Blak Whyte Gray: The hip hop show that represents another watershed for the EIF dance programme
- Kelly Apter
- 13 July 2017
Boy Blue co-founder Michael Asante talks about mood boards, making connections and that curious title
There was a time, not so long ago, when it would have been unthinkable to open the Edinburgh International Festival programme and find a hip-hop dance show in there. The days of street corners and warehouses being the sole domain of breaking and popping may be behind us, but acceptance by the 'establishment' has taken over 40 years and is still a work in progress.
When Boy Blue Entertainment won an Olivier Award for its 2007 show, Pied Piper, the company carved its way into the mainstream with a successful UK tour. Ten years later, an invitation to the 2017 EIF with Blak Whyte Gray sends a clear message to the dance community: as Boy Blue co-founder Michael Asante puts it 'hip hop cannot be ignored'.
Composer Asante and choreographer Kenrick Sandy set up Boy Blue in 2002, with the aim of creating hip-hop dance productions that elevated the artform to its rightful place. As co-artistic directors, both have fed equally into the work over the years; but when it came to Blak Whyte Gray, it was Asante who set the ball rolling.
Inspired by a conversation about his father's African heritage and motivated by recent political events at home and abroad, Asante felt he had something important to say. 'When we first started making the show, Kenrick said "Mike, this is something you've got the energy for; I can see it". So he allowed me to run with it and really express how the vision would look. He likened it to a museum that he could walk through and look at. So I curated the museum and the exhibits, so to speak, which were a combination of music, ideas and sketches, and then created a mood board which we put in the rehearsal room for everyone to see.'
One of the first things that strikes you about the show is the name. Those deliberate misspellings are not for affect but to move us away from the idea of colour. 'The colours are specifically written that way because they're not meant to be colours per se, but personalities or individuals: someone could have those names,' explains Asante. 'One of the major things is the colour black and the notion of what it means. Black is always seen as darkness and death, so I wanted to flip that. I wanted us to look at black in a different way.'
Blak Whyte Gray went on to receive an Olivier Award nomination, overwhelming critical acclaim and, of course, that International Festival invitation. For Asante, however, all of that falls into the 'nice to have' rather than essential column. What he's really looking for is our opinion.
'We don't do this for the awards or the applause,' he insists. 'We do it because we have something to say. Blak Whyte Gray received an Olivier nomination – and that's great, it's definitely an achievement – but the show's intent is to connect, pure and simple. The beautiful thing about perspective is that your experience, the books you've read and the people you've met will all determine how you view the show. And that's what I care about more than anything. I've made my statement and it's in the piece; for the show to live, I now need yours.'
Blak Whyte Gray, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, 16–19 Aug, 7.30pm; 19 Aug, 2.30pm, £10–£26.