ZooNation: Mixtape – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Directors: Danielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe and Bradley Charles

Dance company ZooNation, founded and run by Kate Prince, has earned a reputation for creating energetic, lively, story-led dance shows that take hip-hop choreography and fuse it with comedy and passion to form engaging narrative tales.

This year sees the twentieth anniversary of ZooNation’s first show, BoxBeat, performed at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Baylis Studio in 2002. To celebrate, Mixtape is an evening of routines from some of the company’s best shows from the intervening two decades. It’s a celebration of where the company has come from, and of how it has grown both in size and in storytelling ability. But with the inclusion of a new generation of dancers from the ZooNation Youth Company, it also looks forward.

Mixing vocals from four live singers (including the company’s resident composer DJ Walde) with recorded tracks, the evening freely bounces around ZooNation’s timeline, from 2006’s Into the Hoods to their most recent success, 2020’s Message in a Bottle and everything in between. Ben Stones’s set includes huge neon tape controls, rewinding and fast-forwarding as the company present a bevy of routines.

From the opening number, devised for this show by directors and choreographers Bradley Charles and Danielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe, we are reminded of the hypnotic appeal of ZooNation’s ensemble work. However many bodies are on stage – and with both senior and junior company members on stage, that could be well over thirty people – there is a sense of precision and unity that never fails to impress.

It is with the introduction of a couple of numbers from 2011’s Some Like It Hip Hop that the evening first shows glimpses of the elevated storytelling that marks the best of ZooNation’s work. From the alienation felt in Invisible Me as a member of the underclass is shunned and ignored to the sheer joy in seeing Tommy Franzen reprise his role as Simple Simeon once again, this is the show more than any other that demonstrated a strong narrative arc for each character, rather than just using story to move the action from dance set piece to dance set piece.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, as extracts from The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and Into the Hoods show. But there is something undeniably mesmeric about routines that use choreography to imbue a larger narrative with deeper meaning and, in return, ensure that the dance itself becomes more deeply emotional.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than with dances from Message in a Bottle, which took the music of Sting and wove a narrative about three refugee siblings. Act I sees An Englishman in New York, with its high-energy pizzicato strings and alto sax tunes telling the story of a dancer meeting and falling for another man, while the latter’s religious community attempts to separate them. This gives way to the beautifully romantic pas de deux danced to Shape of My Heart as the couple continues their courtship. Deavion Brown takes the lead in both numbers (in the role originated by Franzen) and reminds us all just how special that show was.

Message in a Bottle returns in the second act, both with the title number and the lushly romantic Fields of Gold. But most of Act II turns up the beat and the party vibes, with sequences from Into the Hoods featuring a rat-a-tat sequence of dance solos showcasing some of the company’s growing array of accomplished dancers.

For a company that has progressed into using dance skills to tell long-form stories (a technique that will further extend to 2023’s suffragette musical Sylvia, to be performed at the Old Vic, where an early version of the project run in 2018), Mixtape is a return to a looser, freer form where the dance is everything. This is a dance party in its purest form, the adrenaline and dopamine transferring effortlessly from the on-stage dance company to a willing and receptive audience, with everyone having the time of their lives.

As a celebration of 20 years of superlative dance, it’s hard to beat. Here’s to the next twenty.

Continues until 8 October 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Joyous celebration

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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