Hip hop theatre choreographers are too often seen as outreach workers rather than artists, but a new initiative is trying to change that. Lee Griffiths explains how.

Two dancers on stage
A performance of Chris Reyes' Caravan

Jay Kasitz

Hip hop dance theatre was pioneered by artists such as Jonzi D. Benji Reid and Robert Hylton back in the 1990s. Now, almost 30 years on, it is led by artists including Tony Adigun of Avant Garde Dance, Kate Prince of ZooNation and Kenrick Sandy of Boy Blue Entertainment, but there are still no conservatoires offering educational and theatrical training to hip hop or street dance artists.

choreographers are unable to access commissions and large-scale profiling because their work isn’t seen as equal to that of other dance theatre genres

The result is that choreographers are unable to access commissions and large-scale profiling because their work isn’t seen as equal to that of other dance theatre genres. They are seen as outreach and community-based choreographers who are best matched to work with youth companies.

The majority of regional dance organisations commission the same circuit of contemporary practitioners. This has created a vicious circle where there is little organisational support and funding, which then has an impact on the calibre of work hip hop theatre makers have access to create.

We know that most venues have one hip hop work programmed per season or one resident or associate hip hop artist or company. That quota is enough to tick the funding criteria for reaching BAME audiences.

Starting a discussion

To help tackle this, we established Artists 4 Artists as an artist-led network aimed at instigating dance industry change. The initial idea was born out of a conversation with Kat Bridge, Artistic Director of Greenwich Dance, and my colleague Joseph Toonga to bring together a collective of artists to discuss the current climate for hip hop makers.

We pitched a three-day hip hop event to the Dance Enterprise Ideas Fund, an initiative set up by East London Dance to fund and offer in-kind support for the research, development or launch of creative dance ideas. Ours was one of eight initiatives to win from a shortlist of 23 pitches and a total of 72 initial applications.

Together with support from Greenwich Dance, the Fenton Charitable Trust and Arts Council England, our launch event took place last October at Redbridge Drama Centre with performances, work-in-progress sharings, debates, presentations and workshops.

Independent hip hop artist Ivan Blackstock chaired discussions and raised the issue about the lack of education and documentation: “We don’t have the schooling. Hip hop theatre dancers aren’t being educated and therefore hip hop theatre choreographers use contemporary dancers and not hip hop dancers.”

Over the first two evenings, we curated performances from established and emerging artists, and on the final evening we presented the work of four commissioned grass roots artists who had received support from us including funding, rehearsal space and mentoring.

Building on the success

Keen to build on the success of last year’s event, we went back to the drawing board and asked the hip hop theatre community what it needed next. As well as monthly workshops for dancers and choreographers exploring the repertoire, street dance foundations, spoken word and creative exploration, we provided 14 artists with a free week of training called ‘Artists 4 Growth’.

It was a five-day intensive held in February to develop the vital skills needed in and out of the studio to enhance their work including approaches to research and development, relationship between music and movement, composing budgets and the use of dramaturgy.

Changing the UK dance industry’s perceptions and engagement with hip hop is a slow process but with organisations such as Breakin’ Convention and artist Cindy Claes with her 1000 Pieces Puzzle international exchange programme, we feel confident that change is coming. We will continue to work with Greenwich Dance, Rich Mix and Redbridge Drama Centre to further instigate conversations between venues and artists, and provide profile and commissioning opportunities and artist development.

Lee Griffiths is Creative Director of Artists 4 Artists.
Tw: @artists_4a
E: artists4artists@outlook.com

Artists 4 Artists next event is at Rich Mix in London on 21 July, presenting scratch work from the Artists 4 Growth participants. Its annual event at Redbridge Drama Centre will take place on Friday 29 and Saturday 30 September.

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Photo of Lee Griffiths