Review: Blak Whyte Gray (Barbican)

Boy Blue Entertainment bring a new triple bill of dance to the Barbican

Since 2002, Boy Blue Entertainment have been pioneers of the artistic reinvention of hip hop dance – extending the ability of this thrilling, virtuosic form to journey beyond competitive battles and onto our stages. Their Pied Piper in 2007 turned a traditional story into an invigorating piece of dance theatre, breaking new ground and winning huge acclaim and applause.

So it is not surprising that joint artistic directors Kenrick ‘H20′ Sandy and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante are once again ambitiously trying something different, pushing onwards their explorations, this time into a more abstract triple bill of dance called Blak, Whyte, Gray. I applaud their intention, but I really wish I liked this work better.

It is full of wonderful things, beginning with Whyte, for a trio of three dancers moving robotically in a contained white square of light. Their actions are like tiny shudders, running through their bodies; they seem to be trying to escape, but are pulled backwards by daily routine. In Gray, which flows from the first piece seamlessly when a body floats onto the stage on his back, the light darkens and the number of performers expands.

Here they can move around the stage (lit by Lee Curran), dazzling in the pyrotechnics of their flat-bodied jumps and krumping, jagged rhythms. They move from place to place like an army, their actions violent and wary, separate and together. The final, extended section, Blak, begins with the troupe supporting the limp body of one of the dancers, Dickson Mbi, so relaxed that movement seems to flow through him like a rippling wave. Gradually he is revived, draped in red fabric, and some African masks appear. Then everyone dances joyfully, and the piece ends.

There is a clear thought development here, taking the dancers from restriction to freedom, from contemporary constraint to the primal power of historic African roots. Yet the problem is that the movement struggles to express this. It is always broadly the same, whatever is going on around it. Despite all Asante’s efforts with the score, the solidity of the beat and the way the choreography follows it, seems to pinion the capacity for creativity; for all the energy expended by the dancers, the steps themselves remain stubbornly uncommunicative. Too often, just as things are getting going, another section begins; there is little continuous action, just attractively shaped vignettes.

What you are left with is the magnificence of the dancers themselves. And that is quite a lot to relish. Mbi, Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade, and Gemma Kay Hoddy particularly catch the eye, but all are superb, skilful and passionate. They are a pleasure to watch.

Blak Whyte and Gray runs at the Barbican until 21 January, then at HOME, Manchester from 9 to 11 February.