‘We have to have graffiti!’ How we made the Breakin’ Convention hip-hop dance festival

Jonzi D, founder and artistic director

I was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, performing my piece Aeroplane Man. Alistair Spalding had booked the show and said: “Hey, what else are you up to?” I said: “Look, I’m not the only person who does this kind of work, using hip-hop as a theatrical device. Let’s do a hip-hop theatre festival!” Then Alistair got his job as artistic director at Sadler’s Wells and said: “Jonzi, shall we do this thing?”

I was very confident about the calibre of artists I was proposing – they’d just never been seen in this context before. I wanted to feature krump in this country for the first time – Tommy the Clown, the dance’s originator in LA, usually performed at house parties and magic shows. We had Rennie Harris from the US, we had groups from Korea, we had the Electric Boogaloos [acclaimed California funk dancers].

I said to Alistair: “We have to have graffiti on the walls!” I was expecting him to say: “Ah, not sure we can do that.” But he said: “Yes, the walls are white so after the event we can just paint over them!” The only problem was at first they only had £30k to do it. To show the very best from around the world? I said: “Nah, it’s not going to work.” Then all of a sudden Bloomberg said: “Hey, we could do this.” They put money in and we were able to do the dream.

To me, it was so obvious it was going to work. This culture is huge, but it’s not seen by people who go to “temples of culture”. That first night was sold out and we had so many people who couldn’t get in. We’d already taken out the seats at the front of the stalls, so we could squeeze more people in standing. We had DJs in the foyer and people were immediately jumping into the cyphers [circles of dancers] and battling with each other. I was hosting on stage and the level of anticipation was crazy. The amount of noise the audience was making – I’ve never heard Sadler’s Wells like that. I never once doubted it was going to be amazing. I only doubted whether it would happen again.

Michelle Norton, festival director

Me and Jonzi have known each other since we were 16 or 17, from our clubbing days. Underage, obviously. I used to dance for a lot of R’n’B and hip-hop acts when they came to the UK, like PM Dawn and Naughty By Nature. In 2004, I’d gone to university as a mature student studying arts management and had to do some volunteering. I just rocked up on the Saturday morning, on the first day of the first ever Breakin’ Convention – and was thrown in at the deep end, looking after artists. Backstage at Sadler’s Wells is like a maze: I was walking artists to their dressing rooms and had no idea where I was going. Some had not been out of the US before. Apparently Tommy the Clown had asked if it was possible to drive. It’s a long way from LA.

The atmosphere was buzzing. It was a first, having something like that in a theatre – it felt surreal. I grew up around the first influx of hip-hop in the UK in the early 80s, going to watch dancers at London’s Covent Garden at the age of 12. That first Breakin’ Convention felt like when I first experienced hip-hop. It was a proud moment – the essence of hip-hop presented like that. It was mind-blowing.

The following year, I helped out again, and again the following year. Then I started getting paid. I worked up from administrator to now being director. The proudest thing is just to witness the evolution of hip-hop and be part of it. Seeing young artists, such as Ivan Blackstock or Kenrick Sandy go on to do some really amazing things, or Kloe Dean, who’s working with Little Simz. We’ve known these people since they were teenagers.

There have been national and international tours – Canada, the US, Luxembourg, the Netherlands. Now we’ve got Academy Breakin’ Convention opening soon. It’s a BTec for 16-to-19-year-olds in hip-hop theatre, the first of its kind. They’ll learn all the elements: DJing, MCing, popping, breaking, graffiti, music production, the history of hip-hop. It’s daunting, but exciting. There have always been aspirations to be bigger. In the early days, all of our passwords – we’ve changed them now – used to be “TheWorld1”. My whole stance was world domination. Our first show at the Harlem Apollo in New York was a monumental moment. I was like: “See! World domination!”

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