The newest piece of culture in Charlotte – in fact, all of North America – has already reached middle age. And like American cultural icons from the blues to film noir, it had to go to Europe to be validated before we brought it back with honor.
Breakin’ Convention has wowed Londoners at Sadler’s Wells, one of the world’s leading presenters of dance, for a dozen years. When it debuts uptown this week, celebrating a culture that dates to the 1970s, this will be the first time such a two-day festival has been imported to the country that spawned hip-hop.
International acts and local dancers, musicians and graffiti artists will descend on Knight Theater and its surroundings on Friday and Saturday and Spirit Square on Saturday. And if you think of hip-hop only as that bass-heavy blather blaring at you from an adjacent car at a stoplight, Jonzi D will be happy to set you straight.
“In America, hip-hop is associated with young men doing crime,” says the prime organizer of the English and American conventions. “The entertainment industry has given it a corporate identity: gold teeth, grills, people drinking and behaving badly.
“Real hip-hop is about peace, love, unity and having fun. It’s the closest thing to Martin Luther King’s dream: White, black, Asian people, all battling in performance with respect for each other.”
The lineup for Charlotte proves that. The Ruggeds, a multiethnic crew from the Netherlands and winners of the United Kingdom B-boy Championships, will perform. So will Antoinette Gomis, a French choreographer-dancer who works solo. Ditto U.S. dancer Otto (Aquaboogy) Vazquez and the French-Argentine duo of David Colas and Santiago Codon Gras, who appear as Compagnie Phorm.
Though Jonzi did a similar professional show at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in 2013 – and will do another there the week after he comes to Charlotte – those haven’t followed the Sadler’s model of intensive community involvement. Charlotte’s will.
Most of these performers weren’t around when The Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight” (the first mainstream hit in the genre) in 1979. Jonzi was a Cockney middle-schooler in East London then; he remembers “playing on an old building site. We’d climb through the chains and dance on a concrete playground, where graffiti beautified the drab gray walls with hieroglyphic messages.”
But even dancers unborn when hip-hop exploded see it as a historical movement.
Tron Robinson, who performs under his first name and came to Charlotte five years ago from California, found “older people here weren’t passing the tradition down to younger ones. I got into breaking at a young age, and it was more of a community out there. People shared what they knew.
“This kind of dancing is an art form: You dance to express, not to impress. And when you connect movements to express what you’re feeling, people relate to that.”
Tron likes to quote a friend who believes B-boys (“breaking boys”) come in five basic types: the aggressive guy, the goofball, the ladies’ man, the passive guy, the loudmouth. (This applies to both sexes, actually.) But when you “mix in martial arts and tumbling and capoeira (Brazilian kick-dancing), it’s about whatever you bring to it.”
Though he’ll perform with the adult group The Vongolas, Tron will also bring students he teaches at studios in Cornelius and Charlotte. “I have one 7-year-old, Short Stack, who can do seven rotations in a backspin,” he marvels. “Kids like that will pass (the heritage) along, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Charlotte graffiti artist DeNeer Davis will pull together a visual component, including decorated columns at Knight Theater and canvases outside Spirit Square for Saturday’s Street Jam. She also sees herself as a link in a historic chain.
“A lot of people don’t know graffiti started hip-hop,” she says. “Two artists in Philadelphia weren’t getting much exposure in the 1960s, so they moved to New York. Eventually, people started gathering around this kind of artwork for a celebration, and B-boys would dance.
“With graffiti, it’s about what you feel, how you feel. A lot of people think you’re just throwing letters up on a wall, but it goes back to inscriptions on walls in Greece and Rome. I would like to see a place for us to go and do this art in Charlotte and be ourselves.”
Like Jonzi and Tron, she wants the community to respect an art it doesn’t traditionally see. Those last five words motivate Blumenthal Performing Arts President Tom Gabbard, too.
Gabbard has a long-standing relationship with Sadler’s Wells, partly from producing the work of revolutionary choreographer Matthew Bourne. (His “Sleeping Beauty” came to Belk Theater in 2013.)
“When you start looking at things such as ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and the ways hip-hop has begun to infuse our culture, it seemed like an intriguing thing for us,” he says. “(Sadler’s) built on the hip-hop tradition, interjecting narrative storytelling and placing it in a very artful context. They gave it a theatrical presentation, the way you would Alvin Ailey.”
Gabbard has committed to three years’ worth of Breakin’ Convention; he hopes to move next year into Romare Bearden Park, which was spoken for this time. Viral media have been the key to reaching new audiences; Reginald Bean, director of multicultural marketing for Coca-Cola, has counseled him on that shift. (Coke is a new sponsor for the Blumenthal.)
“Three generations of people are part of hip-hop,” says Gabbard. “When we looked at the Breakin’ audience in London, we saw every skin color, every age, people wearing all sorts of things. This is the kind of unifying event the Blumenthal aspires to do. We need those now, more than ever.”
The main performances by local, national and international acts run from 7:30 to 10:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Knight Theater, with 45-minute intermissions between acts for you to enjoy food trucks outside, look at the graffiti art, participate in a DJ/dance cypher (public performance space) or observe Tiny Totrock sessions for kids. Show tickets cost $19.50-$59.50.
What else is going on? From 5 to 7:15 p.m. both days, Levine Center for the Arts (the campus around Knight Theater) offers the Obey Your Verse Stage with DJs, spoken word artists, dance cyphers, food trucks, graffiti jam.
Saturday brings the free Street Jam festival around Spirit Square, 345 N. College St., from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Outside activities include a dance cypher, dance instruction, a drum circle, food trucks and a graffiti jam. Inside activities include a fashion show and workshops on healthful eating, beatboxing and popping, being a DJ and spoken word poetry.
You can also take part in a Saturday workshop with Antoinette Gomis or The Ruggeds (beginning and intermediate levels). Those are all $10 at the door.
Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.