Now into its 12th year, Breakin’ Convention at Sadler’s Wells has become one of London’s hottest dance events. The man behind it all, Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Jonzi D, talks here about breaking down boundaries
‘The first time I visited Sadler’s Wells was to see the London Contemporary Dance company in ’85. I remember stealing some binoculars from there and keeping them as a memento of visiting such an amazing venue.’ Jonzi D grins at me sideways – he’s now working at that very same prestigious Islington theatre, and is one of 16 Associate Artists hand-picked to represent the many diverse branches of contemporary dance it hosts.
I’ve got to admit, I pretty much know nothing about hip hop. So when I was asked to do an interview to find out about this year’s Breakin’ Convention, international festival of hip hop, I was admittedly a bit nervous. Terms like ‘b-boying’ and ‘tagging’ I’d never come across, and understanding the roots of the dance form was particularly foreign to me. But after chatting with Jonzi D, curator of the festival since its launch in 2003, I got a quick lesson on just how important this culture is, in not only London, but all over the world. We meet at the stage door at Sadler’s Wells, and as we settle down with our tea, I ask Jonzi D to introduce me to his world.
‘Hip hop grew out of a sense of artistic conflict resolution. At a time when there was a lot of gang activity in the Bronx,’ he says. ‘From those humble beginnings, look at us now. We’re a multi-million dollar industry. The promise was real; we’ve created something from nothing. And now hip hop has permeated every single aspect of society.’
In collaboration with Sadler’s Wells Chief Executive and Artistic Director Alistair Spalding, in the early 2000’s Jonzi D proposed the idea for a festival that could bring together all elements in hip hop culture, and soon after Breakin’ Convention was born. ‘I thought it was really important to use the beautiful mezzanine space that wasn’t here in the old Sadler’s Wells and put graffiti directly onto the walls, have DJ’s spinning outside, have graffiti workshops, MCs, and then on the stage just have hip hop dance in its various guises from around the world,’ says Jonzi.
The name of the convention describes the goal of the festival, breaking down stereotypes and the importance of encouraging artists young and old to nurture and pursue careers in street dance, music and theatre. The festival has seen hip hop culture meet theatre in a collaboration that has helped expose hip hop dance, DJing, MCing and graffiti to diverse audiences across the UK. ‘I’d like to think that we’re able to address the fact that a lot of hip hop dancers who train, they don’t train in theatre, unlike contemporary dance and ballet,’ says Jonzi.
This year, French dance duo Le Twins will be highly anticipated performers for the festival, after achieving international success from touring with Beyonce. American b-boy pioneers The Legendary Twins will also make a special appearance, and the festival will conclude on Bank Holiday Monday with Park Jam, a family friendly outdoor party in Spa Fields Park.
From his childhood on the streets of Bow in the 1980’s, Jonzi D has spent the best part of the last 30 years actively rapping, writing and performing in hip hop theatre. ‘I saw a documentary in the 80’s about this thing called hip hop. It showed hip hop as a culture – it showed breaking, graffiti, and rap and this whole context and as a 13-year-old kid, that just completely made sense to me. The idea that you can roll around on the floor creatively and you’re allowed!’
Since graduating from the London Contemporary Dance School, the self-proclaimed hip hop artist and MC can now be found in his office at Sadler’s Wells, busily planning the finer details of the 12th year for Breakin’ Convention. Jonzi’s a relaxed, but incredibly passionate artist, and as he explains, has spent much of his career attempting to bridge the gap between what is commonly seen as traditional art forms, and his beloved hip hop. ‘The term “high art” can be seen as very divisive and patronising; to suggest that there is “low art”. So I’d like to think that Breakin’ Convention addresses this cultural apartheid. So we can actually just look at what is simply “great art”,’ Jonzi says.
His commitment to the development of hip hop theatre has seen Jonzi write and direct acclaimed shows TAG…Just Writing My Name and IVAN in 2006, and Markus the Sadist in 2009. He has since become a mentor for hip hop theatre performers across the UK.
It’s clear that Jonzi’s passion has created a unique environment at Sadler’s Wells that brings hip hop from the streets to the stage. He’s a humble character who seems still not yet used to the attention, and when I dub him a pioneer of the industry he’s quick to stop me. ‘I’d like to think of myself as an enabler,’ he insists. ‘I guess the reason why I did it was because it wasn’t being done. But I’m not going to say I’m a pioneer.’
Words: Phillipa Rust
For tickets to Breakin’ Convention, running from 1-4 May 2015, please call 0844 412 4000 or visit sadlerswells.com