sun 17/02/2019

Pied Piper, Barbican & Into the Hoods, QEH | reviews, news & interviews

Pied Piper, Barbican & Into the Hoods, QEH

Pied Piper, Barbican & Into the Hoods, QEH

Hip hop makes exciting Christmas family theatre at London's prime spots

Pied Piper: 'Armies and ballet companies would crawl over broken glass to have such ensemble unanimity'Paul Hampartsoumian

Hip hop is the new ballet. Instead of mostly girls in tutus, mostly boys in tracksuits; instead of pointe-shoes, trainers; instead of arabesques and fouettés, handstands and windmills; above all, instead of nice, nasty. The smell on stage is burning rubber from the shoes; the atmosphere is electric; lights fractured; discipline razor-sharp. Some armies and ballet companies would crawl over broken glass to have the ensemble unanimity that’s displayed in Boy Blue’s cracking show Pied Piper at the Barbican.

Contemporary dance companies and pantos could learn a lot from the fun factor and connection with audiences that Zoonation show with Into the Hoods at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The Christmas slot in a flagship venue is a sign of mainstream acceptance. The speed with which East London hip hop would take over British dance-theatre in the Noughties could hardly have been predicted. Not only on TV did a dance form associated not long ago with street violence and drug crime suddenly burst out and conquer the mass public’s hearts in Britain’s Got Talent. The realisation has rapidly been spreading that in street dance and hip hop culture, dance theatre has a genuinely powerful new vernacular voice, with physicality, dramatic stories to tell, and an assertive insistence on rules that can produce both thrilling precision in ensemble (think Flawless and Diversity in BGT) and a solo exhibitionism so proud it almost bursts into flames.

Both these shows draw on fairytales, one to chill, the other to entertain. You might get the difference by hearing that at the start of Pied Piper the usual voice asking for mobiles to be switched off also sternly warns against making any noise during the show; at the beginning of Into the Hoods, the exact opposite instruction is given.

Pied Piper is a dark-hued production updating the haunting fable of the piper who 700 years ago led the children of Hamelin away with his music and his coloured clothes, and left the town to its weeping adults. The Grimm Brothers wrote this oral mystery down, Robert Browning immortalised it in an unforgettably rhythmic, strongly rhymed poem. (Not the least of the production’s pleasures is how the literary associations are enjoyed, the rap sampling Browning.)

The narrative could be clearer but it’s the atmosphere that counts. This story translates easily - the rats are the tracksuited, hooded Asbos living among binbags and dumped sofas in a hellish graffiti-ed, chain-linked playground (a brilliant set by the show’s director Ultz). They scuttle with marvellously menacing synchronisation through extremely skilled routines, strobed by lights like security lamps or car headlights. Authority gets nice satirical treatment as small, white potato-headed councillors dithering in suits.

The enigmatic Piper is a superhero figure who like Robocop or Nemo is able to fend people off with his aura, or make them obey his moves. Is he good or bad? No one knows. When he takes the children away, and the missing kids’ photos come up on the video wall behind, it brings a very contemporary lump to the throat.

The krumping battles choreographed by Kenrick “H2O” Sandy as he vanquishes gangs of hostile hoodies, male, female, large, small, are genuinely exciting and dangerous-looking, and suggest a supernatural element. There are also three superb b-boy soloists, and Michael “Mikey J” Asante’s music score of dazzling mixes of influence, beats and electronic dynamics. As a bonus, although Boy Blue are heavily involved in school education they deploy their youngsters with care for the drama of the hip hop tradition they are creating. Their first duty, it’s clear, is to the theatre.

I was entertained by the scene-stealing of characters like the minute, scarily self-possessed blonde child who had a veteran's aplomb

The dance-theatre standards of Kate Prince's Into the Hoods are less developed than the entertainment factor with which four fairytales have been conflated (as in Sondheim’s Into the Woods), here into a sprightly comedy about life in Ruff Endz estate with slight adjustments to the dreams. DJ Spinderella’s dream is to spin discs at the Ball, MC Rap-on-zel is a tough, mouthy girl whom dad keeps locked into their flat on the 25th floor of the tower block, Prince, boyfriend to both, watches "Ruff Idol" all day and wants to be a “talentless, clueless celebrity”, and Lil Red, Wolf, iPod-addict Jaxx and the Giant are also added to the mix, alternative but nice.

The dancing is community-level on the whole, and lacks the ambition of Pied Piper - I was more entertained by the scene-stealing of characters like the Landlord, a ribtickling physical comic, and the minute, scarily self-possessed blonde child who played Spinderella’s Fairy Gee and though seeming to be about eight years old had a veteran’s aplomb.

Costumes are tracksuits, sneakers, and more tracksuits, with fashion touches, but the cartoonish video scenery is a blast, the show doesn’t pretend, and last night’s mostly school-age audience, piercingly demonstrative throughout the performance, reached screaming point at curtain call.

The speed with which East London hip hope would take over British dance-theatre in the Noughties could hardly have been predicted

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