Hundreds of eyes were fixed on the black stage. Music whispered out of speakers, slowly growing louder. White light illuminated the space, revealing the silhouettes of three dancers in white clothes eerily resembling straight jackets. The light settled over the stage in strips, painting the dancers behind shadowy bars. The dancers were still until the music changed and the beat dropped. When they came to life they moved with breathtaking precision in perfect unison.

Whyte is the first part of Blak Whyte Gray, which made its U.S. premiere as part of the 2018 White Light Festival. Danced by the acclaimed East London company Boy Blue, Blak Whyte Gray returns for a very special engagement as part of this summer's Mostly Mozart Festival.

Founded in 2001 by Michael "Mikey J" Asante and Kenrick "H2O" Sandy, Boy Blue is an award-winning dance company working to elevate and innovate hip-hop as a Barbican Center Associate Artist. The company is committed to education, running a dance program in East London which allows more than a hundred young dancers to train weekly alongside professionals.
 

Blak Whyte Gray... and Unforgettable
Photo by Carl Fox
Blak Whyte Gray

The White Light Festival is an exploration of "the power of art to illuminate our interior and communal lives," according to Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's Ehrenkranz Artistic Director. The festival is dedicated to bringing together an array of thought-provoking avant-garde pieces to inspire conversations on what community and individual voices mean today.

Boy Blue's Blak Whyte Gray aligns perfectly with White Light's mission, but also resonates with the innovative spirit of Mozart, which animates the summer festival. In an interview with Angie Smith, theater producer at London's Barbican Center, Asante said, "Our work has always responded to the issues of our young people and the climate we live in… we want to take people on their own personal journey."

Whyte is chilling, Gray is dangerous, Blak is triumphant.

Blak Whyte Gray was created and directed by Asante and Sandy, co-commissioned and co-produced by the Barbican Center, and supported via public funding from the Arts Council England. Asante is the mastermind behind the work's soundtrack, and Sandy the genius behind the choreography. Set to chaotic and chilling yet joyful music, the hip-hop dance triple bill is comprised of three sections: Whyte, Gray, and Blak.

Whyte, featuring Ricardo Da Silva, Gemma Kay Hoddy, and Dickson Mbi, is full of jarring, rigid movements, alluding to insanity and incarceration. Asante said that Whyte "looks at the idea of being struck or held down, of not getting opportunities, and the numbness, the submission this can create in us."

Gray immediately followed Whyte. The lights dimmed and spotlights flashed as Theophilus "Godson" Oloyade, Natasha Gooden, Jordan Franklin, Nicole McDowall, Kenrick "H2O" Sandy, Ricardo Da Silva, Gemma Kay Hoddy, and Dickson Mbi slithered, stalked, and crawled onstage. The piece mirrored a battleground as the dancers held their arms like snipers and flailed about almost violently. There was a constant struggle between action and stillness. Gray "is about awakening from the slumber, the numbness presented in Whyte. It's about taking the courage to question things and the tension between apathy and action," Asante explained.

The final movement, Blak, started in silence: Mbi hung limp as other dancers struggled to get him upright. Mbi fell to the floor several times. After he finally stood on his own, the others danced around him, eventually presenting him with a long, crimson cape before leaving him alone onstage. Mbi took a moment to observe the audience like a king before stepping out of the garment. Melding hip-hop, tai chi, contemporary dance, and ballet, Mbi danced with even more rigor than before. One by one, the other dancers swirled around him and he stilled to let each of them leave muddy streaks of paint on his body. Dull, grey African-style masks lowered from the stage rafters.

The lights went out.

The dancers became brilliant neon silhouettes against the blackness. Their clothes lit up in vibrant oranges and blues as the music took on a distinctly African rhythm and earthy energy. Mbi's body shone bright orange under the blacklight as the masks morphed into emotive faces awash with color. "Blak is about the death of ego and the birth of freedom," Asante said. "It's an opening up, a celebration, transcendence. A space we're meant to be in—you could definitely call it spiritual."

Whyte is chilling, Gray is dangerous, Blak is triumphant—all vastly different, but each breathtaking and filled with purpose. I dared not tear my eyes away from the stage. Beyond an electrifying performance with genius lighting, music, and choreography, Blak Whyte Gray was the epitome of modern human expression; whatever techniques and musicality the dancers possessed was brought to life by their ferocious expressions and the harsh sounds of their breathing in the moments of silence. Whatever description I give the piece here does it no justice. Anyone in attendance that spectacular night can use a plethora of adjectives to describe this performance, but one is indisputable: Blak Whyte Gray was unforgettable.


Teen contributor Cara Chang is a member of the Student Arts Council (SAC).

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