Cindy Claes shifts boundaries in dance theatre

I journeyed to Resolutions at The Place last Tuesday (24 Jan) with a main focus on attentively watching MCDC’s’ Riah, and writing a review. Yet what I saw from Cindy Claes‘ Things Aren’t Always Black or White was too poignant to ignore, or reference in a paragraph or two.

Where to begin? This piece of dance theatre is the most thought-provoking, bold, boundary-pushing production I’ve seen since Lee Griffiths’ Behind Every Man (ironically at Resolution 2016)Ambitious in its narrative, Things Aren’t Always Black or White is an amalgamation of styles, brought alive through poetry; that tells the story of mass incarceration in the US. A 25 minute solo piece that both satisfied and frustrated many thoughts that popped up as it unfolded.

Is this Hip Hop Dance Theatre? Claes has an unbelievable mastery of the Popping and Waving techniques under the Hip Hop Dance umbrella. Her intricate power and control reminded me of Dickson Mbi’s untiltled solo at the Just Us Dance Theatre platform, also taking place in the very same building. Precise pops and contractions melting into fluid waves – the body roll a serious weapon of hers.

Yet there were glimpses of other styles, most notably Dancehall. This was the first time I witnessed Dancehall on a theatrical stage, with no attempt to have its usual light-hearted or upbeat vibe. It became an instrument to portray dark and sombre stories; and this was both a joy to watch and really uncomfortable to witness.

Is it then Dancehall theatre? Most likely. With a history already behind it, the concept has been on stage several times – with Claes attempting to define what it is (and teaching me a lot in the process).

I realised something. An idea of what dance theatre and Hip Hop dance theatre should look like had buried itself deep in my consciousness. If it’s not pure Hip Hop like that of Jonzi D or Boy Blue Entertainment or Zoonation’s long history of theatrical pieces, then it must be those who borrow from styles who have had a home in theatre for many decades. Think Contemporary, Lyrical, Ballet, or Tap appearing in the new generation of Hip Hop dance theatre makers – Botis Seva, Ella Mesma, Lee Griffiths, Joseph Toonga et. al.

Here before our eyes was one woman, doing something truly new and unexpected – a marriage between Dancehall theatre and Hip Hop Dance theatre. There was a light bulb moment. A refreshing witnessing of the new.


Using her own powerful text to tell stories, most notably that of Sandra Bland – an activist who died in police custody after being arrested in July 2015 for a minor driving offence – Claes appeared to have overcome the issue that always presents itself in these instances. Poetry being overpowered by movement or being a distraction from the movement. Claes transitioned from monologues to sectioned solos, using a blend of piano music and distinct hip hop inspired songs, with beats and rhythms her body followed tirelessly.

Yet something was missing. Perhaps it was the ratio of choreography to freestyle – skewed in favour of freestyle. But that did not take away from the narrative or the execution of the moves. Perhaps it was the length of the three stories, framed by three rectangular lights on stage. “With careful edits, Claes could have a piece of dance theatre as powerful as its subject matter,” said Eren Whitcroft in her review. But it could become even more powerful, as the fervent performance received a standing ovation. Described as “beautiful and sincere”, “sophisticated” and “phenomenal” by audience members.

Things Aren’t Always Black or White was a reassuring piece of theatre. Reassuring because of its acknowledgment of the roots of Hip Hop – music and dance. A tool for socio-political commentary of society in turbulent times.

Hip Hop. Dancehall. Spoken Word poetry. All on one dark stage. On one body. It was revitalising. Cindy Claes is revitalising.

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