The dance company Nobulus’ recent performance Out of the Shadows at Southbank Centre last week is aptly named. The narrative of the one-and-a-half-hour performance traces a kind of evolutionary ascent out of the primordial ooze to the (sort of) consciousness-raising of an Everyday Guy on the Street. But the real rising out of the shadows is the showcasing and validation of street dance on the theatrical stage. Within the purist culture of “breaking”, theatre is a hopelessly commercial and suspect co-opting of their practice.

© Andreas Brandl
© Andreas Brandl

Urban dance, as we name it, has a relatively short history on the theatre stage, emerging from the streets and formed by the regions where each style developed. What is currently thought of as urban dance includes a list of techniques, most of which come under the general heading of hip-hop: b-boying, or breaking; popping, the quick contraction of muscles; locking, freezing and holding a position after a larger fast motion; and a number of mechanical or robotic styles.

The dances that come out of these techniques are highly improvisational and most often performed for audiences in competitions, or battles, with individuals and teams competing against each other like musicians in a 1930s jazz band. Intensely masculine, these forms call for extraordinary body strength, gravity-defying agility, and a daredevil, risk-it-all attitude. Behind it all dwells an energy that seems barely containable within the body. The steps that have come out of this driving energy have been popularized by commercial singers, like Michael Jackson, whose famous moonwalk was originally known as the backslide and was taught to Jackson by street dancers Cooley Jaxson and Geron “Gazper” Canidate – though similar steps were filmed as early as 1932, danced by Cab Calloway.

Nobulus is a ten-dancer company – eight men and two women. The women, though graceful and strong, come out of more traditional movement backgrounds: Eleni Arapaki, clearly of a contemporary ballet, jazz and modern schooling, and Josefine Stenström from a contemporary dance background tempered by gymnastics and circus training. They offer a prettified version of b-girl dancing. The men, however, whose home countries include Russia (Rudolf Hamburg), Germany (Felix Roßberg, Erhan Dikkaya, Alexander Miller, Dennis Serikow), Spain (Aritz Lopez, Graciel Stenio) and Austria (Alex Wengler), are dynamic, mind-boggling breakers. Led by Artistic Director Wengler, the dancers have swapped the more abstractly improvisational world of b-boy battles to use their bodies in a narrative fashion more related to mime and classical ballet than most contemporary dance.

The story begins with a completely anonymous figure, clad in baggy white hoodie, loose pants, tennis shoes and face cover, who pops and locks to a voice-over narrator’s creation myth. Other dancers, covered all in black, circle, forming various creatures passing through various phases of evolution – I especially liked the duck-like creatures that waddled across the stage, eventually morphing into winged flight. Man arrives finally, and the evolution ends with a formation resembling the ever-familiar illustration of ape to modern man.

And from there on, the story focuses on an ordinary guy, who when sitting in front of the TV sees a woman who becomes a muse for his desire. The muse becomes the girl in the street who drops her hankie. Like a shot, he pursues her, wins her and loses her. After that his life is a downhill slide into despair. Wengler has the perfect face for this part, with his boxer’s profile, and acting is surely one of his many talents. During the course of the story, the other dancers play not only the parts of people passing through his life but also surrounding objects – bed, chairs, alarm clocks, typewriters, guitars, hoovers, treadmills, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, almost any imaginable feature of our lives. Their bodies, which shape themselves into these fantasy objects, have a supernatural plasticity.

Once love’s lost, the world drawn by the dancers becomes apocalyptic, and our contemporary fears are realized. Out of the Shadows developed in parts over several years, and it has a kind of gangly quality to it. In explaining his reasons behind the creation of this dance, Wengler says that at the time he conceived the idea, he was studying the evolution of mankind. September 11 hit, and he understood it as the beginnings of a war over material goods. The two ideas have fused in this creation. But at the heart of its creation are the dancers – their unrelenting vigour and the sincerity of their talent.

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