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Review: Robotic Precision, Uncommonly Well Done

Category: Art & Culture,Dance

“Blak Whyte Gray,” by the London hip-hop company Boy Blue, is a dance with the force of an uprising. It comes in three parts, each corresponding to a word in the title, but not in that order. The actual progression is from white to black, which may sound like a fadeout but feels like a prison break.

The work, which had its United States premiere at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater on Friday as part of the White Light Festival, begins with three dancers dressed in white coats that recall both samurai armor and straightjackets. They move impassively, with the jerky precision of robots, an effect that at once dehumanizes them and attracts the sympathy that puppets can. Some of the popping seems impelled by electric shock, a response to pain. These robots raise their arms in supplication.

This expressive use of classic hip-hop technique has itself become a commonplace of hip-hop theater. But Boy Blue does it uncommonly well. The company, founded in 2001, is jointly led by Michael Asante, who is responsible for the music and creative direction, and Kenrick Sandy, who handles the choreography. And the connection between sound and motion is exceptionally tight.

Where in “Whyte” the dancers appear to suffer from the jolting sound, in “Gray” they turn its impact outward. A gang of eight now, they sometimes aim invisible rifles, but less literal and more powerful is the way their bodies are weaponized. Each whacking move is a blow, a bang, seeming to strike rather than respond to the gunshot or hammer beats in the soundtrack.

This is krump, the aggressive battle style of redirected rage developed in Los Angeles. Boy Blue doesn’t just borrow it. At one point, dancers scaling the stage floor by scooting on their backs are mirrored, at a 90-degree angle, by upright dancers. Even more impressive than the compositional sophistication is how it heightens rather than dampens the street style’s energy.

“Blak” is centered on one dancer, the amazing Dickson Mbi. At first, he’s more raw material than man, collapsing unless others prop him up. Gradually, though, through evocative ritual gestures, the tribe makes a hero out of him, draping him in red so that he looks like a buff Roman emperor.

Now sappy strings rise in the score, one of several signs that “Blak Whyte Gray” remains trapped in some of the clichés it strives to escape. The restraint of “Whyte” is snapped by silent screams. “Gray” too much resembles a video game. Why must “Blak” be postapocalyptic? Isn’t the work’s search for “the truth” (voiced in a sample by Vincent Price) urgent enough in the present?

A powerful piece of hip-hop theater, “Blak Whyte Gray” is sometimes diminished by theatrical effects, but never fatally. Late in “Blak,” as African drums rise in the score and giant masks descend on strings, ultraviolet lights reveal tribal markings on the dancers’ faces, garishly underlining the emergence of African movements in the choreography.

Those African steps have been present all along, even in the oppressed robots of “Whyte.” You don’t need ultraviolet lights to see them or to share the joy of release as the dancers form a corridor and travel it in pairs, busting their best moves. The “Soul Train” line has always been a spiritual form.


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