2023 is year of many milestones. It’s widely regarded as the 50th year of Hip Hop culture, and 75th year since the Windrush brought the first big wave of African Caribbean people to the UK. One of the many, many beautiful, important and empowering legacies of each of these cultural phenomena is Breakin’ Convention, the pioneering platform of Hip Hop Dance Theatre created by Jonzi D, a truly legendary Hip Hop polymath and a child of Grenadian migrants of the Windrush generation.
Amongst his incredible back catalogue of multidisciplinary work, Breakin’ Convention is arguably Jonzi’s greatest contribution to global Hip Hop culture, kicking down doors for himself, but more poignantly, blazing a trail for others and forging a platform that has become all at once a goal, rite of passage and springboard for countless Hip Hop artists, particularly dancers, from the UK and internationally. While so much work is done by an amazing team, Breakin’ Convention was born and raised by Jonzi D, and in 2023 his brainchild has turned 20. This milestone in a year of milestones offers all of us who have been inspired, influenced and helped by Breakin’ Convention to take stock, acknowledge, thank and celebrate not only the organisation, but Jonzi himself for everything they have done for our community.
That was the atmosphere of Breakin’ Convention 2023; reverence and celebration. Having come through the pandemic years finding ways to continue to make and support, this felt like the things were back in full effect. The family vibes in the atrium of Sadler’s Wells were as strong as ever, with the next generation of dancers and graffers scribbling and poppin’ under the tutorage of parents and pros including Mr Dane, Bismark and Olivia, with resident DJs Tha En4cers setting the soundtrack.
In the Lilian Baylis Theatre, another development in Hip Hop’s acknowledgment by the establishment was celebrated with the launch of The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Dance Studies, co-edited by Mary Fogerty. The B‑Girl held an insightful conversation with Jonzi, IAHH fam Manny Adelekun and foundational B‑Boys The Legendary Twins, credited with being the first to bring ground moves to Break Dance, which in Jonzi’s words is akin to ‘creating fire’. This was followed by Freestyle Funk Forum, with rappers going off the top for the crowd’s entertainment, including EOW England 2019 Champion Dekay.
All this set a powerful tone for the main event, and what an event it was. After a jubilant and emotional introduction by Jonzi and the ever-present Hip Hop BSL artist Jacqui Beckford, the sold out Sadler’s Wells crowd were treated to immense performances from the Youth Dance Company (UK), Gully South Block (UK), MOVER (South Korea), Max Revell (UK), Threading Theater (Netherlands/UK) and the Ghetto Funk Collective (Netherlands).
Stand out performances for me came from the energetic, dark, rebellious Krump of Gully South Block, carrying on the rich tradition of the UK Krump scene. MOVER brought some dope moments of brilliance, like transforming into a drum machine that triggered their beatboxer. BBC Young Dancer 2019 Max Revell shared a delicate, poetic piece, using shadow, his feet, a reversed suit and a suspended suitcase to evoking the struggle for creative people to contort themselves into ‘normal’ jobs and/or to chase the bag while remaining or defining themselves.
The major moment of the first half, though, was when The Legendary Twins took the main stage with Jonzi. These pioneers from the Bronx had flown to London, at their own expense, insisting on presenting Jonzi with something in person. In front of his home community, on his platforms biggest event, the Twins read out an accolade from the state of New York, acknowledging Jonzi and Breakin’ Convention’s contribution to Hip Hop culture in NYC and globally, as well as announcing his induction into the Museum of Hip Hop that is in the works. Jonzi couldn’t contain his emotions, visibly moved, eventually to tears, as the scale of his life’s work being recognised sunk in. He said “all I ever wanted to do was help people”, and he truly has. To see that help praised and appreciated to this level was a phenomenal moment to witness; I can’t imagine what it must mean to be on the receiving end.
At the interval, I went back to the Lilian Bayliss to see pieces from Lerato Sekonya (South Africa), Dorine Mugisha (Tanzania), and my favourite piece by Broken Pen & Ryan Soultribe (UK). I’ve really enjoyed watching Broken Pen grow as an artist over the last 5 years or so. He’s an excellent lyricist, and having pushed himself to change and develop, rapping in multiple languages, performing spoken word, singing, venturing onto The Voice and carving a place for himself on multiple scenes, to see him now adding movement to his repertoire was a treat. He and Ryan complimented each other in a personal, brave piece about mental health struggles and victories. I can’t wait to see where Pen takes his talents next.
Once the bell rang for the second half on the main stage, I witnessed one of the best performances I’ve ever seen at Breakin’ Convention. La Diva aux Pieds Nus (The Bare Foot Divas) from Company Nicolas Huchard (France) WENT IN. Mixing a plethora of styles, the piece explored – and again revered and celebrated – Womanhood, Black Womanhood, in all its glory. It was multiplicitous and multifaceted, commanding and caring, imposing and intimate, expertly using lighting, movement, space and sound to move between European classical, African past, present and future and contemporary electronic. Each time you thought it was finished it came back with even more, much like African women throughout the world and history, enduring all that is thrown at them while upholding so much. There were moments when it felt like the audience were let into cherished, private moments of sisterhood, and moments of sharp defiance. I loved it! I’d love to see it again!
The level was set so high, and those who followed didn’t disappoint. ILL-Abilities (Netherlands/Brazil) formidably flew the flag for D/disabled dancers, showing their strength of character and body, as well as their intricate skills. Their huge applause laid the way for an epic performance from BC stalwarts Boy Blue (UK). Generations of this company have graced the BC stage since the first one, with Jonzi going so far as to say there would be no BC without Boy Blue. The hype was fully lived up to, with a full crew of intergenerational, inter-style dancers showing the pedigree of this company and why they are held in such high regard.
It was the perfect way to move into the headline act, as the world famous Les Twins, Rubix and Laura Nala from Criminalz Crew (France) closed the show with a set of individual performances, all to ‘non-traditional’ pieces of music for Hip Hop dance, including a flip of ‘Hit Me Baby One more Time’. Each virtuoso showed exactly why they are rated so highly and why the likes of Beyonce call on their skills.
Breakin’ Convention 2023 felt like a doorway. A point at which 20 years of incredible growth and achievement could be reflected on. But also, in the nature of the organisation and its peoples, it felt like the start of the next chapter. Academy Breakin’ Convention, an alternative educational facility specialising in all elements of Hip Hop culture is on the horizon, with Jonzi and the fam again manifesting something that many have spoken about and dreamed of. This will be the future of Hip Hop culture in this country and it’ll be incredible to see what will comes out of it in the next 20 years. All power to it.
The Breakin’ Convention 2023 tour kicks off May 17th. Make sure you get your tickets in a town or city near you.
Breakin’ Convention 2023 UK Tour Dates and Cities
17 May — Poole at Lighthouse, Poole Centre for the Arts — BOOK TICKETS
20 May — Canterbury at The Marlowe — BOOK TICKETS
23 & 24 May — Plymouth at Theatre Royal Plymouth — BOOK TICKETS
27 May — Norwich at Norwich Theatre Royal — BOOK TICKETS
31 May — Nottingham at Royal Concert Hall — BOOK TICKETS
3 June — Brighton at Brighton Dome — BOOK TICKETS
7 June — South Shields at The Customs House — BOOK TICKETS
10 June — Blackpool at The Grand — BOOK TICKETS
13 & 14 June — Birmingham at Birmingham Hippodrome — BOOK TICKETS
All photography: Belinda Lawley