Paul Sadot
Chapter 2: Moving Politically: Metaspatial Knowledge and the Institutional Framework

Chapter 2

Moving Politically: Metaspatial Knowledge and the Institutional Framework


This chapter develops the idea of the metaspace introduced in chapter 1 as a construct that comprises the wider sociocultural, historical, economic and political space in which HHDT artists move. I develop the discussion of movement, freedom and spatial politics by considering national artistic practices and argue that HHDT artists are confined by the metaspace of UK dance theatre. I discuss HHDT artist supervision by looking at ideas of choreopolitics and choreopolicing (Lepecki, 2013). In doing so I examine institutional strategies of artistic governance in the UK in relation to HHDT. The discussion weaves together multiple components and entities of governance as I perceive them in order to unpick,describe and contextualise the supervision of HHDT artists in a UK institutional setting. I examine interconnected supervisory structures, including Sadler’s Wells’ project Breakin’ Convention, national portfolio organisation (NPO) funding models, the imperatives of cultural and creative industries, ACE prerogatives and artistic mentorships.[1] The purpose of this examination in my research inquiry is to help shape and define a spatial narrative in which to situate studio practice. I use the work of cultural and performance theorists (Foucault, 1997; Gotman, 2015; Lepecki, 2013, 2015) to support my analysis of metaspatial construction. Additionally, I draw on interviews with artists and this combined narrative sets the space to explore a conceptual and processual counter-narrative, which I examine through creative explorations. In doing so I propose another way of doing and thinking that differs from conventional HHDT choreographic practices.

My inquiry examines HHDT in a manner that interrogates, and explicitly politicises, the complex negotiations enacted in the space of UK dance theatre, and explores the impact of these discourses on the movement(s) of artists in this space.[2] Since my work with HHDT artists began in 1997, I have watched many HHDT shows, managed a successful dance company that worked with HHDT elements,[3] and worked as a HHDT artist mentor in the institutional framework that my research problematises. These experiences, supported by my studio project work and extensive interviews with hip hop dance artists, drew me to form a politicised notion of movement and space in the HHDT setting, leading me to conceive of a metaspatial discourse. My research implicitly invokes a critical debate surrounding HHDT by questioning the nature of its institutionally supervised production in the UK. I argue that this produces a homogenised and formulaic way of moving and making. This belief informs my studio practice and leads me to propose a conceptual and physical counter-narrative to dominant modes of making and moving in this performance realm.

To arrive at such a point in the research I examined the sociocultural and political UK arts landscape to identify essential components that I perceive to be imbricated with the manufacture of HHDT products. Through this process I developed the concept of ‘metaspatial knowledge’ as a term that facilitates a wider understanding of the sociocultural, historical, temporal, economic and political space that influences HHDT artists’ practices and working protocols. In this chapter I develop the idea of such a metaspace as a key concept that enables me to consider how sociopolitical and historico-temporal discourses choreograph wider societal spaces, and how this permeates through the movement(s) of HHDT more broadly. To expand on the notion of a metaspatial narrative I draw on ideas of choreopolicing (Lepecki, 2013) and the work of Michel Foucault (1991, 1997) to identify notions of dominant supervisory behaviours in HHDT, which I believe limit artists’ practices of economic and artistic freedom. In doing so this chapter addresses the following research questions:

  • How might choreodramaturgically led practices of turbulence, hindrance and displacement develop new choreographic outcomes for hip hop dance artists in the space of UK dance theatre?
  • How might an understanding of institutional discourse inform new processual approaches in HHDT?
  • What practices and processes emerge?
  • How might the unsteady state condition be achieved to test the creative and performative potential for HHDT performers as they move from the improvised circle (cypher) to the formalised performance space?

Notions of Domination and (Im)mobility

It is important to avoid having a binary view of artists versus institutions. A hardened stance, as Goldman wrote, ‘is the result of a reification of freedom as freedom is the necessity of not taking a hardened stance’ (2010: 4). Furthermore, improvisation arises from these very circumstances and in reaction to ‘various kinds of constraint’ or ‘tight spaces’ (Goldman, 2010: 3). Similarly, Foucault suggested that practices of freedom are only afforded because of the existence of power relations and that power is productive and embedded in all human interactions, an inescapable truth where ‘one is always ‘inside’ power’ (1991: 95). In this sense, the seemingly oppositional notions of coercion and liberation propose a symbiotic relationship that informs an improvised ‘practice of freedom’, where power inevitably produces resistance.

In order to develop choreographic strategies that resist dominant processual structures in HHDT, I have found it necessary first to understand the full complexity of the constraints within which HHDT moves. I believe that the production of HHDT is linked to current governmental and ACE prerogatives aimed at strategies of cultural consumerism and that the apparatus maintaining this supervisory structure is built on a network of complex negotiations. Foucault’s dispositif is useful in suggesting that these dialogic criteria operate implicitly as well as explicitly in HHDT and in doing so they exert a type of choreopolicing on the artists and the form.

With ‘more than £56 million of arts funding […] cut by local councils in England since 2009’ (Hutchinson, 2016) artistic funding is becoming increasingly difficult to secure in the UK. This is problematic for emerging artists and companies attempting to develop work without acquiescing to a system that guarantees funding and support through institutional collaboration. Furthermore, the arguments presented in this research support a viewpoint that those drawing up corporate agendas of institutions such as Sadler’s Wells aim to maintain a steady state commodity that intentionally negates the unsteady state condition described in chapter 1. bell hooks (2006) suggests that such institutional settings see value only in art that mimics the white, Western artistic continuum, while dance and cultural scholar Randy Martin argues against hegemonic institutional practices, asserting the need to ‘preserve a space where new formations germinate, to avoid assimilation and co-optation of the energies and demands that issue from social movements’ (1998: 13). However, I claim that the preservation of a space for invention is prohibited for HHDT artists because of interlinked choreopolicing (Lepecki, 2013) strategies, which are discussed later in the chapter. I argue that artists operating in this domain are faced with a continual negotiation of agency and freedom of movement in a corporeal and artistic sense through systems of supervised funding, mentorships, emerging artist training programmes, and controlled access to performance spaces and events.

Operating within this climate, Sadler’s Wells’ promotion of HHDT is imbricated with agendas guided by ideas of socioeconomic governance. For example, funding structures such as the NPO strategy (discussed in detail later in the chapter) are closely linked to the apparatus of the state or what Foucault calls the dispositif. [4] Foucault asserts that the dispositif  alludes to a dialogic relationship established between diverse elements including ‘an ensemble of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws […] in short, the said as much as the unsaid’ (1980: 194).The discourse of the arts in London increasingly focuses on cultural tourism. For example, the document Take a Closer Look: A Cultural Tourism Vision for London 2015–2017 set out a strategy to develop an intimate dialogue between art and culture: dance and theatre are clearly highlighted, along with museums, exhibitions and other attractions, for their potential to offer authentic ‘brag-able’ experiences for cultural tourists (Mayor of London, 2015: 28).[5]

The new East Bank cultural district in Stratford, East London,[6] which is destined to open in 2022, includes a hip hop academy sited within a new Sadler’s Wells outpost, and receives a special mention within the vision proposals. I suggest that these prerogatives, prescribed at a national level, influence the development of HHDT when it is supervised to produce a clearly defined product (discussed in this chapter). This situation is not entirely new. Writing in the late 1990s, a professor of tourism management, Howard Hughes, wrote about tourism’s effect on theatre, warning that the dominance of West End musicals might inhibit ‘the stimulation and survival of a more diverse, adventurous and innovative theatrical scene and of creative artistic talent’ (1998: 445). Hughes discusses the standardised musical format that dominates the West End and which familiarises audiences with the product via the marketing of celebrated plots, composers and producers, making the product accessible to international audiences (1998: 449). However, he argues that to achieve this ‘both the tourist and arts industries have standardised their products, making them safe and predictable’ (1998: 446). In this chapter I illustrate how this premise applies to HHDT, supported by funding strategies and supervisory structures.

In HHDT practices, pedagogical hierarchies can be seen at play through mentoring and supervisory schemes such as the Bonnie Bird mentorship programme and Back to the Lab – a two-week intensive programme run by Sadler’s Wells Breakin’ Convention linking emerging HHDT artists with contemporary dance mentors. Over the past eight years, celebrated and commercially successful figures from the postmodern contemporary dance canon, such as Hofesh Shechter, Jonathan Burrows and Jasmin Vardimon, have dominated the mentorship and practical delivery of these schemes and intensives. I argue that the commercially proven processes and production values of these bankable artists can be seen to infiltrate HHDT through the promotion and perpetuation of linear or flattened modes of choreography and choreographic production. Flattened or linear choreography refers here to a generic HHDT movement style that adheres to the notion of the fourth wall end-on staging paradigm that dominates UK dance theatre. This can be seen in the work of many of the young emerging artists whose work I discuss in my research, primarily because that is the only model that they have been exposed to through mentorship programmes and venue specific support, which generally requires sharing work with an audience. Consequently, these artists choreograph to suit those spaces and the expectations of mentors, audience and funders.

I also argue that mentorship schemes for young emerging artists impose a verifiable form of legitimisation on the HHDT product. The supervisory process that dominates HHDT is saturated by the structures and strictures of institutionalised contemporary dance theatre and compromises the movement of hip hop dance artists on many levels: socio-culturally, politically, corporeally, aesthetically, technically and artistically. Foucault (1991) uses the example of agricultural workers to illuminate the idea of technical supervision producing submissive behaviours and I posit that this model of an apprenticeship of techniques is at play as HHDT dances within the canon, rather than on it (Dodds, 2011).[7] The shift from the heuristic context of the vernacular towards the supervised spaces of the institution can therefore be considered problematic because of the inheritance of dominant processual paradigms that structure these spaces.

However, I am not proposing a simple state of domination or that political power is everywhere, where the hapless and helpless masses are subject to the will of the state without any recourse or means of pursuing freedom. My thinking about domination accords with Foucault’s writing on freedom and control when he argues that freedom is not something that can be possessed, granted or assured by the state, rather it is a practice, involving the constant exercise of ethical self-governance among and by individuals, working towards states of non-domination (1997: 283). Within commonplace sociocultural relationships played out in everyday life, notions of power are at play, and while they may exist within political life, it is not exclusively so, and negotiations of power are reflected in a multiplicity of other contexts, including ‘families [and] pedagogical relationships’ (Foucault, 1997: 283). Moving under the supervision of the contemporary dance canon prescribes a notion of (im)mobility in HHDT that aligns with Foucault’s (1997) discussion of power relations. While acknowledging the complexity of power relations, Foucault believed that domination is a key component in defining states of immobility by strategic blocking of negotiations, whether among individuals or social groups. In doing so, various means are called on, including economic and political, to enforce states of domination where ‘it is certain that practices of freedom do not exist or exist only unilaterally or are extremely constrained and limited’ (1997: 283).

Drawing on Foucault’s ideas, I argue that a blocking of artistic negotiations is at play in the metaspace of HHDT (which I discuss in detail throughout this chapter). Supervision impacts on the corporeal freedom of hip hop dance artists seeking to create work in the space of UK dancetheatre and Foucault’s description of practices of freedom illuminates this debate, shedding light on the states of domination enacted and perpetuated in this field of dance practice and production.

The impact of dominant supervisory frameworks is ultimately revealed in the dance work performed on stage where it can be analysed through interrelated processual considerations, technique and aesthetics counting among them. I believe it is not by chance that the HHDT product mimics established performance formats and structures closely tied to the classical and postmodern contemporary dance canon. For example, one can witness a Vardimon-esque narrative style of storytelling, as exemplified in Park (2014) and Justitia (2013), in the work of HHDT companies such as BirdGang Dance Company, which have been mentored from Vardimon through the Sadler’s Wells initiative Back to the Lab. In a promotional documentary for the 2012 inaugural Back to the Lab where Vardimon was the invited guest mentor, Jonzi D introduces her as a ‘choreographic heavyweight’ in the contemporary dance world’ and Vardimon describes how she asked the participants to ‘leave hip hop out of the room for the first three days’ of the workshop.[9] Alternatively, the postmodern quirkiness of Jonathan Burrows’ choreographic focus on hands can be seen in the work of his mentee Kwame Asafo-Adjei, again through Burrows’ lead engagement in the Back to the Lab programme (2014) and the Sadler’s Wells Summer University (2015–2018).[10] It is this choreographic influence – or metaphoric sleight of hand, in which the corporeal image of hip hop dance represents innovation, yet simultaneously replicates and perpetuates long-established structural tropes – that defines Sadler’s Wells’ claim to be the UK’s ‘dance capital’ (Gotman, 2015: 63).

Foucault’s (1991, 1980) debates on the body’s inscription with dialogues of constraint in relation to notions of incarceration and restriction offer a conceptual base from which to examine the impact of the corporeal supervision of HHDT artists via practices of institutional choreographic mentorship. Here, the institution’s ‘knowledge of the individual’ (1991: 294), in this case the hip hop dance artist, is achieved by maintaining a corporeal status quo within UK contemporary dance. I believe it is informed by a wider debate linked to cultural industry prerogatives, commodification and the drive towards a steadied and reliable product.[11] In a discussion of the apprenticeship of techniques, Foucault argues that ‘submissive subjects are produced and a dependable body of knowledge built upon them’ (1991: 294). Bearing witness to Foucault’s idea of technical supervision is the metaspace of HHDT, where a dialogic relationship between sociocultural, economic, historico-temporal and political forces maintains a steady state artistic continuum. The technical supervision of HHDT artists is maintained via training programmes such as Back to the Lab, which can be seen as a form of artistic apprenticeship. In this case, the apprenticeship creates a situation where a dependable body (of knowledge) can be passed on to the young HHDT artists via contemporary dance luminaries. This apprenticeship structure is further secured and maintained via funding streams that are explicitly linked to celebrity choreographic mentors such as Hofesh Shechter and Jonathan Burrows, or through platforms like Breakin’ Convention, which now demand a highly condensed product squeezed into a ten-minute performance slot. Under these conditions the movement(s) become submissive to funding criteria as well as to the choreographic protocols of institutionally maintained performance platforms, currently dominated by scratch style events such as those hosted by Artists4Artists and the annual Breakin’ Convention International HHDT festival.

Choreopolicing, Supervision and Surveillance

HHDT’s position in the strategic agenda of UK arts is determined not only by its multidimensional capital, but also by its deference to the British postmodern contemporary dance canon of which Sadler’s Wells is an influential curator. In this respect, and in the wider spatial context I have discussed, the supervision of hip hop dance artists constitutes a type of ‘choreopolicing’ (Lepecki, 2013). Here, an analogy can be made with the surveillance mechanisms that dominate 21st century life. This analogy is informed by considering the wider context of societal policing, where surveillance cameras, cell phones, loyalty cards, credit cards, computer-linked location tracking systems and other devices track our movements: ‘this condition, where no one is left alone for long, reveals how an apparent “freedom of movement” is under strict control thanks to constant surveillance’ (2013: 15). By following this line of thought I am proposing that a similar form of choreopolicing exists in HHDT practice and production, whereby surveillance, represented by the watchful eye of funders, mentors, press reviewers and artistic curators, defines ‘pathways for circulation that are introjected as the only ones imaginable, the only ones deemed appropriate’ (2013: 15).

These conditions sit within the complex discourse of neoliberalism. Political theorist Wendy Brown is quick to point out that the term neoliberal is used in a wide variety of contexts to denote a wide range of constructs. Drawing on Foucault’ s understanding of neoliberalism, Brown sees it ‘as an order of normative reason that, when it becomes ascendant, takes shape as a governing rationality extending a specific formulation of economic values, practices, and metrics to every dimension of human life’ (2015: 30). In this thesis I suggest these choreopoliced pathways are driven by a product-based agenda (as outlined by ACE’s strategic funding of HHDT), which by its very nature compromises the political voice in favour of the outward shape, thereby promoting the performance of ‘spectacle as a condition of commodified society’ (Robinson, 2015: 3). Therefore, agreeing with Brown’s definition of neoliberalism, I argue that my practice research engages with the neoliberal project in relation to HHDT. In this context of neoliberal projections practioners of HHDT often favour form over content, promoting ‘a movement that, while moving, veers away from freedom’ (Lepecki, 2013: 20), implementing and maintaining stasis, and in doing so de-mobilising the political voice and the ability to move differently.

The direct choreopolicing of movement and artistic aesthetics in HHDT is consistently enacted through assigned mentorships, where artists who define the UK legacy of postmodern contemporary dance transmit legitimised ways of moving and working, such as the Shechter-like ‘Simian loping’ (Norman, 2015) or Burrowsesque use of hands (described in chapter 1). The dominant UK dance institutions and organisations, including funders, broker these programmes as part of a legitimising process that attempts to pass on perceived artistic capital via association. And, at the time of writing, Jonathan Burrows, Hofesh Shechter and Jasmin Vardimon rank among the dominant figures in the mentoring of HHDT artists. This suggests that the choreopolicing of HHDT resounds with echoes of cultural imperialism, perpetuating what writer bell hooks described over two decades ago as a ‘solely white Western artistic continuum [through system that] sees and values only those aspects that mimic familiar white Western artistic traditions’ (2006: 29).

It is also worth noting some other players in the choreopolicing scenario. Producers play an increasingly pivotal role in the brokerage of UK funding streams and the development of artistic legacies, including those of dance.[12] In addition, annual dance trade events such as the British Dance Edition and The British Council Showcase exert a heavy influence on the UK dance sector. Hylton calls this aspect of the dance metaspace, ‘the business of the foyer’, where reputations are made and where artists get a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’. He also notes the ‘popcorn that they are putting out with a lot of the shows [and that] legacy is being written into this ecology [where] the funding sustains certain legacies’ (interview with the author, 5 January 2016). Hip hop’s hegemony is also implicated in the framework of choreopolicing, where concerns of authenticity often influence the production of formulaic work when outside producers exalt the four elements. This results in work that is clichéd and marked by processes of conformity that negatively impact future developments (Uno, 2006).[13]


My work explicitly examines the discourse of virtuosity with hip hop dance artists as they intermingle their work with the hierarchical structures of UK contemporary dance theatre. In doing so it proposes resistance by challenging the paradigms of corporeal virtuosity that currently dominate those structures in flips and tricks, spectacular in execution but rendered as empty gestures. I argue that the complex dialogues that inhabit these relationships – from the micro-conversations with artists and administrators to the macro-engagements with civic or national bodies, systems and institutions, mentors and mentees – inform spaces of mobility that cannot exist without a counterpoint of immobility.

The fetishisation of what dance history scholar and black dance performance theorist Thomas DeFrantz calls ‘amplified hip hop style’, comprising externalised or spectacularised shapes and gestures and the ‘magnification of bodies moving in unison’ (2004: 15) often dominates the choreography and production of HHDT. DeFrantz wrote that replicating steps reproduces the external shape of the dance rather than ‘rearticulat[ing] the communicative desire which drives the dance’ (2004: 15). I suggest this idea of ‘re-articulation’ is compromised by the UK creative industry’s commodification of HHDT, prescribing particular forms of (im)mobility. This restrictive positionality is further exacerbated by the institutional frameworks that drive HHDT, imposing paradigms of staging and narrative to inform a homogenised product. Productions such as the UK tours of Boy Blue Entertainment’s The Five and the Prophecy of Prana (2015) and Avant Garde’s Fagin’s Twist (2017) illustrate these prerogatives as driving forces in the staging of UK HHDT (figures 2.1 and 2.2)

Figure 2.1 The Five and the Prophecy of Prana (2015), by Blue Boy Entertainment

Figure 2.2 Fagin’s Twist (2017), by Avant Garde Dance Company

Both productions employ fourth-wall-type staging and adopt predominantly isometric choreographic formations and synchronised (often high energy) routines, which are danced end on towards the audience. Here, it is possible to draw comparisons to aspects of 19th century story ballets, melodramas, pantomimes and spectacle plays: the productions employ narratives that illustrate a simplified moral universe via stock characters, presented in a series of short declamatory scenes (Brooks, 1996). Within this discourse I recognise a correspondence between mobility and immobility (Pellegrino, 2011: 3), in that the hypermobility demanded of the HHDT performers, denoted through the pursuit of physical excess, impacts on the artists’ freedom of movement. The artists are expected and encouraged to move in a certain way, employing synchronised routines, high energy movements and cursory story lines that do not linger in silence or stillness. I suggest this sacrifices the dancers’ potential conceptually and corporeally to explore the density and layering of the subject material in favour of filling the space with externalised, and often demonstrative, physical movements. When I discussed this idea in an interview with Asafo-Adjei in 2017 the artistic director of hip hop influenced dance company Spoken Movement, he noted, ‘maybe it’s the systematic form of being in a studio creating choreography, that systematic repetition of doing that has almost in a sense brainwashed you into believing you don’t have to be disciplined to just be still at that moment’.

Asafo-Adjei’s analysis was illustrated through my practical work with dancers, where I realised that mobility and a related notion of corporeal virtuosity were key concepts when considering HHDT’s position in the UK dance theatre sector. This idea manifested itself as I observed the dancers struggle ‘not’ to dance, to resist the urge to fill the space with physical technique as they might have done in HHDT settings. By investigating the struggle between subject material, text, scenography and movement I led the dancers towards a concept of density and intensity, discovered and defined as each element interacted to justify its space within the context of what we were doing. Often this demanded stillness and silence. The turbulent encounter between these multiple components called on the dancers to recognise and respond to the unsteady state condition, as the space of creation. This corporeal conundrum called for the dancers to improvise and dance through constantly changing states of (im)mobility. I argue that this ability to reflexively do and not do, to wrestle with multiple layers of information garnered from different entry points, dialogically unified by the subject material yet corporeally combative in its navigation, is virtuosic. It is useful then for my research to consider virtuosity.

Virtuosity is a term of Italian origin that first appeared in the 19th century and is a complex idea influenced by multiple factors that determine and enforce its dominant contextual meaning. Music is a context I believe relates closely to dancers, and in A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sir George Grove (1889) concluded that virtuosity is a ‘display for its own sake [that indulged ability of the virtuoso] at the expense of the meaning of the composer’ (Grove in Cvejic, 2016: 1). At the start of the 20th century, J. Burk related virtuosity to physical excess, comparing the fetishisation of the extreme and practised contortions of vaudevillian acrobats where success is measured by the amount of applause they receive, and a similar fetishisation of skill among concert hall musicians and audiences. However, he wrote, ‘in the more pretentious world of concert-halls’ they call these artists ‘virtuosi’ and their skill ‘technique’, wherein it falls under the banner of high art and culture (1918: 282). Burk, like Grove, notes that all too often the obsession with technique fostered by the public and critics alike results in the neglect of ‘impulse’, which in my research I relate to notions of corporeal reflexivity. Burk suggested that virtuosity dates to a time when musicians and acrobats ‘were on the same social level and had severally to contort themselves, and exhibit skill when bidden’ (1918: 284) to attract patronage. Similarly, I argue that venues such as Sadler’s Wells, and perhaps contemporary dance in general, maintain a historical fetishisation of technique and that HHDT, when supervised under these conditions, follows suit.

As an example of the historical fetishisation of technique, Alistair Spalding CBE, the artistic director of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, uses language that invokes the familiar gaze of an imperialist artistic tradition bound to notions of virtuosity.[14] In an article for the Financial Times, Spalding identified HHDT as ‘arguably the dance form of the future’ [concluding that] ‘in today’s increasingly diversified dance world, it is likely that the next Nijinsky or Nureyev will not come from ballet but from hip-hop or tango’ (2013). Spalding’s words, bound with images of male virtuosi, demonstrate a tradition that Afro-American scholar bell hooks (2006) decries as oppressive by the very nature of its investment in canons linked to an aesthetic of white supremacy. The article received some provocative responses from Financial Times readers, for example:

I am pleased that the ‘serious’ end of culture and dance in the UK takes up modern music, but I have my doubts that hip hop is the way to go for ballet. What seems like agility can when looked at more closely seem a lot clumsier than ballet might require, and crucially, hip hop artists lack the years of discipline and training needed for ballet. Nor do I wish to see ballet politicised. Whatever next? Swan Lake with machine guns?

(Lucinda, 13 July 2013, in Spalding, 2013)

Lucinda’s declamation contains the essence of many of the problems that HHDT encounters in the UK high-art setting. Sadler’s Wells counts high-profile multinational financial corporations such as Bloomberg, Cartier, Porsche and American Express among its corporate partners and this reflects the audience demographic that it aims to attract. I suggest that hip hop dance is still seen as ‘other’ by self-proclaimed dance aficionados like Lucinda, who show little understanding of the years of intense training demanded to achieve an elite level. Furthermore, her final comment reflects a sense of disdain that adds to the perception of HHDT as a low-art form.

Spalding is what Herrnstein Smith (1983) might call a ‘power holding subject’ in the UK contemporary dance scene and his perspectives derive from a particular reading of the virtuosic dancer. Spalding’s perspective embraces ‘a Eurocentric gaze that commodifies, appropriates and celebrates’ (hooks, 2006), and the spectacular representation of HHDT adheres to this idea of virtuosity, as the performance of excess, going beyond the conceivable physical boundaries of a particular dance form. HHDT is actively encouraged, within the type of supervisory framework identified in my research, to pursue the performance of physical excess such as extreme acrobatics or fast synchronised routines and contortions. I argue that the focus on physical excess as a primary virtuosic component in HHDT limits the space of movement development and choreographic exploration for artists. Dance scholar and artist Ariel Osterweis illuminates similar complexities arguing that they inform the high-art versus low-art discourse of the virtuosic dancer, where conflicting paradigms of corporeal excess call for an examination of the cultural contexts of its production as ‘dance cultures coalesce and intermingle’ (2014: 55). My assertion of there being a metaspatial context for HHDT implicitly questions the discourse surrounding notions of virtuosity.

The Steady State Artistic Continuum: Dialectics at a Standstill

HHDT has grown primarily within the mono-institutional framework of Sadler’s Wells, and therefore it is best understood as an institutionally supervised and legitimised form or brand that, through interrelated sociocultural, economic and political structures, is in danger of being authored by the state. The brand endorsement of a (non)critical media might also be included in the structure that maintains a steady state artistic continuum. Theatre critic Lynn Gardner’s (2011) frustration with the continual stream of four and five star reviews that dance and theatre shows increasingly receive, minus any in-depth critique, perhaps demonstrates that critics’ role in the UK creative arts sector is increasingly linked to the economy and tourism.[15] The increasingly passive voice of critics was highlighted by dance and theatre scholar Diana Theodores in 2002 when she called for critics to live in the struggle of the artist, and in living there ask ‘what are we making? what are we seeing? what are we saying? what are we reading? How are we collaborating in the production of meaning? […] critical dialogue has to invite tough questions, has to live in the struggle’ (2002) On a micro level, my research resonates with Theodores’ words, yet it also moves beyond the context of her critique to direct similar questions towards the metaspace of HHDT production in the UK. In doing so it recognises a connection between the metaspace and movements of HHDT, both corporeally and aesthetically. To examine these intimate relationships more closely my research led me to unpick the discourse surrounding HHDT and Sadler’s Wells, the institution from which it emerged under that banner in 2004.

The term ‘collective texts’ (Huntington, 2007: 41) best captures the eclecticism of what appears on the stage of the Breakin’ Convention during its annual International Festival of HHDT, and over the years it has hosted, among other things, poppers, lockers, house dancers, breakers, lindy-hoppers, flexing, dancehall and risqué burlesque hip hop cabaret.[16] The project has been recognised by the national press and through major funding initiatives as the key developer of HHDT, and Breakin’ Convention’s influence extends far beyond the yearly festival with a programme that includes artist mentorship, national and international tours, platforms for sharing work in progress and school-based courses.

Breakin’ Convention is a registered trademark of Sadler’s Wells Trust Limited and the project is funded by ACE through an award given to Sadler’s Wells Theatre: the ‘money is ring-fenced, so Sadler’s Wells can only spend that money on Breakin’ Convention stuff, but ultimately it’s given to Sadler’s Wells’ (Jonzi D, interview with the author, 14 December 2014).[18] The project can thus be seen as an ACE NPO that sits within Sadler’s Wells. We might also note that ACE governmental partners include the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Department for Education, which openly share priorities and formal working arrangements with the BBC and the British Council (Arts Council England, 2013: 15). I believe the endogamous nature of these relationships and their collective political and economic agenda is problematic for the arts[19] and shows how UK arts discourse is imbricated with complex dialogues of constraint and liberation; HHDT cannot be excluded from these concerns.

The Arts Council’s channelling of support through a Sadler’s Wells Theatre NPO project sets the stage for Breakin’ Convention to be heavily institutionally driven rather than solely an autonomous organisation. Consequently, Breakin’ Convention and HHDT are implicated in the workings of Sadler’s Wells, which impacts on their artistic expression in particular ways. The NPO strategy is highly contentious, extending across the UK with the aim of centralising the governance of the arts around major national organisations, ‘increasing investment to organisations that produce and present art of international significance, and that also contribute to tourism and the local economy’ (Hill, 2014).

Important questions arise regardingwhat artistic, political and cultural compromises are demanded from and made for artists to remain in a funding and mentorship cycle that is dictated by the financialisation of culture in London. This appraisal of artistic work based on economically driven outcomes bears out Jen Harvie’s suggestion that the industrialisation of the arts compromises democratic expression’ (2005: 9). As UK hip hop theatre pioneer Benji Reid observes, this policy essentially means that artistic work ‘is now seen as a product, and you have to have something that sells […] it must be packaged and marketed within a box that an audience recognises’ (interview with the author, 25 June 2015). I argue that the NPO strategy jeopardises free artistic expression in the UK by explicitly tying public money to governmental concerns and proposing a meritocracy based on national economic growth rather than the artistic voice. This strategic funding framework has an effect on artists and art forms, including the Breakin’ Convention project and HHDT, forcing arts managers to make artistic compromises when applying for funds in order to match the criteria of national strategic arts funding. Furthermore, quadrennial funding reviews and cuts discipline NPO projects that stray from the contractual demands imposed by the Arts Council England’s investment, though it might be presumed that sitting within the embrace of one of the dominant national artistic institutions greatly strengthens the chances of longevity for the Breakin’ Convention project. But, as Jonzi D points out, the project’s position at Sadler’s Wells is not secure and is subject to ‘continual negotiation’ (interview with the author, 14 December 2014). I suggest that this ‘continual negotiation’ encompasses a continual compromise imposed by the HHDT brand and its financial and cultural capital values (Bourdieu, 2010).

While working as a mentor for Breakin’ Convention’s Open Art Surgery artist development programme (2013-2015), I witnessed artists receive instructions from another mentor to ‘put more dance in’, an instruction that I thought related to the product of HHDT rather than what was needed to portray the subject material of the pieces, resulting in a case of form over content. To contextualise this critique, there is now an explicit connection between the annually run artist training programmes Back to the Lab and Open Art Surgery, and having work programmed for the main stage of the international festival.

Until 2010, the process was open to all artists (including those without any connection to Breakin’ Convention’s artist training programmes) via an audition where pieces of varying lengths could be submitted for consideration. This was the case for my company, Dance Offensive, which showed a piece of 17 minutes in length on the main stage at the festival in 2010. However, in 2011, a maximum set time of 10 minutes per piece was imposed, and I believe this has led to the work becoming homogenised and packed full of spectacularised movement designed to create maximum visual impact at the expense of artistic and corporeal exploration and development of alternative themes or concepts. Rather than creating work, and subsequently considering its suitability for staging at the festival or other venues, artists now manufacture short pieces of work with the specific intent of being chosen for the festival, defining the HHDT product as the maximum amount of movement that can be fitted into a 10-minute slot. This time restriction resonates with the notion of a performance of excess resulting in what scholar Laura Robinson denotes as ‘the construction of “the surplus”, which in itself aligns with post-Fordist labour practices and spectacle as a condition of commodified society’ (2015: 3). Contributing to the reading of HHDT as a product or brand, since 2013 the festival main stage has been dominated by artists who have been mentored and supervised via internal artist training programmes. I attended Breakin’ Convention festivals between 2011 and 2016, which confirmed my analysis, and consequently the work of UK companies has become increasingly homogenised and formulaic, due in no small part to the strategic link between process and product that Breakin’ Convention propagates.

As an example of the strategic link at Sadler’s Wells  between process and product we might examine the decision by ACE in 2015 to award £1,000,000 to the partnership of HHDT company ZooNation and Sadler’s Wells’ project Breakin’ Convention (both headed by Sadler’s Wells associate artists).[20] Almost half of this award supported a nationwide tour of ZooNation’s show Into the Hoods: Remixed – a thinly disguised re-imagining of Sondheim’s classic hit musical Into the Woods – promoting ZooNation’s highly successful brand of West End musical hip hop theatre as a flagship for HHDT throughout the UK.[21] The remainder of the award supported a two-year nationwide tour of Breakin’ Convention, to develop future professional HHDT artists. ZooNation has adopted a long-established and successful formula and applied it to its theatre, fusing popular classical Western narratives, West End musical staging and aesthetics, and corporeally virtuosic hip hop dance. The company consistently generates revenue for producers and jobs for performers, and attracts sell-out audiences. The original production of Into the Hoods (2006) was a successful and proven commodity, in every sense an archetypal spectacle, exemplifying the linking of hip hop dance with capitalist concerns.[22] ZooNation personifies the HHDT brand, and far from breaking any conventions represents the conventional formula of West End theatrical production: re-staging tried and tested narratives through demonstrative hip hop dance. ACE heralded the funding award with a press release that eulogised the partnership of Breakin’ Convention and ZooNation as a showcase for ‘some of the best HHDT in the world’ (Wilson in Smith, 2015). The press release describes the show as the international epitome of HHDT while simultaneously highlighting its focus on the ‘professional development of emerging hip hop dance talent and leaders across England’ (2015). Here, metaspatial knowledge leads me to apply a choreopolitical lens to question whether the development of HHDT by Sadler’s Wells is economically rather than artistically incentivised, primarily aimed at securing the capital growth of the brand or form.

The ZooNation product(s) resonates with Kélina Gotman’s (2015) critique of Sadler’s Wells and her reading of Walter Benjamin’s (1999) concept of a dialectics at a standstill. She argues that by exploiting ‘the twin concepts of tradition and innovation – dual watchwords for a politico-aesthetic regime wherein safety and security, on the one hand, and novelty, on the other, vie – [Sadler’s Wells] performs a dialectics at a standstill’ (2015: 66). Here, the dialectic between past and present achieves stasis, and despite claims to be innovative and radical, HHDT, through its mimicry of familiar Western choreographic traditions, stands still.

The maintaining of the status quo is revealed through the supervised movement(s) of HHDT and the image of HHDT clarifies and demonstrates Sadler’s Wells traditional stance.. This choreopolicing (Lepecki, 2013) of artists through the Sadler’s Wells HHDT project ‘suggests a progressive politics, halted by a contrary spirit of conservatism (saturated with strategic nostalgia) that ensures the temporary stability of financial returns’ (Gotman, 2015: 67). I believe this continual negotiation of temporariness based on financial returns mutes the engaged sociopolitical voice of hip hop dance artists making work in the space of UK dance theatre. In this environment, complex questions of (im)mobility arise, wherein the established formulaic product halts progressive movement in not only choreographic terms, but a wider sense (because of rapid gentrification and its incumbent strategy of inflating the cost of living). Financial instability renders artists unable to move freely within the city itself. Through Gotman’s reading of Benjamin, HHDT, as exemplified by ZooNation, might then be viewed as the ‘image of the institution […] encapsulating “the now” rent through with history, legible as such in a particular moment’ (2015: 66).

Through the careful management of tradition, accented with gestures towards innovation, the inherent volatility of the hip hop dance artist’s voice has been stabilised via the HHDT product, and therefore might be viewed as the image of the institution legible in a ‘particular movement’. In these circumstances, HHDT has much in common with the idea of the steady state condition, maintaining a dialectic that, through corporate driven necessity, hints towards an image of non-conformity and innovation, yet neuters the radical political voice, recognising that radicalism is an unpredictable and unstable asset.

The prescriptive nature of the lauded artistic practices inherent in UK contemporary dance and theatre exerts a heavy influence on HHDT, perpetuating the production of work that often relies on watered down storylines that re-hash common Western theatre narratives and staging. Through this process, in many cases HHDT has been reduced to a kind of spectacle of tantalising performance elements, reminiscent of Guy Debord’s assertion that the spectacle, ‘express[es] the total practice of one particular economic and social formation: it is, so to speak, the formation’s agenda’ (1994: 15). Furthermore, concerns arise about the use of dominant Western theatrical narratives in HHDT and the legitimising nature of classic texts such as Sondheim, Dickens and Shakespeare: it ‘sends a message that the hip-hop generation have no stories of its own and that in order for hip-hop to qualify as theatre it must attach itself to such certified texts’ (Hoch in Prickett, 2013: 182).

In the context of HHDT, this analysis expands Lepecki’s (2013) idea of choreopolicing, played out and enforced through high-level funding of projects that mimic the familiar traditions of the Western artistic continuum (hooks, 2006). Clearly, the metaspace of HHDT is filled with multiple intrigues and by managing funding strategies via their associate artists, Sadler’s Wells is able to consolidate a firm link between product and process on a nationwide scale.

This argument is validated by the fact that the Breakin’ Convention project has to date had little impact on the yearly programming of Sadler’s Wells main stage full-length productions, beyond the annual May Day Bank Holiday slot, and occasional visiting international artists such as the French company Wang Ramirez, whose aesthetic invariably steers towards high-art contemporary dance. This, then, might be read as tokenistic and symptomatic of the marginalisation of HHDT to a yearly festival of fun, rather than a serious platform for emerging artists. But, while funding may demonstrate that ACE has shown commitment to the ‘creative phenomenon that is Hip Hop culture, at a time when peace, love, unity, and fun is much needed’ (Jonzi D in Dyke, 2015), I believe that the choreopolicing of artists via the HHDT brand compromises their artistic and political agency as well as their latent potential.

Movement and Metaspatial Knowledge

In presenting the argument that supervisory structures and dominant hierarchies nurture the HHDT product I am not suggesting a binary wherein artists must choose between the independent unfunded route to making work or the funded constraints of institutional supervision. Rather, I am arguing that increased metaspatial knowledge supports new ways of negotiating the territory of UK dance performance and production, which subsequently might lead towards new ways of moving and making. This is, essentially, knowledge of the wider sociocultural, historical, economic and political space in which HHDT artists move. And I suggest that this could lead artists to a clearer understanding of how the environment of UK dance shapes their performance, and how imposed and inherited preconceptions of what dance should be circulate in this arena. What I am advocating therefore is a greater awareness for artists about the broader sociopolitical and economic conditions in which they move as a means of empowering them to move, make and perform differently.

HHDT is supervised through the spaces that define its circulation, and in my practice mobilisation is viewed as the act of moving away from the institutionally driven commodification of the form or brand. To resist commodification, Reid notes, ‘one is forced to start thinking about [one’s] box’ (interview with the author, 25 June 2015), and in my research HHDT is the box that I examined in order to propose what postmodern political geographer and urban theorist Edward Soja (1996) describes as ‘an-Other’ way of doing things. By first identifying and conceptualising the metaspace of HHDT I found new ways of thinking and doing in my practice, to challenge the dominant structure imposed by the institutionalised form. In this way, a clearer understanding of agency and (im)mobility led me to consider alternative routes that resisted ‘states of domination’ (Foucault, 1997: 283), including those that I was transmitting through my practice (discussed further in chapters 3 and 4).

To further illustrate how metaspatial knowledge can inform a broader reading of artists’ agency[23] and mobility, I closely examined the connection between London’s East Bank cultural district and HHDT. In 2015, Sadler’s Wells’ influence on HHDT was further acknowledged and consolidated with the announcement of a second Sadler’s Wells Theatre location, to be built on the site of the 2012 Olympic Stadium, as a part of the new ‘Olympicopolis’ cultural district, later re-named the East Bank. The building will sit alongside outposts of Washington DC’s Smithsonian Museum, the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum), London College of Fashion and the BBC, among others. It will house a choreographic school providing spaces for dance research, development and the production of new work, with the notable inclusion of the UK’s first hip hop academy. However, as the academy will rely on the patrimony of both the state and Sadler’s Wells Theatre, multiple anxieties present themselves, not least of which is that ‘[w]hen art is blessed with public funding it is simultaneously cursed by the state’s imperium’ (Beech, 2015: 17). Here, once again, the funding does not grant artistic autonomy to UK HHDT artists, but instead includes funding allocated to, and administered by, Sadler’s Wells (a gatekeeping institution)[24] as part of a strategically linked governmental programme, which I believe is aimed wholly at the capitalisation of the arts.[25]

For many people, the £1.3 billion project’s inclusion of a hip hop academy is seen as a positive step towards recognising the talent and potential of HHDT, a cause for celebration as the state continues to legitimise hip hop through a dialogue of cultural inclusion and funding. Media coverage talks of the new cultural district providing a ‘boost to culture and education’ (Musa, 2017), where Sadler’s Wells, including its hip hop academy, will establish London as a major dance centre. However, rather than the new hip hop academy being a benign force, I suggest that the sudden momentum to promote HHDT in the UK might be aimed at ticking ‘of colour’ and ‘young’ boxes to secure funding and build social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 2010) for the institutions involved. Adding to this, these associations between institutions and HHDT raise questions about who gets to perform where and in what manner, what kinds of identities are being made, and the extent of what professor of contemporary theatre and performance Jen Harvie calls the ‘profound and inescapable influence of government policy and practice in manufacturing these associations: in a continual rebranding of Britain, and particularly London, as a multi-cultural metropolis’ (2005: 16).

People living in the London borough of Newham, the most ethnically diverse area in the UK, suffered mass evictions to make way for the Olympic Village.[26] Set against this backdrop the notion of rebranding appears implicit when I consider that the Olympic Games have been widely linked to gentrification: ‘evict[ing] more than two million people in the past twenty years, [and making it] one of the top causes of displacement and real-estate inflation in the world’ (Kumar, 2012).[27] The East Bank vision systematically capitalises on these events by ‘expanding the terrain of profitable activity’ (2012), compounding the assumption of commentators such as writer and editor Alex Cocotas that this large-scale project’s aim is economisation rather than revitalisation. Cocotas argues that the ‘primary beneficiaries [are] cultural tourists, major property holders, and the egos of public officials’ (2016: 6). Furthermore, at the time of writing(2019), the promised the inclusion of affordable housing in East Bank was short of promised targets, causing many people, including architects and artists, to voice fears over gentrification, social cleansing and London’s rapidly changing cultural landscape.[28]

These worries are partially directed at the national arts institutions that will supervise the cultural district, with some suggesting that East Bank is displacing artists through a consumer-led gentrification of London, where ‘the consumption of culture is driving the production of culture out of the city’ (Heathcote, 2015). This argument, I suggest, implicates the national artistic institutions that will dominate the East Bank cultural district, in a context where they might be viewed as artistic gatekeepers, sustained by strategic policies of tourism and consumer-led artistic curation. The evolving discourse surrounding gentrification leads me to return to consider the hip hop academy that will be housed, governed and supervised by Sadler’s Wells, a major player in the East Bank development, and to question HHDT’s role in the ACE strategic vision for commodified dance.

Drawing on these perspectives I argue that the significance of this discourse extends beyond the movement of artists on stage, to their movement in the city of London. In the near future, many HHDT artists may not be able to subsist in London owing to the high costs of living, which are incompatible with freelance dancers wages, becoming immobilised or displaced by the forces of rapid gentrification and commoditisation. From my experience of working with these artists, I know that many are faced with rapidly escalating struggles for economic survival in the capital.[29] In this regard, the inclusion of a hip hop academy in an area that was cleared of lower income families and independent artists for the 2012 Olympic Games, and subsequently developed into a new cultural district, becomes problematic. Considering tightly controlled funding strategies, the apparent openness of the mainstream arts establishment to the cultural differences and new identities represented through HHDT appears questionable. I suggest that developing the East Bank in London is less a process aimed at protecting cultural differences than one of assimilation, which serves the mainstream arts establishment’s imperial purposes, or ‘the cultivation of a self-promoting and self-interested narrative of the metropolis as benignly tolerant of difference’ (Harvie, 2005: 16). This notion seems prescient in relation to arguments over access, supervision and displacement implicated in the East Bank development. I believe the cultural district itself, while purported by the architects to ‘intensify the urban grain and make the stadium and park feel more special’ (Bevan, 2016), will remain an exclusive landmark of London’s elite, including its elite artistic institutions.

In the context of the East Bank development political and economic immobilisation might therefore be said to impact on the physical mobility of hip hop dance artists in several ways. For example, the supervision by Sadler’s Wells of the hip hop academy raises questions about dancers’ artistic agency, while travel and rising living costs will limit their access to the area and consequently to artistic and developmental opportunities within it. This is a type of artistic and fiscal disciplining, which can be considered to contribute to dominant systems of coercion that seek to maintain the subordination of particular groups and particular modes of cultural production.

Until 2017 NPO funded hip hop dance companies were limited to Breakin’ Convention and ZooNation (via Sadler’s Wells) and 2Faced Dance Company,[30] whose work has been described by the UK press as ‘mixing hip-hop moves with contemporary dance […] at home with everything from street dance acrobatics to mooching contemporary steps’ (Anderson, 2011). However, in the 2017–2022 round of NPO funding 183 new companies were added, two of which specialise in HHDT. The first of these new hip hop dance NPOs was Boy Blue Entertainment whose artistic director Kenrick Sandy received an MBE in the 2017 honours list for services to dance and the community. It is worth noting that Sandy choreographed the hip hop sections of the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony and was involved in advisory discussions with the Sadler’s Wells hip hop academy planning team. I therefore suggest that it is possible to perceive a link relating to the nurturing and legitimisation of chosen individuals through a network of allied organisations. The second NPO status was granted to Avant Garde Dance, whose artistic director Tony Adigun is one of the Work Place programme supported artists at the Place Theatre, London.[31] These examples of hip hop dance NPO companies illustrate the link between a network of supporting venues and organisations that collectively legitimise the work of selected individuals from the field of HHDT.

I argue that the promotion and perpetuation of a generic style of choreography that draws heavily on commercially successful Western dance and theatre archetypes can be identified through the patrimonial relationships that exist between organisations and companies. This heavily structured choreographic environment is problematic in that it affords little room to manoeuvre for emerging hip hop dance artists. I have noted through my research that the potential of such artists is quickly absorbed and assimilated by the canonical framework that the patrimonial network represents (Figure 2.3.) These formulaic performance archetypes are clearly demonstrated through choreographic and theatrical devices such as fourth wall proscenium staging and the re-working of classical narratives. Along with ZooNation’s work, which I have already discussed, Fagin’s Twist (2016) by London-based company Avant Garde[32] is another example, using a contemporary dance and hip hop mix that re-imagines Dickens’ famous characters from Oliver Twist. Earlier in the chapter I discussed how the arts funding these NPO companies and artists receive is tied to the UK government’s cultural tourism strategies. For HHDT this is distributed and supervised by organisations such as ACE, and supervised by ACE National Council in collaboration with institutions such as Sadler’s Wells, the Barbican and the Place. Funding is only awarded to end user institutions such as dance companies if their managers agree to conform with policies that encourage tourism and efforts to boost of the local economy. However, tourism and economic gain are not traditionally allied to experimental work, so to obtain financial support from the state, NPO companies create work that maintains the steady artistic continuum – the HHDT developed by the five HHDT NPOs conforms with the West End theatre and postmodern contemporary dance continuum.

These examples illustrate how the funding of HHDT is intrinsically linked to political and economic mobilisation and the physical mobility of hip hop dancers in the space of UK dance theatre. In this environment, the HHDT corporeal aesthetic necessarily celebrates the performance of excess on the one hand – denoted by the extreme physical feats of the dancers – while on the other mimicking postmodern contemporary dance (see chapter 1). In this exchange, where artists conform to funders requirements, the possible exploration of what Edward Soja (1996) terms Thirdspace[33] and an-Other way of moving is compromised. By assimilating the movements of West End and contemporary dance, HHDT companies become marginalised from their original space and geographical context. Additionally, when arts funders consider one set of ‘authorised movements’ such as contemporary dance to be artistic, but another set of movements such as hip hop is not, the latter becomes immobilised within the ‘space’ of the theatre, controlling their migration and exploration of ‘other’. Here it is possible to draw on Pine and Kuhlke’s work on dance geographies and their assertion that dancing bodies ‘contort to specific sites where they are dancing the cultural codes that constrict what movements are acceptable’ (2013: 207). In the case of HHDT the contortions are orchestrated by the corporeal codifications used by funding and producing organisations.

Arising from this discussion, there emerges a perceived support and celebration of the diversity of HHDT by the state, yet on close inspection funding appears limited and awarded to companies whose artists closely mimic many of the endorsed tropes and paradigms of UK contemporary dance and popular theatre. In doing so, state funding absorbs the potential of radical voices or departures, demanding routines, recognisable Western narratives such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood and one-dimensional staging. That is not to say that the work of companies like ZooNation has no value, but to express concern that it consistently receives the bulk of funding for hip hop dance artists making work in the space of UK dance theatre. In other words, the dance artists outside the funding must inhabit the established and defined space that is demarcated via the successfully funded companies so they might successfully compete for future funding.

A Glimpse of the Nascent

To expand on the current discourse surrounding artists using elements of hip hop dance when creating dance theatre in the UK, and my research, I draw on artist interviews conducted between 2014 and 2017. The interview material allows me to clarify and expand the trajectory of my argument by illustrating the idea of a supervisory metaspatial narrative articulated by the experiences of artists who move within it as performers and makers.

In addition to the three pioneers of UK hip hop theatre discussed in chapter 1, I employ here interviews with three emerging artists, Botis Seva (Far From The Norm), Lee Griffiths (The Company) and Kwame Asafo-Adjei (Spoken Movement). In doing so, I facilitate a discourse with others about how to create a more democratic space of discussion. These artists are often branded by the creative and cultural industries as working in HHDT, though not without some resistance from the artists themselves, and they are searching for their artistic–political voice by exploring a hybrid approach to making theatre, which draws on hip hop dance as a central creative element.[34] By exploring themes such as white British hooligans and applying techniques such as African dance, circus skills, physical theatre and improvisation they create experimental work that challenges binary thinking, such as being cast as working in HHDT or hip hop theatre. Examples of this work include Behind Every Man (2016) by The Company (Lee Griffiths) and Spoken Movement’s Obibini (2017)[35] (figures 2.4 and 2.5).

Figure 2.4 Behind Every Man

Figure 2.5 Obibini

To date, these alternative voices remain underfunded. Griffiths halted the development of her company’s work to co-ordinate Artists4Artists, which now appears to have assimilated an industry-driven agenda that mirrors that of Breakin’ Convention, where upskilling and scratch performance outputs dominate the agenda. The scratch format – a mode of presenting work in process to elicit feedback – has evolved as the main output of HHDT artists owing to the minimal funding and time slots that platforms such as Breakin’ Convention’s International Festival and Artists4Artists scratch nights adopt. In these circumstances, HHDT artists are only able to create bite-size pieces, which barely touch the surface of their exploration,[36] continually repeating the process to produce new bite-size work that conforms with the demands of each new scratch platform. In this demanding and underfunded environment, where trackable and observable outputs dominate the funding exchange, artists are rarely afforded the opportunity to sit with or develop their ideas and work towards creating work of greater depth, complexity or length.

As an example of the constraints felt by the enclave of hip-hop-inspired dance artists who I examine and work with in my research, I would like to turn briefly to the London-based Artists4Artists network, which was launched in 2016 with the aim of‘addressing the lack of training, professional development and programming opportunities for UK hip hop dance artists, encouraging confidence, inclusion and innovation to develop the hip hop sector’ (Griffiths, interview with the author, 19 June 2016). Among the panellists and choreographers at the three-day launch event were Kenrick Sandy (Boy Blue), Ivan Blackstock (formerly, BirdGang Dance Company), Joseph Toonga (Just Us Dance Theatre), Lee Griffiths, Yami Löfvenberg, Botis Seva, Robert Hylton and me. Despite often heated debates there was consensus that after 14 years of creating work UK hip hop dance artists have had no impact on the main stage programming of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and little in the wider scope of UK venues. The gathered artists felt marginalised by the long-term struggle to secure sustained support, arguing that funding was tokenistic.[37] Botis Seva’s solo Virtue (2016), performed at Redbridge Drama Centre, London, as a part of the launch captured the flavour of the event. It was a furious, visceral and uncompromising indictment of the current climate in which these artists work. Virtue not only expressed the artists’ collective frustration, but confronted and challenged their technical and aesthetic preconceptions of what is possible, demolishing the space in which it was performed, and the boxes in which Seva’s work had been placed. The piece used very minimal moments of hip hop movements, made even more powerful as they became the release valve for the prolonged periods of intense caged stillness, which represented the enforced confinement of artists’ creative needs and energy.

Yet, despite these glimpses of nascent, visceral expression, and Artists4Artists’ collective call for artistic autonomy, space and more time to explore their artistic voices, the artists appear unwittingly to be following the same path they so vocally reject. For example, their intensive workshop programmes focus on upskilling for the industry and competing in the market place. I believe this focus on the final product rather than the process is problematic and perpetuates the corporate strategy invoked by ACE funding streams and institutions such as Sadler’s Wells.

When I first interviewed Seva in 2015 he expressed the dichotomy faced by young artists who are offered support, which is dictated by the canonical structures of UK contemporary dance institutions, usually offered and awarded under the conditions of allocated mentorships. Seva was awarded the Bonnie Bird mentorship in 2015 and allocated world-renowned contemporary dance choreographer Hofesh Shechter as his mentor. The mentorship was brief but left a lasting impression on the way that Seva’s work was subsequently received:

There will be a section of my work and people will say, ‘it feels a bit Hofesh’ and I’m, like, ok cool, watch Hofesh’s work again and watch my work again. Because people don’t watch work they see movements, sometimes they see a movement and whatever they can relate it to, it then becomes Hofesh. […] Now, when I’m doing programmes, I never say I was mentored by Hofesh. The reason is because, when people see that, they think of Hofesh and when they watch my work and see something that may be similar they compare it to that.

(Interview with Botis Seva, 6 June 2015)

Here, Seva is clearly aware of the coercive nature of working within the supervision of the institutional apparatus, what Foucault terms the dispositif, and he has taken practical steps to avoid being described through the comparative paradigms defined through monumental figures such as Shechter. Seva has continued to rise within the realms of cultural industry prerogatives while at the same time resisting the dominant paradigms associated with HHDT. His resistance is illustrated in this interview where he clearly asserts the need for more experimental work to access centre stage, saying, ‘there needs to be much more, especially within the hip-hop theatre world. Even Sadler’s Wells […] is very traditional in ballet and contemporary dance’(Williams, 2018). Seva and his contemporaries align themselves with the Artist4Artists network as a gesture of autonomy, attempting to break away from monopolistic grips on HHDT. Yet, Artists4Artists relies solely on ACE funding and has already been criticised from within, with many artists identifying emergent controlling hierarchies and dominant figures, such as Kenrick Sandy MBE and Ivan Blackstock, as supervising proceedings. These artists straddle the institutions that play a major role in developing the HHDT brand – Sadler’s Wells, the Barbican and the Place – and while their artistic achievements cannot be ignored or underplayed, it must equally be recognised that they transmit the values and processes of this dominant spatial triptych through their work.


It is possible from these discussions to argue that the choreopolicing of HHDT employs the combined tactics of surveillance and supervision, displacing artists’ energies from the legacy of the maverick thinkers who first defined the UK space of hip hop theatre. In these circumstances, the demobilisation of the political is enforced by the reproduction of legitimised norms, which in turn secures a space where new formations are not encouraged to germinate (Martin, 1998). Through such critiques, my research project led me to reassess the way I negotiate my work with hip hop dancers in the space of UK theatre dance. It prompted me to step away from a product-based agenda and edge towards a revised concept of spatiality:a radically open perspective encouraging a new way of spatial thinking, where choreography ‘as a planned, dissensual, and nonpoliced disposition of motions and bodies becomes the condition of possibility for the political to emerge’ (Lepecki, 2013: 22). This perspective, I believe, invokes the original ethos of hip hop culture as a reflexive political movement that dared to challenge the structure of the Western art canon.

The conceptual development of metaspatial knowledge explored in this chapter holds a mirror up to a range of HHDT contextual conditions and by doing so supports and facilitates the exploration of alternative processes that might lead towards a new way of moving with hip hop dancer artists in the space of UK theatre dance. In the next two chapters I discuss my practice research, which explores and challenges the complex metaspace that informs the choreopolitics of the moment, and the economic model that currently shapes HHDT. It reaches beyond the paradigms and tropes of the canonical framework of contemporary dance in the UK to address the choreopolicing strategies that national arts institutions perpetuate.

My practice research incorporated processes that move beyond the corporeal movements of the dancer in the space, to incorporate the metaspace in which they move. This strategy allowed me to return to the space of my practice with multiple provocations, which seemed essential when considering alternative choreographies. I approach this not as a binary of working either within or without the institution, but through continually developing metaspatial knowledge to inform ‘an-Other’ way of doing things (Soja, 1996: 61). In the following chapters I discuss the studio work that formed the core of my practice research. These projects enabled me to reflect on and define a methodological approach that seeks out turbulence and the unsteady state condition as essential components when creating processes that challenge the current state of movement in HHDT. These narratives contain my search for identity, my battle to explore, challenge and discover what I do when I work with hip hop dancers in the space of UK theatre dance.



[1] Sadler’s Wells is the hub for HHDT, which is supervised via Breakin’ Convention, an NPO that sits within Sadler’s Wells’ funding stream (see chapter 1). Sadler’s Wells instigates supervisory structures that are sanctioned and funded by ACE. These include allocated mentorships that demonstrate an endogamous strategic governance of HHDT in the UK. Therefore, I have chosen to scrutinise the interplay between these supervisory components.

[2] ‘Discourse generally refers to a type of language associated with an institution, and includes the ideas and statements which express an institution’s values. In Foucault’s writings, it is used to describe individual acts of language, or ‘language in action’ – the ideas and statements that allow us to make sense of and ‘see’ things (Danaher, Schirato and Webb, 2000: x).

[3] See ‘Carcharodon’ by Dance Offensive (2013)

[4] Foucault summarises the various forces that have an impact on institutionalised forms in the term dispositif: ‘What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements’ (Foucault, 1980: 194).

[5] Ryan Bukstein, chief cultural engineer at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, is quoted as saying: ‘If harnessed in the right way, cultural tourism could offer huge long-term value to London and inspire and motivate more repeat travel across London. […] Most of our clientele are cultural tourists. Our whole brand is based upon this cultural exchange’ (Mayor of London, 2015: 22).

[6] Originally called Olympicopolis the name of the project changed in 2018 with Sadler’s Wells new outpost becoming Sadler’s Wells East. ‘The line-up is completed with Sadler’s Wells, designed by ODT [O’Donnell + Tuomey ] as a purplish brick shed containing a 550-seat theatre and dance studios. It’s topped with a sawtooth factory roofline, recalling the industrial history of the site. It is a consciously tough edifice to stand opposite the voluptuous curves of Zaha Hadid’s aquatics centre and a ground-floor corner will be devoted to a community dance space, providing a shop window of cavorting bodies to lure people inside’ (Wainwright, 2018).For more information follow the link in the e-submission.

[7] ‘The modelling of the body produces a knowledge of the individual, the apprenticeship of the techniques induces modes of behaviour and the acquisition of skills is inextricably linked with the establishment of power relations; strong, skilled agricultural workers are produced; in this very work, provided it is technically supervised, submissive subjects are produced and a dependable body of knowledge built up about them’ (Foucault, 1991: 294).

[8] For examples of BirdGang and Vardimon’s work follow links in the e-submission.

[9] To watch the interview follow link in the e-submission.

[10] For examples of this work see Family Honour (2016), choreographed by Asafo-Adjei in collaboration with Jonathan Burrows, and 52 Portraits, a Sadler’s Wells project by Jonathan Burrows with Kwame Asafo-Adjei. Links are provided in the e-submission.

[11] Debord wrote, ‘the economy transforms the world, but it transforms it into a world of the economy’ (1994: 40). We can draw on this insight to consider the interplay of the local culture industry with the global. It proposes interdependence between political, cultural and economic agendas and in doing so raises many concerns about the homogenisation of culture and the impact on diversity.

[12] Farooq Chaudhry has been pivotal in multi-millionaire choreographer Akram Khan’srise to fame. In a wider context beyond dance, Isabella Blow instigated the rise of iconic multi-millionaire fashion designer Alexander McQueen, while Charles Saatchi launched the career of multi-millionaire artist Damien Hirst. In 2019 London Studio Centre (LSC) is offering a new MA Dance Producing and Management course, which focuses on ‘business models, governance and management structures for dance production’. Chaudhry and Katie Prince are among the chief advisers on the course and hip hop is grouped among the practices covered. It is interesting to note that on the LSC Theatre Dance BA programme, in years 1 and 2 hip hop is offered as a peripheral skills option along with Pilates, pointe work, tap dance and other skills. It is dropped in year 3 for students to concentrate on one of the main course key areas of classical ballet, contemporary dance, jazz theatre dance or music theatre.

[13] The discourse around HHDT is imbricated with claims to authenticity that refer to the original foundation of the four elements; much has already been written on the histories surrounding the origins of these emblematic components of hip hop culture. See Banes, 1994; Chang, 2005; Fogarty, 2011, Chang, 2005 et al..

[14] Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell highlights the problematic nature of the honours system: ‘The whole honours system stinks of class privilege and social snobbery. […] It is a relic of feudalism, with a taint of nepotism and corruption. […] In addition, too many honours have imperial titles, such as Member of the British Empire. The Empire is rightly long gone. When it existed, hundreds of millions of people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Pacific were colonised by Britain, ruled against their will, enslaved, exploited as cheap labour and had their lands stripped of natural resources. This sordid imperial history is not something worthy of commemoration with honours such as MBEs, OBEs and CBEs’ (Tatchell, 2016).

[15] After 35 years of writing for them, Lyn Gardner was dropped by the Guardian newspaper in March 2017. Mark Shenton, writing for The Stage, said, ‘Pulling Lyn Gardner’s blog is another nail in the coffin of arts journalism’ (2017).

[16] In her examination of meanings in hip hop dance, Professor of Marketing and Management Carla Stalling Huntington introduces the term ‘collective texts’ to describe how hip hop dance is made up of many hundreds of what she calls ‘rap dances’ (2007: 41).

[17] For more information follow the link in the e-submission.

[18] Intellectual property rights cover ‘Organising, arranging and staging dance festivals and live dance exhibitions, including hip hop dance theatre; booking agencies for dance festivals and theatre tickets; management of dance and theatre festivals; production of entertainment shows featuring dancers and live performers; organising workshops, lectures and demonstrations on hip hop dance theatre; provision of dance classes; publication of printed matter relating to all the aforesaid services; information and advisory services relating to the aforesaid services’ (Patent Office, 2016).

[19] For instance, in an article for the Guardian website, British author and political activist Owen Jones accused the BBC of being politically biased and‘stacked full of rightwingers’ (2014).

[20] At the time of the funding award Alistair Spalding was sitting on the National Arts Council, which decides on funding awards to the dance sector including Sadler’s Wells. Some commentators, including me, see this as a worrying conflict of interests. More recently Elisabeth Murdoch’s appointment to the National Arts Council caused a backlash from arts professionals.

[21] The Royal Opera House’s promotional material announced: ‘ZooNation creates irresistible narrative hip hop dance theatre. The company has won nationwide acclaim with its hugely popular shows, including Into the Hoods and Some Like It Hip Hop. Playfully drawing on everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim, Artistic Director Kate Prince and her company present brilliantly exuberant dance adventures overflowing with energy and wit’ (2016).

[22] In ZooNation’s case, the West End model is a long-established and trusted theatrical tradition that is potentially capable of providing a highly profitable revenue stream, as well as an influx of tourists who contribute to the local economy. Furthermore, emphasising this market potential, hip hop generates £10 billion a year worldwide through its various enterprises from music to Broadway theatre (Watson, 2018). A recent survey by Simmons Lathan Media Group (SLMG) identified a customer base of 45 million hip-hop consumers between the ages of 13 and 34, 80% of whom are white, with a spending power of $1 trillion. In the work of ZooNation we can see two strong economic models combined, commoditised hip hop and commoditised West End theatre, a formula that the UK culture and tourist industry strongly supports via supervised funding initiatives.

[23] Human agency is an oft-used word in academic writing, and linguistic and sociocultural anthropologist Laura Ahearn notes that its meaning varies greatly depending on the context of its usage (2000, 12). For the context of my research I find Ahearn’s definition of agency as ‘the socioculturally mediated capacity to act’ (2001, 28) a useful anchor point. This provisional definition recognises that, to some degree, sociocultural and political tensions inform all human actions and interactions.

[24] I use ‘gatekeeping institution’ to refer to one that administers funding from government bodies such as ACE to smaller projects such as Breakin’ Convention, which receives funding as a Sadler’s Wells NPO rather than as an independent organisation. This will apply to the proposed hip hop academy, which will be run under Sadler’s Wells Trust rather than an independent organisation.

[25] Between 2016 and 2018 I submitted freedom of information requests to ACE, University of East London and the press office of Sadler’s Wells to try to ascertain the structure and scope of the academy but none of these bodies expanded on the little information it provides to the public.

[26] For more information follow link in e-submission.

[27] ‘Any reading of Olympic history reveals the true motives of each host city. It is the necessity to shock, to fast track the dispossession of the poor and marginalized as part of the larger machinations of capital accumulation. The architects of this plan need a spectacular show; a hegemonic device to reconfigure the rights, spatial relations and self-determination of the city’s working class, to reconstitute for whom and for what purpose the city exists. Unlike any other event, the Olympics provide just that kind of opportunity’ (Kumar, 2012).

[28] For more information follow link in e-submission.

[29] A hip hop dance artist whom I worked with on the BLOCK project (see chapter 3) noted in her journal: ‘The issue of gentrification makes me question my future here in London and whether I will be able to get through all of these economic difficulties. […] I’m facing the reality of expensive rents, transportation, living costs’ (Studio Journal, 9 October 2015).

[30] For more information follow the link in the e-submission.

[31] The Place is home to London School of Contemporary Dance.

[32] Avant Garde’s artistic director and choreographer Tony Adigun is a Work Place artist at The Place in London (home of London School of Contemporary Dance) and was mentored by Akram Khan. Fagin’s Twist is co-produced by The Place.

[33] Soja’s concept of Thirdspace is discussed in detail in chapter 4. It is the ability to resist hegemonic conditions and resonates with Foucault’s idea of Heterotopia, which Soja describes as ‘dealing with the trialectic of space-power-knowledge’ (Borch, 2002: 116).

[34] For examples of how the term HHDT is applied by Sadler’s Wells Breakin’ Convention.

[35] Behind Every Man  is a feminist piece that explores the pivotal and often unacknowledged role of women in society, while Obibini explores complex issues of identity within black culture.

[36] An example of how the institution shapes what the audience sees can be observed through notable changes in the time limit imposed on works presented on the Breakin’ Convention festival’s main stage. A maximum time limit of 10 minutes for pieces submitted for inclusion in the programme was introduced in 2011. Before this, artists could submit a piece of any reasonable length for consideration. Since 2011 the introduction of a limited time slot format has resulted in the emergence of a bespoke, homogenised product.

[37] The artists were concerned that Breakin’ Convention now focused on developing international artists rather than home grown talent. The 2016 Breakin’ Convention USA tour was raised as an example: the tour showcases Tentacle Tribe (Canada), Just Us (South Korea), Jane Sekonya-John (South Africa) and just two UK acts, Jonzi D and Pro-Motion.