REVIEW | ‘CYCLES’ BY BOY BLUE AT THE BARBICAN LONDON

Centre: Gabija Čep­elytė. LR: Jimmy Allan, Kyron ‘Nyk­ro’ Jake, Corey Owens. Boy Blue’s Cycles
world première at Bar­bican Theatre 2024 Pho­to­graph­er Cred­it: Cam­illa Green­well

Cycles, the latest pro­duc­tion by Boy Blue, is a power­ful explor­a­tion of the ‘raw’ form of hip hop dance theatre, deliv­er­ing an enchant­ing per­form­ance through tech­nic­al prowess, infec­tious energy, and irres­ist­ible grooves.

Cycles presents a sim­il­ar tem­plate to its pre­de­cessor REDD (2019). A cast of 9 take to the stage in off-white ‘high fash­ion meets street cul­ture’ cos­tumes as they nav­ig­ate the com­plex­it­ies of co-artist­ic dir­ect­or Ken­rick ‘H20’ Sandy’s cho­reo­graphy and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s music­al com­pos­i­tions. What marks a strik­ing change is the shift from nar­rat­ive based work to an abstract and dance focused approach.

Boy Blue is known for its incred­ible abil­ity to tell power­ful stor­ies; from the fant­ast­ic­al The Five and the Proph­ecy of Prana (2013) to the socio-polit­ic­al Blak Whyte Gray (2018), and the epic Free Your Mind – The Mat­rix Now (2024). The ground­break­ing com­pany has grown a repu­ta­tion for root­ing ima­gin­at­ive and express­ive stor­ies at the core of its work.

Yet, from the off­set of its announce­ment, the mes­saging around Cycles has been one that has wrestled with this very idea. “We wanted to get back into the enjoy­ment of what hip hop dance theatre is,” says Sandy in an inter­view with Giuli­ano Lev­ato of People of Theatre. Mean­while, the pro­gramme states a shift towards an abstract explor­a­tion of “the innov­a­tion, energy and rich his­tory with­in Hip Hop cul­ture”.

There seemed to be a push at the bound­ar­ies and expect­a­tions of what a new Boy Blue pro­duc­tion would be, and a shift towards total cre­at­ive free­dom.

Cycles begins with a pool of cir­cu­lar light centre-stage, as the cast from vis­ible seats on the wings move towards the light one after the oth­er in stac­cato toy man runs. The move­ment motif appears through­out and is quite enchant­ing as a styl­ised rep­res­ent­a­tion of trav­el­ing across the stage, space, and time. Sandy’s cho­reo­graphy, with assist­ance from Boy Blue alumni Jade Hack­ett, is as sharp as ever; appear­ing to be more dynam­ic, com­plex, and vig­or­ous. The grooves are smooth, and the per­formers are inch per­fect in syn­chron­icity and exe­cu­tion.

Nicey Bel­grave and com­pany in Boy Blue’s Cycles World première at Bar­bican Theatre 2024.
Pho­to­graph­er Cred­it: Cam­illa Green­well

It’s dif­fi­cult to mark a standout. Beit Krump, Breakin’, Hip Hop grooves, Pop­ping, or House, each dan­cer is undeni­able in their tal­ent, pre­ci­sion, and skill in excel­ling as an ensemble and shin­ning as soloists.

This is truly indic­at­ive of Hip Hop cul­ture, rep­res­ent­ing the essence of com­munity and the power of the col­lect­ive while uphold­ing the unique­ness and innov­a­tions of the indi­vidu­al in the col­lect­ive.

The lit­er­al inter­pret­a­tions of ‘cycles’ are made clear over the 90 minutes of the pro­duc­tion. The dan­cers are in per­petu­al motions, shift­ing around the stage in smooth grooves and loud pops, form­ing evoc­at­ive and cap­tiv­at­ing vign­ettes. Lee Curran’s strik­ing light­ing design matches these kin­aes­thet­ic shifts with rest­less lights that at times isol­ates dan­cers and brings them togeth­er. Asanti’s com­pos­i­tion roots itself in sampling – a long held tra­di­tion from Hip Hop cul­ture – and cycles through genres that have marked dif­fer­ent Hip Hop eras in the UK. There’s Grime, Gar­age, Bash­ment, House, Rap, and Trap beats; even chart­ing US hits like Tim­ba­l­and and Nelly Furtado’s ‘Give It To Me’ expertly melted into Asante’s ori­gin­al head-nod­ding com­pos­i­tions.

Yet there remained an inev­it­able expect­a­tion for mean­ing, it’s what the company’s his­tory has cul­tiv­ated after all. In these ‘cycles’, there is rage, sad­ness, bat­tling, cyphers, com­munity, joy, and cel­eb­ra­tion, and per­haps an inter­pret­a­tion of a search for some­thing, per­haps mean­ing – the run­ning toy man motif for example always coin­cided with light­ing changes from warm to cold or vice versa, or with music­al genre or tempo changes. At times one dance would exit the centre circle and observe from the out­skirts. What are they see­ing? What are they exper­i­en­cing? And what are they run­ning towards?

There are more ques­tions than answers; espe­cially coupled with the work’s descrip­tion on the com­pany web­site as “the repe­ti­tion and tenacity of our nat­ur­al world, from day to night, birth and death, the tides, the tick­ing of time on a clock, the sea­sons and the steady rhythms of 1 2 3 4”. The per­form­ance nev­er quite lands on any of these descriptors, instead opt­ing to focus on the more visu­al, son­ic, and cho­reo­graph­ic read­ings of ‘cycles’. But this doesn’t leave me want­ing. I feel sat­is­fied with and ener­gised by the exper­i­ence, as on the cre­at­ive team’s terms, they have delivered.

Cycles is a cel­eb­ra­tion and expert dis­play of Hip Hop dance theatre. It’s a show­case of the power of the art form and its abil­ity to cap­tiv­ate audi­ences on its own terms. What bet­ter meas­ure of suc­cess is there than to see the audi­ence on their feet, loud in sup­port, and quick to imit­ate moves they were cap­tiv­ated by. I cer­tainly did.

Boy Blue ‘Cycles’ is show­ing at The Bar­bican, Lon­don. Vis­it HERE for tick­ets. 

 

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Isaac Ouro-Gnao

Isaac Ouro-Gnao

Isaac Ouro-Gnao is a Togolese-Brit­ish mul­tidiscip­lin­ary artist, somat­ic trauma ther­ap­ist, men­tal health schol­ar-act­iv­ist, and freel­ance journ­al­ist.

About Isaac Ouro-Gnao

Isaac Ouro-Gnao
Isaac Ouro-Gnao is a Togolese-British multidisciplinary artist, somatic trauma therapist, mental health scholar-activist, and freelance journalist.