Conceived by Ultz, Choreography by Kenrick 'H2O' Sandy, Music by Michael 'Mikey J' Asante
Blue Boy Entertainment
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
I was the only reviewer at the opening night of Pied Piper at Northern Stage. Whether that was because of the awful rain or because it is billed as a "hip hop dance revolution" I don't know, but I suspect the latter. The whole street culture thing, with its image of grafitti and aggression and a perceived association with street crime, tends to send shivers down the spine of many in what could be called the "cultural establishment", and I certainly picked up those particular "vibes" when I mentioned what I was going to see. To be honest, I shared in them a little myself, thanks to the kind of media coverage it gets from the tabloids.
On the other hand, respected dance institutions like Dance City, the North East's dance agency, have accepted hip hop as a dance form and I had seen some enjoyable examples of the genre in Edinburgh's Dance Base during the Fringe, so I shook off some lingering doubts and took myself off to Northern Stage, in spite of the dreadful weather.
I'm glad I did. The first thing to be said is that not knowing hip hop is not a disadvantage. It's like any contemporary dance, expressing what to has to say through a particular movement language, the big difference being that the majority of contemporary choreographers create their own movement language whereas hip hop has - and the comparison may seem odd but I think it's accurate - an established language in the way that ballet has - and by some kind of osmosis, aspects of that language have passed into our consciousness, so we are not struggling to interpret what is happening on stage as we can be with much contemporary dance.
The second thing worth noting is that Pied Piper is a narrative piece: it tells a story in a linear fashion and that story, of course, is Browning's morality tale, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. It's updated: we are not in Hamelin Town "in Brunswick, by famous Hanover city" but in contemporary Britain where street crime is rampant and politicians promise to rid the streets of the "vermin", the asbo-ed Hoodies who are the cause of it all. Along comes PP, a kind of superhero figure with amazing martial arts skills (and hip hop as a dance language has subsumed within itself a lot of martial arts movement), and Browning's story unfolds in this new setting, with the Hoodies (led by a dreadlocked figire who reminded me of nothing so much as King Rat in Dick Whittington) defeated in combat by the eponymous hero, in spite of the overwhelming odds against him.
The politicians, it has to be said, are wonderful: four potato head figures in suits, bent forward and scuttling around with fluttery gestures, who, as is proper, get their comeuppance at the end!
And this is a show which is very suitable for children. There were a lot in the audience and about fifteen from the region on stage, playing the children whom the Pied Piper leads away at the end - and very impressive they were, too.
But what about the performance? One of the predecessors of hip hop used to be called body-popping: this was eye-popping! The sheer acrobatic physicality and energy are amazing, and nowhere more so than in the chorus (not the right word, but...) pieces, all perfectly synchronised. But individual dancers in various combinations impress and delight, too, so one emerges after 90 minutes feeling exhausted after just watching them!
Well worth braving the rain for!
At Northern Stage until 2nd May, then touring to Sheffield, Exeter and Cardiff
Reviewer: Peter Lathan