Review: CYCLES, Barbican Centre

After their Matrix-themed show last year, Boy Blue go back to their hip hop roots.

By: May. 02, 2024
Review: CYCLES, Barbican Centre
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Review: CYCLES, Barbican Centre With their new work Cycles, it is clear that Boy Blue are at something of a crossroads.

Choreographer Kenrick “H2O” Sandy and composer Michael “Mikey J” Asante formed the storied company in east London in 2001. Their Pied Piper: A Hip-Hop Dance Revolution (2007) earned them an Olivier; notably, this was for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre and not in the Best New Dance category where four of the five nominated productions that year (and the eventual winner) were from The Royal Ballet.

Review: CYCLES, Barbican Centre
Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

They’ve worked twice with Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, the first time as part of Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and more recently at Manchester’s Aviva Studios on the much-hyped and Matrix-themed Free Your Mind. What should have been a global showcase for Boy Blue was a visually impressive but otherwise clumsy and clunky disappointment both from an artistic perspective.

Their response (with co-choreographer Jade Hackett) was to go back to basics and rediscover their street roots with this abstract show that consciously eschews narrative and instead is more of a mood piece. Those who see dance as part of the broad pantheon of drama will be scratching their heads as there is no effort to impose characters, storyline or arcs on the series of physical vignettes that make up Cycles.

Instead, nine dancers (Jimmy Allan, Nicey Belgrave, Tanaka Bingwa, Gabija Čepelytė, Paris Crossley, Evion ‘Evion-Mantis’ Hackett, Kyron ‘Nykro’ Jake, Kelsey ‘Hydro’ Miller and Corey Owens) show off blistering skill through successive episodes of pure motion. Their movements are stunning in their precision, full of nostalgic reminders of old school hip hop techniques, are set to Asante’s strident and bouncy rhythms. Krump and wave are in the mix as is (of course) some pop-and-locking. Mock street fights and dance offs are all part of the fun. If the music doesn’t quite bring the early days back to mind, the dancers’ swagger and streetwear from Matthew Josephs and Seeing Red certainly do.

Review: CYCLES, Barbican Centre
Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

Lee Curran’s lighting sets the tone for many of the routines. Using overhead spots, he creates a series of halos and circles of different sizes. In the absence of any set design save for some seats at the far left and right, these illuminations give the only context and boundaries to what we are seeing. Like a lighthouse beam, Curran’s use of a sweeping horizontal light burns the retinas as it passes over the audience but is a nod to the fact that, for many young people from the Eighties onwards, hip hop in its many artistic forms (dance, yes, but also music and street art) was and still is a safe refuge within which they can express themselves.

The choreography and music are, strangely, the weakest elements here. The lack of narrative calls for something to fill the void and provide texture or a sense of progression. The dancers are technically superb but the material feels stretched over the length of the show. While the soundscape of chunky beats has some lovely sections, it feels from a distinctly different era to that being recalled on stage. Moreover, there’s not enough power in there to push the moves to emotional heights when the dancers pull off spectacular moves. A briefer, more focussed display of the talents here would have far more punch.

The Oliviers have moved with the times (all of the dance nominations this year were for productions at Sadler's Wells and the winner was the deliciously surreal La Ruta from Peeping Tom's Gabriela Carrizo) and, if Boy Blue feel that the way forward is this temporary step back, that makes their next move all the more interesting. 

Cycles continues at the Barbican Centre until 2 May.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell


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