Jonzi D on Breakin’ Convention

Jonzi D

Countdown
It’s a balmy day in late April, but with less than two weeks to go before the start of the fourth edition of Breakin’ Convention — preceded by the London performances of his own graffiti-based show TAG and followed, in turn, by the BC national tour — no wonder that Jonzi D is feeling more than a mite stressed. He’s affable and up-beat, as always, but also most definitely in demand. ‘There are so many different projects comin’ in from so many different angles,’ he explains, ‘that I feel like an acid house dancer!’ His hands fly in front of his face as he laughs at himself good-naturedly.

‘I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m not used to this,’ he continues. ‘It’s characteristic of all of my theatre life. I always feel like I’ve been juggling things. Like, in the mid-90s I was doing rap gigs and performance-poetry gigs and dance gigs. One of the reasons I pulled everything together is so I could have a little bit more balance doing everything. But now the hip hop theatre has turned into this huge career thing. There’s Breakin’ Convention, and Jonzi D Productions, and all the advocacy stuff I’m doing at the DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport], plus bein’ a board member of Youth Dance England.’ Boiling down the responsibilities, he sums it up. ‘This is what I do: I programme, I go and look at work, I present work and I tour.’

Tag, You’re It
A new and improved version of TAG, the piece Jonzi premiered in early 2006, has been out on the road since the beginning of March. ‘It’s so much better and clearer now,’ he says, ‘that some would argue that it’s a completely different piece.’ He mentions a new narrative line, a different leading man (Nottingham-based graffiti writer and b-boy John Berkavitch) and additional visual projections.

‘What I want people to understand about TAG is that it’s an explanation of graffiti art and the motivations behind it. We’re explorin’ many ideas. For example, the line between artist and vandal. Every graffiti artist has a place on this line. We look at the idea of tagging as a sign, and explore how dancers interpret these signs onstage. And on the last night [May 4], I’m honoured and happy to say, as part of our post-show discussion we’ve got a New York graffiti writer by the name of Blade who was known to have painted over 5000 trains between 1969 to the early ‘80s.’ The talk will also feature Berkavitch and TAG co-creator and fellow graffiti writer, Prime. ‘And I’m gonna be runnin’ around with my cordless mike,’ Jonzi adds.

Choosy
Now, sitting in the café at the back of Sadler’s Wells, his attention turns back to BC. ‘I’m really excited about the three-day factor,’ he says, referring to the London festival’s full-on performance dates of May 5-7. ‘It’s brought us problems as well. How do you create a balanced programme with an odd number of dates? That was a bit strange. But it’s a festival, and I’d like to maintain that unique festival quality. I still want there to be the potential of people buyin’ tickets for all three nights rather than choosin’ just one night to go. I like the idea that you’ll always miss somethin’ unless you come to every night.’

Going Solo
The first thing Jonzi mentions is the plethora of solos that he’s programmed. ‘We had two solos the first time we did the festival, but then lost the way with that a little bit. We’ve got quite a few this year, which I’m really happy about.’ Several of the soloists are French. They include the house dancer Michel ‘Meech’ Onomo in ‘Music Beat My Feeling’  [May 7]; Emilie Sudre, a member of Compagnie Revolution (which brought the sexually-charged ensemble piece Amazones to BC 2005), in the seductive ‘SOLI II’ [May 5 and 7]; and ex-Vagabond Crew member Salah in ‘The Dream of Glubi’ [May 6 and 7]. ‘Salah recently won the top prize on some show in France,’ Jonzi reveals, ‘ similar to a reality TV format, in which very talented artists from across different performance genres basically battle it out for thirty grand or somethin’ like that. We’re very proud to feature an award winner this year.’

Other soloists to look out for are Frank Ejara, a Brazilian who made his BC debut in 2006, and the American Bill ‘Crutchmaster’ Shannon. Ejara’s ‘Som di Movimento’ [May 6], a sound and movement solo featuring flawless body percussion, can also be seen on the BC national tour. Shannon, however, will only be programmed in London.

‘I’ve always liked Bill’s work,’ Jonzi says, ‘and I’ve always known that he was gonna do Breakin’ Convention eventually.’ A charming and articulate performer who moves via both a skateboard and specially-designed crutches, Shannon will present an excerpt from his solo Spatial Theory [May 6]. His skills, let alone his success as an international artist, throw any unenlightened notions about the limitations of disability right out the window. As Jonzi points out, the respect Shannon commands may also indicate something significant about the inclusive nature of hip hop.

‘Hip hop as a culture has always proven itself to exist regardless of the constraints and the marginalisation that the world puts around it,’ he says. ‘You can be fat or skinny, tall or short, young or old. There’s no standard look that you have to be born with to do hip hop. All you need is skills. This particular artist really makes that clear because he’s so skillful. With Bill it’s not like, “Oh, it’s good that he can do that with these crutches.” No. He’s just good.’

Balancing Acts
Jonzi is quick to recommend other BC acts. Salah, for instance, isn’t the only award-winner on this year’s bill. The other is Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy, whose galvanising ‘Pied Piper’ picked up an Olivier early this year. ‘That was one of the best shows I’ve seen,’ Jonzi enthuses. ‘Kenrick is a very prolific artist who makes at least three pieces a year. He and Vicky ‘Skytilz’ Mantey are doin’ a poppin’ duet for us at Sadler’s Wells [May 6]. It shows how he’s progressed from the whole kind of youth group runnin’ in, doin’ a little set, and runnin’ out again thing, with constant edits within the music. In this duet he’s got one track of music, and the two dancers stay onstage. It’s very sustained, very clear. And there’s another piece he’s doin’ [May 7] which involves a very large piece of material and caked mud. I haven’t got a clue what that’s about, but part of the fun of Breakin’ Convention is not knowin’ what work is comin’ up.’

Sandy’s group Boy Blue is the only company to have featured in all four festivals to date. It’s that kind of balance of reliable, tried-and-true artists versus go-out-on-a-limb, new-to-the-UK risks that has marked Jonzi’s BC programming. Besides Ejara and Sandy, other performers making return visits to Sadler’s Wells this year include the seminal Electric Boogaloos [May 5 and 7] and the fantastic French crew Franck II Louise [May 7]. As soon as the festival finishes, Ejara and these last two groups will hit the road on the Dance Consortium-sponsored UK tour.

‘The main reason Franck and Frank have come back to Breakin’ Convention is for the tour,’ Jonzi admits. ‘They were such highlights at last year’s festival that I wanted the rest of the country to feel some of the jolt we felt in London.’ He slaps his palm for emphasis. ‘These artists — and that includes the Boogaloos — and the particular works they’ll be doin’ for us are the essence of why I decided to do Breakin’ Convention. It’s always been about unique expressions of hip hop dance-theatre. The idea of just straight routines is something I support, because that’s what a majority of the groups come in with. But my vision is of people who can push their theatrical qualities.’

House Matters
Is there anybody else on the festival roster whom Jonzi feels should be spotlighted? His answer is prompt. ‘Bird Gang [May 6], a UK group with a very idiosyncratic style. They wear masks throughout their whole show. They also make a point of tryin’ not to reveal to people that they’re part of Bird Gang when they’re not wearin’ the masks. So I don’t know whether they’re men or women, young or old, black, white or anythin’ in between. They’re makin’ a political statement by doin’ this. They’re based somewhere in London.’ He pauses, catching himself. ‘No, I tell a lie. One of the girls in the company who revealed herself to me is from Sweden. So I don’t know where they’re based. But they’re really excitin’, and they’ve got a slightly longer show than last year.’

Jonzi is also keen to promote the Caleaf and Dance Fusion from the USA [May 6]. Caleaf, he says, is the first house dance specialist to be featured in the festival. ‘Where street dance forms are concerned, and unlike France, all around Europe and Japan in particular, house dance in England is the least recognised form.’ Asked to define house, Jonzi says, ‘For me it looks like old-skool jazz footwork. The kind of stuff that was done in the late 70s and early 80s up and down this country. It’s northern soul mixed with the constant metronome-type beat of house. The rhythms of the footsteps work within this constant four-four drum beat. There are elements of African dance in there as well. It’s somethin’ we were doin’ in London in the mid-80s, but it kind of changed direction when the soulful, house side of the music got replaced by this techno, fabricated, pill-taking culture. As one of the originators of this other style of house dance, Caleaf is a beautiful reminder of what we missed out on.’


Age Concern

Although Jonzi doesn’t know Caleaf’s exact age, he says, ‘He’s definitely an elder. The age aspect is interesting because so much of the marketing of hip hop, particularly where theatres are concerned, is focused on the kidz. “Hey, this is a great chance to get the kidz in!” And that’s true. But to deny the elders their place basically fractures the lineage of what hip hop has been doin’ over the last thirty years.’ This attitude of respect and understanding of what’s been achieved in hip hop, and by whom, extends into the audience. ‘It’s really important that people who were goin’ out in the early ‘80s in the UK can come and check out the work that we’re doin’ now, because they’ll recognise stuff that was big in that time period. Lookin’ at a crew like the Electric Boogaloos, you can’t deny the fact that hip hop transcends generations as an art form.’

The Boogaloos are concocting a show as a tribute to one of their founding members. ‘They’re workin’ on it as we speak,’ says Jonzi. ‘It’s based upon Skeeter Rabbit, who passed away last year. He’s always been a part of the Boogaloos. It must be a really hard process for them because the wound is still pretty fresh, if you ask me. I’ve got such admiration for them. I don’t know what it’s gonna to be like, but I can honestly say that it’s gonna be a very heart-felt show and a fitting tribute for Breakin’ Convention to be able to host it. And it’s part of the tour. I feel really honoured.’

Street to Stage
Jonzi is happy to elaborate upon his curatorial duties. ‘For me the selection of artists is based upon the simplicity of are they good or not? Obviously that’s a matter of opinion, but I’m happy to say that generally people share the opinions I have.’ He handles most of the festival’s international programming, leaving much of the UK talent-spotting to his BC associates Emma Dowden (producer) and Kate Scanlan (assistant director). ‘It’s a lot to do with the fact that I tour a lot anyway and go to hip hop festivals globally,’ Jonzi says, ‘and I just see these amazing talents. The whole process is becomin’ more formalised. Usually I’m kinda hustlin’ to get a ticket to a venue or an event or a battle or whatever, and makin’ sure that I’ve paid my money early. Now I’m gettin’ invitations.’

As hip hop has become entrenched in commercial mainstream culture, Jonzi has closely charted the transition of artists from the pavement to the stage. ‘It’s quite interesting, because hip hop as an art form had very humble beginnings. It was a way of being free. But what’s happenin’ now is, a lot of new dancers are seein’ events like Breakin’ Convention.  They’re seein’ dancers doin’ breakin’ and stuff on adverts, and people in freezes on McDonald’s bags. You can acknowledge that this is a career path now. A lot of the participants now have never done it on the pavement. They’ve only done it in dance studios and theatre spaces. That’s so different from how it used to be back in the day.’

Such cultural shifts have definitely impacted Jonzi’s selection process. ‘When I’m goin’ out and choosin’ artists, I prefer those people that I feel are doin’ it for reasons beyond the career. There are crews like Spartanic Rockers from Japan who’ve been practicin’ hip hop for many, many years, way before it was a huge money-making venture. They’ve enjoyed the journey to that money-making place, but they’ve managed to hold on to what gave them respect in the first place.’ This isn’t, claims Jonzi, only about artistic integrity. ‘I think it’s an integrity of purpose. That’s slightly different to artistic integrity. Some people do this because they’ve got no choice. It’s the only thing that enables them to feed their family. That is a very different reason for dancing than people who’ve had the silver spoon in their mouth. I’m not even gonna put a value judgment on that, because some of the people with the silver spoons thrust down their throats don’t want it and aren’t happy with what comes with it. They see hip hop as a way out, as another way of bein’ free.’ In this way, he believes, ‘Hip hop is an answer for many people and societies right across the cultural and economic landscape.’

Pioneerin’
Jonzi is happy to elaborate upon his curatorial duties. ‘For me the selection of artists is based upon the simplicity of are they good or not? Obviously that’s a matter of opinion, but I’m happy to say that generally people share the opinions I have.’ He handles most of the festival’s international programming, leaving much of the UK talent-spotting to his BC associates Emma Dowden (producer) and Kate Scanlan (assistant director). ‘It’s a lot to do with the fact that I tour a lot anyway and go to hip hop festivals globally,’ Jonzi says, ‘and I just see these amazing talents. The whole process is becomin’ more formalised. Usually I’m kinda hustlin’ to get a ticket to a venue or an event or a battle or whatever, and makin’ sure that I’ve paid my money early. Now I’m gettin’ invitations.’

As hip hop has become entrenched in commercial mainstream culture, Jonzi has closely charted the transition of artists from the pavement to the stage. ‘It’s quite interesting, because hip hop as an art form had very humble beginnings. It was a way of being free. But what’s happenin’ now is, a lot of new dancers are seein’ events like Breakin’ Convention.  They’re seein’ dancers doin’ breakin’ and stuff on adverts, and people in freezes on McDonald’s bags. You can acknowledge that this is a career path now. A lot of the participants now have never done it on the pavement. They’ve only done it in dance studios and theatre spaces. That’s so different from how it used to be back in the day.’

Such cultural shifts have definitely impacted Jonzi’s selection process. ‘When I’m goin’ out and choosin’ artists, I prefer those people that I feel are doin’ it for reasons beyond the career. There are crews like Spartanic Rockers from Japan who’ve been practicin’ hip hop for many, many years, way before it was a huge money-making venture. They’ve enjoyed the journey to that money-making place, but they’ve managed to hold on to what gave them respect in the first place.’ This isn’t, claims Jonzi, only about artistic integrity. ‘I think it’s an integrity of purpose. That’s slightly different to artistic integrity. Some people do this because they’ve got no choice. It’s the only thing that enables them to feed their family. That is a very different reason for dancing than people who’ve had the silver spoon in their mouth. I’m not even gonna put a value judgment on that, because some of the people with the silver spoons thrust down their throats don’t want it and aren’t happy with what comes with it. They see hip hop as a way out, as another way of bein’ free.’ In this way, he believes, ‘Hip hop is an answer for many people and societies right across the cultural and economic landscape.’

See also:
Tour(s): Breakin' Convention 2007