I wanted to love Ivan Blackstock’s Wild Card night at Sadler’s Wells. With seven pieces, one pre-show performance and post-show DJs, there was almost three hours of material to engage with. I felt the passion Blackstock and his dancers had for their art, and their energy kept me going, almost. But as the night progressed, I struggled to enjoy the long-winded performance, and left wishing Blackstock had put more thought into curating the evening as a whole.

Ivan Blackstock's Wild Card © Hanna Hillier
Ivan Blackstock's Wild Card
© Hanna Hillier

That being said, there were plenty of moments within the evening that were fantastic. The dusty world of The Awakening was a quirky amusement that started the night off on a great note. Blackstock and Botis Seva’s spooky little scene drew me in, and the performers successfully combined hip-hop movement and rhythm with needling stares and just the right amount of character.

Other points of note were Regeneration, choreographed by Blackstock and performed by Company of Elders. The movement and music were hip-hop, and the large company transitioned through many formations, bringing the space to life. To see such overt, honest fun onstage, and to feel the reaction from the audience to this energy, was invigorating. I was reminded that it doesn’t take tricks and choreographic intricacy to get an audience to engage; it just requires dancing from the heart and showing the audience that unashamed enjoyment.

From there, four pieces rounded off the first half of the night. Each piece had a very distinct voice and plot, which made their quick succession hard for me as an audience member to navigate and retain. Simeon Qsyea’s What does it mean to be Hip Hop? was a dance to spoken word, investigating the way dancers identify with hip-hop culture. Then Blackstock’s METH saw dancers writhing and pulsing in his portrayal of media dependency. Vice followed, by Ukweli Roach, telling a story about one man and his vices, which were portrayed by a skilful group of break dancers in black masks. Finally came BLK n GLD, Blackstock’s “visual extravaganza” that involved heavy bass, the manipulation of hand-held lighting, and a pop-and-locking human disco ball.

Each piece had undeniable fire, and there were many images that were very strong. I loved the section where Qsyea’s dancers investigate shoes and I felt the laces duet specifically was clever and unique. I also connected with the tribal, almost voodoo possessed vibe of METH. Roach’s Vice showed, for me, the most impressive timing and choreography, with intricate musicality and synchronicity. And who doesn’t love a clinking, sparkling, human disco ball costume?

However, these moments were hard to tease from the wealth of choreographed material. For me, one of the things I struggle with when watching and analysing hip-hop is that the work often either follows a strict literal plotline or it focuses solely on movement, with tricks and musicality pushed to the forefront. Both extremes make it harder for me to fully appreciate the talent of both choreographers and dancers. I find I’m either frustrated by the confines of a story so literal that it reduces expressive movers to miming conversations, or I am completely focused on the spectacle and uniformity of the movement, and therefore am unable to connect with the nuance and individuality inherent in the form.

It was these frustrations that commanded the second half of the show. BirdGang Dance’s Ornithology: Evolution was filled with tricks, synchronised formation movement and matching costumes. I had trouble finding each dancer’s individuality within the group, even though I had connected with some of these artists in the first half of the show. Then, Blackstock’s rambling Reverie told a wacky tale of dancing clothes, tube rides and videogame-like levels. I struggled to become involved in the story, and it was so literal that the movement felt contrived and inauthentic.

Although I had these issues, and I was pretty overwhelmed by the length of the show, it was clear that many in the audience stuck it out and greatly enjoyed the performance. There were many points where the audience broke into laughter or clapping, and I don’t want to diminish the excitement and good energy this show created. Overall, I think Blackstock has a tough task ahead of him: to distil the night into something really powerful. I would be very interested and excited to see what he can take from this material to build one incredible piece of collaborative work.