Over here, ballet fans – this Mixtape is proof that hip-hop dance deserves your time

ZooNation perform in Mixtape at Sadler's Wells - Alastair Muir
ZooNation perform in Mixtape at Sadler's Wells - Alastair Muir

ZooNation has been instrumental in bringing hip-hop dance into the British mainstream. Founded (in 2002) and still run by Kate Prince – also responsible for nearly all the choreography – this troupe of more than 30 blistering young dancers has essentially retooled the traditional moves of western street dance for dramatic purposes, thereby arguably putting it in the same category as everything from ballet to Bharatanatyam: a remarkable achievement.

Its new show, Mixtape – aptly named for both its bitty structure and its throwback nature – is a 20th-anniversary trip down memory lane, a portmanteau of cherry-picked passages from its six excellent signature shows, from the Sondheim reworking Into the Hoods to the Sting-driven Message in a Bottle, which just made it into the Peacock Theatre before the first big 2020 lockdown reared its ugly head. What’s more, it’s not just the main ZooNation troupe on show here, but also the 12-strong youth company (all of them in necessarily loose plain tracksuits). Meanwhile, both set and lighting are dark, industrial, cool, with lots of retina-teasing neon including large “play”, “stop”, “pause” and “fast-forward” emblems that are deployed throughout.

All of this makes for a clean, modern “look”, but it does create a potential – sometimes actual – stumbling block, especially in the first half. In having no stories, no costumes, and a pretty much one-size-fits-all aesthetic, it removes a great deal of what has always made the company so particularly special: its kaleidoscopically theatrical deployment of its chosen art form. Some sections here do feel lost and flat when shorn of any narrative context.

There is, however, plenty of solace. For one thing, the dancers are extraordinarily tight, nimble and gymnastic, somehow able, for example, to land insouciantly from an impeccably executed backflip on just one foot, on their knees, even on their backs. (I should add that, in every sections she’s in, the very much to-the-fore Lizzie Gough has only to flinch to grab the attention.) For another, certain shorter sections do manage to fly, and even tug gently at the heartstrings.

All praise to Deavion Brown and Robbie Ordona in Shape of My Heart and Lukas McFarlane and Nafisah Baba in Fields of Gold, two clever, intimate little duets both plucked from Message in a Bottle and here feeling very much intact. Taken from The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the dormouse’s narcoleptic cri-de-coeur I Keep Falling Asleep – complete with a cracking rodential puppet in an oversized teapot – is a complete joy, while Simply Simeon (from Some Like It Hip Hop) sees Tommy Franzen manage to move like quicksilver while apparently reading a book.

The two most substantial-feeling sections (both in Act II, both from Into the Hoods) are also complete successes. Its dramatic context self-contained, Who’s Who’s is a whistle-stop tour through the eccentric types in the pivotal tower-block, and it effervesces with fun, just as it did back in 2006. And, paradoxically, Teardrop – set to souped-up Massive Attack, and completely un-character-driven in this context – works brilliantly as a piece of “pure”, hip-hop-fuelled contemporary dance.

So, roll on ZooNation’s next new narrative venture. But in the meantime, as the enjoyably vocal Sadler's Wells audience proved, this particular mixtape will keep the feet tapping and the blood pumping just fine.

Until tomorrow. Tickets: sadlerswells.com