Director &Choreographer: Anthony van Laast
Choreographers: Tommy Franzen, Kenny Wormald, Lyle Beniga, Mike Song
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Fuelled by the success of shows like the BBC’s So You Think You Can Dance? and America’s Best Dance Crew, the large team behind Blaze have set out to take street dance to the next theatrical level. Dutch production team pANdADDY and established British choreographer Anthony van Laast created a street dance show called Bounce in Holland in 2005, and have reunited to take that idea one step further. With production values that borrow from West End musicals as well as from the increasingly elaborately-staged tours of pop icons, Blaze was the first such show to pioneer at Sadler’s Wells, proving that street dance is not only becoming harder to ignore for the dance establishment but that said establishment is beginning to take street dance more seriously as a valid expression of contemporary dance.
Blaze is in many ways a stunning show. The massive stage set, a tumble of large drawers, light boxes and doors that dominates the backstage from floor to ceiling not only provides the agile dancers with myriad vantage points and small raised stages – they variously inhabit the set when not performing on the floor – but also serves as a three-dimensional backdrop for the impressive digital animation by Robin McNicolas and Mehmet Akten for MSA Visuals, that adds colour, atmosphere, texture and (sometimes) humour to the production. The other notable element of Blaze is the musical soundclash – a non-stop mash-up of hip-hop beats, funk, urban, soul and disco – that provides the soundtrack for the twelve dancers (from nine countries) and three break dancers (from Brazil and the Phillipines) who are the other (real) stars of the show.
Much of the dancing in Blaze is outstanding. The cast, whittled down from four hundred auditionees, each add something individual to the mix, which is enhanced by the street fashion styling that gives each dancer an identity – apart from those sequences when they don identical clothing and become a unified dance machine. The large team of choreographers has put together a show that is varied but remains true to established street dance genres, although there was a brief nod to ballet and a tap sequence in the mix. This generally all works best when the music is hard edged or upbeat, the dancers are working as a crew, tightly synchronised with flashes of individual movement, and when the excellent lighting (by Patrick Woodroffe and Adam Bassett) and visuals gel to create a genuinely exciting theatrical sensation full of light, sound and electricity. The audience was overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) young and reacted concert-style to much of the show, especially when the better-looking male dancers, notably Ross Sands and the three break dancers, Mouse, Machine and Neguin (the audience favourite by far) took centre stage.
Blaze successfully creates a street dance show full of variety, style, attitude, and some technically extraordinary movement – especially from the aforementioned break dancers – with state of the art multimedia and production values, and keeps it accessible while remaining true to the genre’s origins. But the show isn’t perfect. While some of the slower moments work well – the ice and fire sequence has great visual style, and there is a really effective duet featuring a sofa, for example – at other times the show sags when the tempo falls away, the dancers look amazing in full effect, whether en masse, in small combinations or solo, and less confident when the musical energy slows. The Billie Jean tap sequence, for example, doesn’t have half the energy and excitement of the music.
Street dance is very interpretive of the music and is good at conveying attitude, energy and humour, but it’s not good at expressing complex ideas and emotions. Like most street dance I’ve seen, the performance is driven by the music rather than by any kind of idea, theme or narrative, so there are rapid changes of style and mood that make it more like a concert than a ‘dance’ show. The cast doesn’t lack talent, individuality or character – Caramel and especially DJ Hasse, who anchors the show to some extent – but Blaze is a collection of vivid moments rather than a genuinely coherent show. It could also be argued that Blaze is overly reliant on street dance clichés – urban gangs, boys vs. girls, computer games, robotic body-popping, the music itself, to an extent – but then again these provide some of the most exciting and crowd-pleasing moments.
Blaze successfully takes street dance to the next theatrical level – to a hugely enthusiastic audience response. But I think there is another creative level that street dance could go and that is potentially even more exciting.