Boy Blue on bringing hip-hop energy to the dance world

<span>Best in class… Boy Blue founders Michael Asante and Kenrick Sandy.</span><span>Photo: Rebecca Lupton</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 622ef5f4″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 5f4″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Best in class… Boy Blue founders Michael Asante and Kenrick Sandy.Photo: Rebecca Lupton

Sunday afternoon in Tower Hamlets, east London, and the room is full of teenagers working out a hip-hop routine, their trainers rhythmically squeaking on the floor. Things are looking pretty good, but Kenrick Sandy steps in. He is a powerful presence, with a silence around him and eyes that you feel like they are looking into your soul. “I listen to the weight distribution,” he tells the dancers, implying that he is not hearing what he wants. “Feel the movement in your body, don’t just copy the steps.” He questions them about what exactly the energy of a step is, the difference between sharp, snappy or explosive. And he has an eye for the details: are the fingers together or apart? Is the thumb at the top of a fist? They are transformed in a period of 15 minutes.

This is how Sandy’s company Boy Blue became so good. Founded in 2001 with composer Michael “Mikey J” Asante, both fresh out of school, the company grew out of an earlier incarnation, Matrix, a handful of dancers competing against other crews from across the capital at street dance events in South London. But while other groups disbanded or started looking for ‘real’ jobs, Boy Blue boomed. They soon trained a cohort of 50 young dancers; they won an Olivier Prize in 2007; became an associated company at the Barbican centre; choreographed for the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony; and were reunited last year with the ceremony’s director, Danny Boyle, at the opening of the brand new Aviva Studios in Manchester with an ambitious show, Free Your Mind, which mixed The Matrix with Alan Turing and Mancunian pop culture.

In works such as Redd, Blak Whyte Gray and Emancipation of Expressionism (which are on the GCSE dance syllabus), Sandy’s choreography uses impactful and tightly drilled formations, drawing on hip-hop styles, popping, breaking, krump and animation. The soundtrack features pulsating bass-driven loops from Asante, who is also known as a music producer for artists such as Kano, as well as a composer for TV’s Top Boy.

The pair have their different roles in Boy Blue, but they are co-directors, and the sunny and talkative Asante is the one who explains the vision for their latest play, Cycles. It’s a return of sorts to their hip-hop roots, with much of their recent work being narrative and delving into deep topics or emotional states. “The idea of ​​black trauma is central to a lot of our work,” says Asante. Cycles, on the other hand, are really about movement, perpetual motion and the cycles of life. Asante began reading about ensō, the Japanese Zen symbol of enlightenment that represents eternity and circularity, as well as presence in the moment.

When we meet a few days later, in a rehearsal studio next to the O2 arena in South East London, we are two weeks into an eight-week creation process and they don’t yet know what the final piece will look like. “It’s starting to reveal itself,” says Jade Hackett, the show’s associate choreographer. Boy Blue has a real family atmosphere; Hackett was a dancer in the company when it won Olivier. She hugs Asante’s ten-month-old son on her knee. Meanwhile, Sandy describes how choreography is created: sometimes consciously, based on ideas about form and structure; other times more unconsciously, just by listening deeply to the music and seeing what emerges in his own body. Now he’s thinking about what makes a movement truly hip-hop and not just a dance step: the bounce, the head nod, the groove.

“You don’t just do dry cookies,” he says. “You have to add the flavor, add the butter, add the jam. The question: ‘What is funk? What is swag?’ And taking all those different energies.” Although hip-hop is originally an American form, from a British perspective this is the genre, and the influences of British garage, grime, jungle, carnival and Caribbean music are all thrown into the pot to make it something quintessentially British .

Music is at the heart of Boy Blue’s creations, and also of their friendship. At the age of 12, Sandy was introduced to Asante at school in Ilford, East London, saying: “This man can beatbox!” At the age of 14, Asante grew a goatee to try to join the famous British garage club Twice As Nice and they both went “raving in Ilford”. Sandy, a sporty boy, only started dancing seriously when he was 18. He went to a primary class at a youth center and the teacher said he could freestyle at a show at the Hackney Empire in east London, as long as he learned the latest routine. An eleven-year-old girl taught him the routine. “That was humiliating,” he admits, but it was a revelation. “After I did that one show, everything changed: my whole focus, my whole life. I thought: what kind of feeling is this?”

Sandy began choreographing soon after, and he and Asante formed their first group, Matrix, in 1999, which morphed into Boy Blue a few years later. They always did other odd jobs: Sandy, a magnetic performer, danced in music videos, including the original video for Murder on the Dancefloor. “He didn’t tell me about it!” laughs Asante. “I thought it was too cheesy or something. You’re part of British music history, mate!” And over the years, Sandy has choreographed for FKA twigs and Rita Ora, among others, and for major brand commercials and musical theater.

Teaching was also a big part of their job. Over the past twenty years, Boy Blue has trained hundreds, if not thousands, of young people, developed an army of dancers – some of whom have become professionals themselves – and has had a huge influence on London’s street dance scene. There is an almost moral basis to Sandy’s mission, a sense of duty to the community: “If we had the keys to certain doors that we could open, why wouldn’t we open them wide?” he says.

Unlike when Sandy and Asante were young and traveled miles around London to learn from other dancers, now the teenagers who come to the classes have seen it all on YouTube and TikTok. And while they can film their 30-second routines on camera, they have no stamina, Sandy and Asante say. Here their students also learn to be athletes. “We train them to perfection,” Hackett says. There is warmth and humor, but Sandy treats everyone like a professional. “I’m not trying to feed your ego, I’m trying to feed your mentality, your creativity,” he says. And the dancers go there.

There’s a lot to come for Sandy and Asante. Later this year they will be guest artistic directors of the National Youth Dance Company. In addition to Cycles, some of Boy Blue’s youth dancers are performing at the Brighton festival in May and there are other things in the pipeline that they can’t talk about. Asante is also busy outside the company. Last year he wrote TV scores for Netflix’s African Queens and Criminal Record starring Peter Capaldi and Cush Jumbo, and he is about to start work on Jamie Lloyd’s Romeo and Juliet, starring Tom Holland. He tells me that rapper Ghetts recently called him about a collaboration, but he just hasn’t had the time.

However, you really understand the feeling that this is for the couple, the Sundays you spend teaching – “Entertainment, education, enlightenment” is Boy Blue’s motto – are just as important as all the other top hobbies. “It’s extremely satisfying to see other people blossom and grow,” says Sandy. “It is beautiful.”

Boy Blue’s Cycles is at the Barbican theatreLondon, 30th of April until May 4.

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