers. Fast forward to 2015, and Jonzi D has established the longest running Hip Hop theatrical event within the UK, having founded Breakin’ Convention 11 years ago this year! With Hip Hop artists flocking to be apart of the established event, the UKs dance future appears to be very bright. Ahead of this year’s Breakin’ Convention, which is set to take place on the May Bank Holiday weekend from Saturday 2nd to Sunday 3rd May, Theatrefullstop were able to speak to the Hip Hop theatre pioneer about the importance of events such as Breakin’ Convention, what he looks for in performers and gives advice to aspiring artists.
You’ll be hosting Breakin’ Convention this May Bank Holiday weekend, how are you feeling ahead of the event?
I’m very excited! There’s a lot of great feedback that we are getting. We’ve sold out tickets for Saturday night already, Les Twins are performing, they’re probably the most commercial act we’ve programmed at Breakin’ Convention actually. We always try to do something slightly different every year, and this year we’ve really gone there when it comes to coming up with something different. There’s an over 21s event on Friday (1st May), so, if I’m going to be honest with you, I am nervous about that.
Could you explain what happens at the event?
Breakin’ Convention is an international festival of Hip Hop dance theatre that started in 2004. It’s about Hip Hop dance from around the world, around the corner. There’s a real strong feeling I have about getting artists, legends in the game, from America, technical excellence from places like Korea, Russia, France and also groups that are local to us. The stage is shared by the most famous in the world and that local youth group. It’s about balance in the space, it’s not just filled with highly professional (dancers) but it’s actually filled with the Hip Hop community, which is made up of professionals as well as people coming into the Hip Hop culture, so that’s really important.
As you walk into Sadler’s Wells, we take over the whole building, and give the whole place a Hip Hop make over. We have graffiti art on the walls of the Mezzanine as soon as you walk in, we have DJs playing, we’ve got workshops, we have what we call a Tiny Tots Rock Class where kids under the age of 9 can just join in. We also have a very extended workshop programme of professional work that happens in the morning and the early afternoon of the weekend. We have rappers who are almost like a town crier, and they rap in the Mezzanine area to encourage people to go into the theatre space. We use all the elements of Hip Hop culture to provide the most immersive experience for the whole family.
Three years ago now, we did our first Park Jam, and that’s a free park event which happens in Spa Field’s park, very near Sadler’s Wells, and again, it’s something for the whole family. We’ve got a music stage, this year, we’ve got a first generation jam, some of the first rappers to ever do this in the UK, they’re all in their mid 40s now. We’re going to have a first generation MC special and first generation dance special. We have a circle that’s been hosted by Danny Francis, who’s one of the London All Stars. He’s danced in Covent Garden, in the very earliest Hip Hop generation. We’ve also got an after party on the Sunday night, which we are doing in conjunction with Super Duper Fly and Big Ted will be playing at that event. Breakin’ Convention is a big, massive experience!
How important are events like Breakin’ Convention to the dance landscape of the UK and internationally?
It’s important because where theatre is concerned, I think we’re the only organisation that see Hip Hop as our core, whereas a lot of theatre’s don’t basically. A lot of theatre organisations might include Hip Hop, but by no means is it essential to their activity. I think that’s one of the main things that we at Breakin’ Convention are skilled at, and personally, I’ve been interested in what Hip Hop can do in a theatrical context all of my career. It’s something that means a lot to me, and on the evidence of what’s happened since we’ve been doing Breakin’ Convention, (it) means a lot to the dance community.
You describe yourself as a Hip Hop theatre artist, could you explain what you mean by this?
I believe that the disciplines of Hip Hop culture, the dance, the rap, the music, the art work, all of these devices can be given a theatrical focus. Similar to the way in which Shakespeare writes rhymes, or characters, that’s what we do as rap anyway very naturally. The way in which dance can be used to illustrate narrative, we can do that. Graffiti artists are so skilled at what they do, they do set design. It’s about engaging with the skills that come from Hip Hop and making theatre out of that.
As artistic Director of Breakin’ Convention, how do you decide which acts make the final line up?
I’d say diverse approaches to the styles, for example, I’d like to get some Breaking in there, Locking, Popping and some Krump. Also, diversity, I like to make sure that there’s a strong female presence at Breakin’ Convention. This isn’t something I specifically programme but I am aware of the representation of ethnicity, considering I’m from London, the whole world lives around me and I like to make sure that that is represented in the space. Ultimately, I want people to explore their artistry and them people to come up with something different, (that) is very exciting to me! People that trail blaze, that come with their own finger prints as to what they see as theatre.
As a rapper and B-Boy, you’ve been able to witness the evolution of both of these art forms from the 80s, up until now. Have you noticed any changes in terms of acceptance and opportunities given within these art forms?
What I have seen is from the early days, this whole art form was seen as something that black people did. As with any western culture that comes from these types of communities, they will eventually be co-opted and appropriated by the wider community. It’s no surprise to me that we see lots of young, white, middle class kids in their droves coming into the Hip Hop culture and I’d like to think that we could usher in a world where it doesn’t matter what colour you are. I like the fact that I am an Artistic Director, and a black man because we need to see more of that and that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to do with Breakin’ Convention, to push leadership, pushing black male leadership and female leadership because this is something we don’t get very much.
You’ve had a varied career, from being an Associate Artist at The Place, to being Artistic Director of Breakin’ Convention, had you ever pictured this at the beginning of your career?
When I was studying dance, I asked a question to the dance theory teacher, “will we be doing any Hip Hop dance?”, because at the time, we were only doing Classical Ballet and Contemporary. She said, “no, we won’t be studying Hip Hop because we want to prepare you for the careers in which you’re going to be employed in” and that really influenced my decisions from then. I always thought, I love this Hip Hop thing, you’re telling me that you’re devaluing Hip Hop? You can’t tell me that it’s not potentially an earner! I think at that point, my blinkers came on and I was like, right, you know what, I’m going to change that!
What acts are you looking to see at this year’s Breakin’ Convention?
All of them!
What advice would you give to aspiring MCs, dancers, and musicians?
I would say commit to your craft and do not allow, outside, corporate influences to distract you.
Interview by Lucy Basaba.
Breakin’ convention will take place at Sadler’s Well from Saturday 2nd until Sunday 3rd May. For more information on the event, visit here…