Form and Flash vs Skirts and Knivesby Roger Young / Images by Tyrone Bradley / 25.11.2011
A high domed hall, an entrance, it must have been, to the old train station. A square stage off-set at an angle, backed by banks of LED flashing the Red Bull Beat Battle orange and red, suggests a boxing ring. Past the black suited bouncers, rippling down the marble steps are waves of cool kids, street aware, coiffed, manicured, ripped and bespectacled, flashing brands and vintage in primary colours, chanting the dance crew on stage forward. Pressed against the barrier, I realise something: I don’t understand dance. I see the sweat, I see the intricate moves, I see the technical skill, I know the different styles, I can see how the dancers push themselves, but I just don’t understand it. But through the osmosis of the crowd, I can feel it, and let me tell you, it feels glorious, uplifting, liberating. Call it a personal failing, for as long as I’ve been experiencing them, dance battles have never quite been able to grab hold of my attention. Here, in this moment, I feel a profound sense that somewhere I have missed out on something.
The eight selected crews start by showcasing their respective styles. The judges, led by Somizi Mhlongo, (choreographer of the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony), are rating the crews on performance, execution, originality, and group uniformity. This is street dance reduced and formalized: choreographed routine vs choreographed routine. They’re also judging cross styles, pitting iSbujwa against Krump, Pantsula against B-boy. Added to this, the competition is an entertainment; the crowd will later get in on the voting via red and blue cards.
It starts with Afro-Tribal trying some innovation but their freestyle struggles with the structure of a routine. Real Actions’ pantsula in orange checks the boxes of execution and uniformity, if not originality. Genesis Kings use the whole stage, playing a segment of Sarafina as a hat tip to the head judge, flashing haka-like Krump faces, exploding with excitement. The crowd goes mad for Shakers and Movers, the two-man (every other crew is at least five strong) team, Shakers have a winking sense of humor even as they stage a gun and knife fight, a street version, no Hollywood dramatics. Ubuntu, the Cape Town B-boy team come on with a routine that boggles, all body painted up, they proceed to pull off a manic history of dance and evolution complete with Space Odyssey style monkey floor beating and a tower of bodies topped with savage banana eating. Soweto’s Finest isBujwa routine mixes acrobatics and a flirtation with challenging notions of femininity, but after the Vegas like nature of Ubuntu everything else pales. Artistic Intelligence and Royale Fam Kings are both impressive, but seem more commercial dance oriented, more Jam Alley than back alley. The conundrum of the Beat Battle starts to come through, what is the competition about? Pushing the boundaries of dance or entertaining a crowd?
It’s during the first round of battles proper that the crews’ true stripes come through. Afro Tribal’s energy-less freestyles are quickly routed by Genesis Kings’ MTV leaning krump. Soweto’s Finest seem to have the hometown advantage over Ubuntu but the Cape Town boys beat them proper, even though, for a moment, it seemed like the play acting Flats style had lost the crowd. Soweto’s Finest do a lot of splitting up and coming together in mandala like patterns, the kind of magnificence that checks the boxes of uniformity and performance, while Ubuntu opt for hip hop’s goading and taunting. In the end, the Cape Crew win it. The next battle shows up the dilemma of this kind of competition.
Shakers and Movers’ Mada and Prince are dressed in yellow and red schoolgirl’s outfits and they carry little school suitcases. The first half of their performance is mischievous and clown-like, semi acrobatic and quite scatty. Then, they open their cases, the music cuts, they take out tin cans and tap the beat, the click of it, unfortunately, lost in the dome’s acoustics and the sounds of the crowd. Shakers battle piece is strange, beautiful and the opposite of what’s demanded in the judging categories, yet it’s challenging and weirdly affecting. Artistic Intelligence have no problem beating them down with their Jika Majika coordinated slickness. The Royal Fam vs Real Actions battle is full of energy with Real Actions bringing the heat, but I’m still reeling from the Shakers and Movers piece and don’t take it all in. The real surprise however lies in the outcomes. The judges may have determined the battle winners but that doesn’t mean that the winning crews automatically go through, points are also tallied from the crowd votes and the previous showcase rounds. While it’s all perfectly legit, it does seem a little over-complicated. The four teams to battle for the final are, Real Actions, Ubuntu, Soweto’s Finest and Artistic Intelligence. All the krumpers and freestylers are out. It’s hip hop and pantsula in the semis.
There is an air of expectation and awe, the smell of incense drifts through the train station slash sports arena slash dance floor. While the judges decide the match ups and the crews work on their next routines, eddies of kids are breaking out into mini battles in the crowd, with moves as impressive as those on stage. Some of these kids have major swag. It makes you realise how normal, how part of the fabric of daily life this shit really is.
Predictably, it’s hip hop vs pantsula in both semi-battles. First up Real Actions vs Artistic Intelligence. It seems by this point that Real Actions have shown all their moves, and their piece plays like a repetition. They’re easily trounced by the spectacle of Artistic Intelligence’s coordinated flow. It’s a blow to the audience that Ubuntu beat out Soweto’s Finest for the second time, this is Jozi,, is the feeling, surely there should be a pantsula team in the final?
The final battle is a curious affair. When Ubuntu take the stage, with one member wearing a silver glitter Kangol cap straight from a small town pantomime, I fear it’s over for them, they’re simply way too cabaret for their own good. The performance convinces me otherwise. Ubuntu incorporate so many different stylistic elements into the final performance, their b-boying becomes an extra flourish rather than the main focus. They push themselves outside of their comfort zone so often, you can feel them trying new things, new combos. But it’s the little flashy things that feel weird here; the expanding silver cane with the semi-limbo move, feels forced and reaching.
Artistic Intelligence simply have so many members in their team doing so many things that it’s hard for it to not be impressive. They weave in and out of each other, the sequence taking the form of an interrogation with a suitcase and a chair. It’s a mixture of amateur dramatics and street smarts, but in terms of dance moves they really don’t seem to be doing anything spectacular. As skilled as they are, as precise and in synch, it doesn’t have that high wire entertainment feeling of Ubuntu. In the end, Artistic Intelligence take the drum and the bragging rights home.
It being the first year of the Red Bull Beat Battle you’d expect there to be some kind of teething problems, so the fact that the judging process doesn’t quite make sense, at least to the casual observer like myself, isn’t surprising. What is surprising though is that the teams pushing the boundaries seemed to fall by the wayside. It’s not to say that Artistic Intelligence didn’t deserve to win, but rather that they didn’t explore new ground the way Shakers and Movers, Ubuntu or Soweto’s Finest were. Next year the competition needs to find a way to reward the risk takers as well as the pure entertainers, or it could just become another feeder scheme for Channel O music videos. If Red Bull Beat Battle hopes to become a platform for South African street dance and a nurturer of new dance styles then they have to make the judging criteria more instructive and transparent, like an ice skating contest with knock out rounds. They have to figure out a way to have parallel prizes for the different intentions, some crews come to entertain, others come to innovate. These two things don’t always coincide but each of them are equally important if we want dance to be not only a lucrative career but also to push forward in original and interesting directions.
The stage is constructed in such a way that it makes it hard for the Beat Battle to turn into a proper dance party. After the high of the announcement it doesn’t take more than an hour for the crowd to start thinning rapidly. Prince and Mada get back on stage and begin to freestyle, without the constraints of the competition and its sequences, they pop and pantsula, pulling off strange and mesmerizing complications. The crowd that were departing are briefly frozen, can’t tear themselves away. Here, finally, is street dance, unformalized, with no purpose other than the outpouring of energy with the dancers urging each other on to try out the new and impossible, the breathtaking and unfathomable.
*All images © Tyrone Bradley.
Learn more about Red Bull Beat Battle here.