The current Sadler’s Wells Theater opened almost 11 years ago. Every bit of it is modern, but its walls, corridors and floors bear witness to the history of the five previous theaters that have stood on that spot. I love this sense of the past amid a new theater. And I love that Sadler’s Wells today, under the artistic direction of Alistair Spalding since 2004, has become the year-round dance-only theater that the London dance world had been calling for since at least the 1970s.
Mr. Spalding is using the Wells, the Lilian Baylis Studio (within the Sadler’s Wells building) and the Peacock Theater (near Covent Garden in central London) to present dance of all species. Last week, while attending each of these theaters, I caught part of an annual hip-hop festival (“Breakin’ Convention,” at the Wells and the Baylis); a Cuban dance-and-music extravaganza (“Havana Rakatan,” at the Peacock); and an evening devoted to connections between American and British forms of step dancing (“Folk Art, Let’s Dance!,” at the Baylis).
Each made me powerfully aware of how dance and music have migrated and metamorphosed, in a process that continues today. “Breakin’ Convention,” organized by the artistic director Jonzi D, is now an annual weekend event at Sadler’s Wells. Hip-hop emerged in America in the 1970s; I was aware of it in Britain in the early ’80s, but I had not appreciated quite how far-flung or how diverse it has become until this event.
On May 4 at the Baylis Studio, Junior, a powerfully built young French Congolese man, gave a one-man show in which his feet often never met the ground. He specializes in off-kilter handstands; he can run on his hands; once he skittered across the stage by hopping in triplets — on alternate hands. At first I assumed he was never going to stand upright.
But later his feet played their part, memorably: he walks with a limp, and he turned this into a rhythmic dance virtue. He also talked about identity: having left Congo at 5, he can no longer speak his first language and has few memories of his native land. But “I dance, therefore I am,” he said; thanks to dance, he “became someone.”
I could not attend all of that evening’s events, but of those I saw, two British groups were impressive. Kloe Dean, the choreographer of the all-female Myself Dance Company, arranged her 14 performers in two, three or four groups, each doing quite separate actions. The stage geometries were always striking; one section gave everyone a brief solo. A serious theatrical sense was in evidence.
Each of the three men in Avant Garde — hunky, bare-chested, wearing loose black pants and white sneakers — was a technical whiz. Their act was to perform (with a certain coy “What’s this music doing?” irreverence) to sections of Mozart, Beethoven and Max Bruch, but what was startling was just how much range they heard within each piece.
Their finale was to the famous Dance of the Capulets from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” This is music in which most choreographers hear nothing but a pounding bass tread, but these three, catching the virtuosity with which the strings repeatedly chase up and down, responded with somersaults, jumps and spins: superbly timed, musically exhilarating.
“Havana Rakatan” first visited the Peacock Theater in 2007; this 2009 season is running there for three weeks. With bright costumes and sexy charm galore, this show offers a cheerfully tourist view of Cuba and flirtation in which nothing is of any consequence except the dancing and the music.
Except? Those are its heart. The Spanish and African elements of Cuban music and dance are shown as separate ingredients, and you also see a rich series of different ways in which those sources have combined to make one regional genre after another.
Anybody who has attended Latin ballroom dances will have been taught what’s called Cuban hip motion. (You tilt the pelvis to keep the weight off whichever foot is advancing, and the result often makes the center of the body more vivid than the feet.) Naturally Cuban hip motion was in excelsis in “Havana Rakatan.”
There were dances in which the women — in a nice reversal of European convention — would turn the men. The men would strike a pose (even sit with one leg extended), and the women would rotate them, sometimes even running to do so.
Always these dances — directed and choreographed by Nilda Guerra — had even more invention to offer: movement rippling up the body from the strutting footwork, partnering of jubilant expansiveness, a bright supply of charm. The live playing of the Turquino band was frequently sensational.
“Folk Art, Let’s Dance!” at the Baylis Studio brought together separate traditions of step dancing and their music: Phil Jamison, a specialist in the buck dancing of the Appalachians, accompanied by Rayna Gellert on the guitar; three men of the Tuscarora Indian Nation of North Carolina; and the husband-wife-son Orchard family, Gypsies from the West Country of England.
Each introduced the audience to music and dances, some going back centuries, others recently evolved. For a finale Tom Orchard (the husband) invited Mr. Jamison and Dave Locklear (the lead Tuscarora dancer) to step dance alongside him. In this triple-focus display of dance harmony, each man preserved his own idiom while referring to the others.
A sense of happy competition can do wonders: it was impossible to find much dance interest in the Tuscarora material until Mr. Locklear, beside the others, suddenly showed just how lively his insteps could be. Mr. Orchard’s footwork, in his pleasantly hopping and tapping English Gypsy way (not unlike English Morris footwork), was always spruce.
Mr. Jamison’s feet seemed to do the least. The often shuffling manner of his buck dances keeps the feet close to the floor throughout. But he was the truest dancer, maintaining a gentle current of motion that kept his whole body relaxed and spontaneous. The event, lovingly organized by Alex Reuben (a Londoner), proved sweet to the senses and instructive to the mind — which is, Horace wrote, how poetry should be.