Lawrence Toppman

Breakin’ Convention makes Charlotte debut with dance, music, graffiti art

Graffiti artist Matt Hooker paints his canvas in uptown Charlotte Friday.
Graffiti artist Matt Hooker paints his canvas in uptown Charlotte Friday. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

“Hey! Get movin’! 

That exclamation, accompanied by a Sonata for Angry Car Horn, came from a delayed driver on Stonewall Street, as a guy in front of him snapped photos of graffiti artists in the parking lot beside the Goodyear building.

But it could serve as the unofficial motto for Breakin’ Convention, the two-day event that makes its Charlotte debut this weekend.

And people were indeed moving by 5:30 Friday afternoon. Some seized surgical masks and cans of Gold NC-Acrylic Professional Spray Paint to share thoughts at Goodyear on freestanding canvases and a long plastic panel stretched across former service bay doors. Alas, obliteration began quickly; a Minneapolis resident who’d proudly tagged MPLS, MN was being eclipsed by a dragon’s tail.

Some moved their feet, but only while sitting down. Blumenthal Performing Arts had erected a tent outside Knight Theater; onlookers under it or on adjacent benches tapped approvingly, as bands played hard rock or hip-hop and poets spoke pulsing words on the Obey Your Verse Stage.

A mat 15 feet square had been erected in front of the stage, so breakdancers could demonstrate moves. A few popped or spun for 20 or 30 seconds at a time, then retreated shyly toward the edge of the tent. (How often do you see the words “breakdancers” and “shyly” in the same paragraph?)

The largest crowd moved toward the doors of Knight Theater for the indoor show. Even before intermission, those performances challenged the vocabularies of long-time aficionados of dance.

Local groups began with simple virtuosity. N.C. Dance District delivered an assertive, confident set of solos and unison performances. Reliablebrother started in Michael Jackson poses, then broke into moves of combat and reconciliation. The youngsters of Breakers for Life inspired whoops of approval with their old-school, spin-on-the-head confidence.

Then came international stars. Compagnie Phorm of France did a scarily cool interlocking dance in metallic-looking suits, to noises that suggested machines or insects. The British group BirdGang Dance Company proved hip-hop could tell a narrative brilliantly, with Ukweli Roach (of the TV show “Blindspot”) as a man tortured literally by demons who thwart a potential romance.

The intermission of 50 minutes followed, so audience members could line up at a food truck and/or imitate moves they’d seen inside at the Obey Your Verse stage. Some admired the multihued columns in the Knight Theater lobby, decorated earlier this week by graffiti artists, or watched youngsters perform on an indoor mat.

The whole night had a loose, improvisatory feel, in spite of the tightly choreographed dance numbers. Hosts Jonzi D and Bluz kidded the crowd and each other between acts, and even Jonzi’s vague explanation that the U.S. ensemble Street Kingdom wasn’t coming – “They’ve run into some drama, yeh?” – didn’t faze people. They introduced the Legendary Twins, Bronx brothers Keith and Kevin Smith, and described them as “the first people to go to the floor in 1973” (and thus become the inventors of breakdancing).

Aquaboogy (Otto Vasquez) delivered a short solo about self-reliance and pursuit of dreams after intermission, using lots of mime. Another solo act, French powerhouse Antoinette Gomis, delivered the emotional highlight of the night: a three-part piece to songs by Nina Simone, from the sad “Images” to the quietly uplifting “A New Life.” This journey from desperation to contemplation to celebration used techniques from modern and African dance, proving how cosmopolitan hip-hop can be.

The Netherlands ensemble The Ruggeds both stole and capped the show with a long routine that went back to pure virtuosity – but what virtuosity! They danced with a chair, a towel and a pair of giant rubber balls, and their finale took them in and out of cones of light that left you wondering exactly what you’d just seen. Whatever it was, most of us Friday night wanted to see more of it.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Breakin’ Convention

The main performance runs 7:30 to 10:15 p.m. Saturday at Knight Theater. From 5 to 7:15 p.m. the area around Knight Theater offers the Obey Your Verse Stage. Saturday brings the free Street Jam festival at Spirit Square 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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