Hip-hop, the Blumenthal, and the Queen City Are Breakin’ Convention

By Perry Tannenbaum
The Ruggeds from the Netherlands (Photo by Belinda Lawley)
The Ruggeds from the Netherlands (Photo by Belinda Lawley)

BirdGang Dance Company from the UK. (Photo by Belinda Lawley)

BirdGang Dance Company from the UK. (Photo by Belinda Lawley)

Strange things are brewing in Uptown. In the shadow of buildings named for Wells Fargo, Duke Energy and Hearst, there will be dancing in the streets. In the lobby of a building blessed by our most PC philanthropists, the Knight Theatre, they’re decking the hall with graffiti, setting up for our dopest DJs.

There’s more. The president of Blumenthal Performing Arts, that Brooks Brothers-ish man about town — yes, Tom Gabbard, y’all! — is spouting words like cypher, poppin’, waacking and the whole beatboxing vocabulary of hip-hop.

Of course, Charlotte’s hip-hop community is already hip to what’s happening. But whoa. Those folk who spin on their heads, float like robots across floors, move their arms impossibly behind their backs, and thoughtfully shake spray cans? They’re also changing: embracing the challenges of storytelling and theater.

Bro, it’s Breakin’ Convention, spinning into town this weekend — indoors at Knight Theater and Spirit Square. Spilling into the outdoors at Levine Avenue of the Arts Plaza and the old Goodyear Tire parking lot. Scissoring Spirit Square in its parking lot and alleyway. You, your parents and maybe your parents’ parents — and definitely your kids — need to check this festival out.

Hip-hop began some 50 years ago on the streets of New York, in the borough of the Bronx, without any theatrical aspirations. Twelve years ago, the Breakin’ Convention brand of hip-hop took shape in London at Sadler’s Wells, arguably the pre-eminent dance presenter in the world, where they added the elements of narrative and drama while framing it all with the prosceniums of their three stages.

Breakin’ Convention first crossed the pond and returned to its birthplace in 2013, expanding the mission and outreach of the legendary Apollo Theatre on the sacred ground of Harlem’s 125th Street. This year, Blumenthal Performing Arts is partnering with the Apollo in bringing the international artists who will headline the Breakin’ Convention premiere here this week and at next week’s encore in and around the Apollo.

The big-name crews on the Knight Theater stage this Friday and Saturday include The Ruggeds (Netherlands), BirdGang Dance Company (UK), Antoinette Gomis (France) and Compagnie Phorm (France/Argentina). On each of these nights, local crews from Charlotte and the USA will share the bill, including Street Kingdom, Aquaboogy, Breakers for Life, collectiveUth, NCDanceDistrict, the Nouveau Sud project, Queen City Bittys, Reliablebrother #TwinNation and The Vongolas.

You’ll need tickets to see all these proscenium performances, but everything outside Knight Theatre — including the Knight’s lobby — is open and free to the public. Breakin’ Convention breaks out at a bunch of locations, so here’s an overview.

Friday and Saturday

Beginning at 5 p.m. — Obey Your Verse Stage at Levine Avenue of the Arts.

5-7:15 p.m. — Graffiti Jams at the former Goodyear service station at the corner of N. Tryon and E. Stonewall.

6-7:15 p.m. — Tiny Totrock sessions, DJ and Dance Cyphers and a Graffiti Zone at the Lower, Main and Upper Lobbies of Knight Theater, respectively.

7:30-10:15 p.m. — The main stage performances at Knight Theater, punctuated by a 45-minute intermission at 8:30.

8:30-9:15 p.m. — The bodacious intermission: Totrock, Cyphers and Graffiti Zone resume in the Knight Lobbies while food trucks invade Levine Avenue of the Arts outside the Knight.

Saturday only

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — Street Jam at Spirit Square: Graffiti Jam, Dance Cyphers, Drum Circle, food trucks, instructional sessions presented by Zulu Nation and workshops piloted by Gomis and The Ruggeds.

This massive project is really the first true arts festival to hit town since JazzCharlotte left the Uptown in 1994 and ignominiously bit the dust in the swamps of Carowinds. There was plenty of trepidation, preparation and mutual scouting in London and Charlotte before the new Blumenthal-Sadler’s Wells partnership was forged. Without hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Jonzi D, the Sadler’s visionary who pioneered the idea of elevating the art form with narrative and drama, the deal would not have been done.

“We brought him here,” says Gabbard, “about a year and a half ago to spend four days — to evaluate the hip-hop community, the size of it, what it was and their willingness to work with us. And we found out that there was a lot of enthusiasm for partnering with Blumenthal on this. Then this last May, Jonzi came for 10 days, and it was really just to work with the local community developing relationships.”

The 2015 Breakin’ Convention is just the beginning — for both the Blumenthal and Sadler’s Wells. Upstaging the Apollo, which is bringing the festival to Harlem in alternate years, Gabbard has signed on with Sadler’s for three consecutive years to see if Breakin’ takes with the public. He envisions transplanting a chunk of the festival to Romare Bearden Park for 2016, and he’s optimistic that other cities’ performing arts centers, after scoping out our event, will climb aboard and share costs for a 2016 Breakin’ tour. In the meanwhile, Jonzi will be staying in touch with the Queen City, performing Open Art Surgery, a weeklong workshop that will create a new hip-hop dance theatre piece.

Local hip-hoppers are already impressed.

Best remembered as the DJ narrator of Children’s Theatre’s wild, wild production of The Red Badge of Courage in 2013 — and, oh yeah, the winner of Best Rapper honors in Creative Loafing’s Best of Charlotte that same year — Mason “Quill” Parker raps again this Friday, performing his latest project, Loose Leaf vol 2.

Booked by Boris “Bluz” Rogers, the poetry slam guru who will emcee Obey Your Verse, Parker appreciates the creative energy that Jonzi is bringing to town: “the ideal he represents has helped mold four generations of hip-hop here in Charlotte and the world over. It is pivotal that it be promoted properly across cultural lines in order to flourish in the full fruition of the vision.”

Ana Ogbueze and NCDanceDistrict burst upon the scene about three years ago when the company she founded, The Dance District, was asked to perform at Taste of Charlotte. They began with seven dancers, have grown to 30, and will be featuring 13 onstage at the Friday show at Knight Theater.

She first met Jonzi last year when he came to a meet-and-greet with Charlotte hip-hop choreographers and teachers at the Blumenthal PAC, where he presented an already-completed Open Art Surgery piece.

“That really opened my eyes to this emerging world of hip-hop theater,” says Ogbueze. “I distinctively remember parts of the piece that made the entire room pause with a slightly perplexed sigh, followed by, ‘Did he just do what I thought he did?’ I loved it. From that moment on, I knew I had to see what this whole Breakin’ Convention was about. Honestly, I left feeling so crunk to learn more about the movement, Jonzi actually invited me up to London that following month to check out Breakin’ Convention first-hand! Thanks to the Blumenthal, I had the privilege of attending, and it was absolutely amazing.”

The rest of us get to see the Promised Land this week.

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