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Jonzi D: Breakin' Convention is my most empowering project

HIP-HOP HERO: Jonzi D

WITH HIS groundbreaking festival due to commence in just a few weeks, it was a surprise to hear Jonzi D answer the phone and admit that he’d just been “laying down, not doing very much.”

Upon asking him how he could be relaxing when he has so much to plan, he laughed: “This is exactly why I’m laying down now, because once it starts, it just doesn’t stop!”

Still, the founder and artistic director of Breakin’ Convention is, by now, used to the planning and preparation the festival requires. Now in its 13th year, the event has become a staple in the hip-hop dance calendar, bringing together acts from all over the world and giving them a platform to showcase their art in a theatre space.

“I’ve always said, it’s not about bringing hip-hop to the theatre, it’s about bringing the theatre to hip-hop,” Jonzi explains. “I’m really talking about the theatre space and the importance of us being able to occupy that space with our culture. We were really trying to get rid of the arrogance that tends to exist in some of those high art venues and create a place for the people who love hip-hop dance.”

That place is London’s revered dance venue Sadler’s Wells, where lovers of hip-hop dance come together every year to see some of the finest dancers showcase their moves.

Himself a dancer and choreographer, Jonzi admits that he’s felt less need to show off his own skills over the years, instead putting his focus on providing opportunities for other dancers to express their art in front of theatre audiences.

“I love dancing, that will never change,” says the 46-year-old, who is also an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells. “But when it comes to getting on stage, I haven’t felt like I’ve needed to be performing as much as I used to. I mean, The Letter [Jonzi’s one-man show, which hit the stage in 2013], was the first piece I’d made for myself in 17 years.

“I enjoy providing the platform for other artists and I enjoy having somewhat of a gatekeeper role with the arts, particularly as a black man, because it’s not often that black people get into those types of roles. So that has been an empowering position for me. And surely, at my age, I can make room for the fresh talent that’s coming out!”

Having curated Breakin’ Convention for over a decade, what keeps Jonzi enthusiastic about the event?

“I think it’s a lot to do with seeing talents that have been developing over the past 10 years now doing really well. Acts like Boy Blue, BirdGang, ZooNation – all of these companies are now doing things that they weren’t doing when we started Breakin’ Convention and it’s great to see how far they’ve come.

“And seeing the development of hip-hop dance theatre not just in the UK, but around the world, is brilliant.”

Indeed, Jonzi’s brilliance hasn’t been reserved for the UK only. Having worked to change the profile of street dance within the UK over the last two decades, the hip-hop advocate has also taken the festival to America – and there are more dates to come.

“We’ve got another 10 dates in America over the next two years,” Jonzi confirms. “Breakin’ Convention is very much about connecting the local hip-hop scene with the local high art theatre, so that involves me going back and forth to each venue, looking for hip-hop in the area and trying to connect the two.”

Reflecting on his proudest achievement to date, Jonzi’s answer is, perhaps, no surprise.

“Breakin’ Convention,” he says proudly. “It’s the most long-lasting project that I’ve done and also the most empowering. I’m also really proud of my team, which is multi-racial, gender balanced – I think it’s a model team that other companies should aspire to have. So yeah, those things make me very proud.”

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