The Making of
The Five & the Prophecy of Prana
by Jennifer Whitehead
Boy Blue is famous for creating hip-hop theatre shows where music and dance fuse to play an equally important role, feeding off one another to create something greater than the two separate parts.
Talking to the company’s founders, it is easy to see why this equilibrium exists between the two artforms. Friends since high school, Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante and Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy give the impression of having a very balanced rapport when they talk – neither man dominates the conversation and both frequently point out each other’s qualities and contributions with a real sense of respect and camaraderie.
Which fits in rather well with the philosophy of their new show The Five & the Prophecy of Prana.
It draws on ideas of balance between the elements and how necessary they are to each other; and what can happen when we recognise our innate qualities and work together playing to our strengths.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, we must head back to 2009 when, on the back of the success of Boy Blue’s breakout show Pied Piper, the company became Artistic Associates at the Barbican.
It was at a meeting about developing new productions that Kenrick and Mikey began discussing the idea for the show which would become The Five & the Prophecy of Prana. Its origins were humble – a sketch drawn by Kenrick of a martial arts warrior/monk called Wang Tang.
Kenrick and Mikey both had a long-standing interest in Hong Kong kung fu films and Japanese manga, particularly comics dealing with martial arts. These Eastern artforms have also been influential on hip-hop culture, and inspired the sketch of Wang Tang.
Boy Blue quickly got the green light to go ahead with the project, and so began a long, involved collaborative process to get to the show that you see today.
To help develop the idea, three monks from the world-famous Shaolin Temple Warrior Monk School were invited to come to London and collaborate in a series of workshops with Kenrick and Mikey. Shaolin monks are renowned for practising martial arts to a very high proficiency, and famously have their own style of kung fu.
In spite of the language barrier, the workshops were a fruitful exchange of skills and ideas. The monks taught Kenrick and Mikey various stances and balances, as well as the animal techniques that are such an important part of the story of The Five. They also identified hip-hop dance as being rooted in the element of air, making it complementary to Shaolin kung fu, which is seen as being connected to the earth element.
What is fascinating about the process is that not only were the monks influential in the moves that have been adapted into dance, but also how their lifestyle had an impact on the story of the show itself.
Kenrick says: “Shaolin is a way of life – what they eat, what they wear, the way they carry themselves. It shows in their respectfulness and in their humour. And that philosophy comes through in the show.”
For example, the Shaolin philosophy is that different body types and temperaments affect the styles of martial arts to which a person is most suited. Kenrick and Mikey took this on board when casting the show, as well as using it in the story.
With Boy Blue working on the monumental Frankie and June say… Thanks Tim! section of the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, developing The Five went on the backburner for the first half of 2012.
As fans of manga, Kenrick and Mikey approached the well-known artist Akio Tanaka about collaborating on the show. After communicating online for some time, the pair decided to travel to Japan in December 2012, feeling they could best convey their passion for the project in person. As well as fruitful meetings with Akio, the pair visited temples, attended Kabuki and Noh performances and met with Japanese drummers.
“The view is that playing the drum is a true reflection of yourself,” says Mikey. He explains how each time a drummer hits a drum, whatever their self is – both physically and emotionally – is what comes out. “Therefore, physical fitness is a very important part of drumming,” Mikey says.
So not only will you clearly hear the Japanese taiko drum in the soundtrack, you can also see the influence in the cast, who are in incredibly good shape. And it’s not just the dancers who’ve been put through their paces – Mikey and Kenrick led by example, having been inspired to change their own approaches to eating and training.
With all the pieces readied, Mikey and Kenrick set about getting the show together. Kenrick’s challenge for the choreography was to look at what martial arts styles work with dance, and this is one of the show’s achievements. It never looks as if the dancers are simply doing martial arts moves while there is music playing – rather, a unique dance style emerges, with one-on-one fights transformed into duets.
For the music, Mikey thought about the sounds he wanted to incorporate. “The taiko drum was where I started,” he says. “It commands a lot of presence but I was able to make it sound contemporary, and not alien to my style.”
It was not just a matter of creating tracks that suit particular scenes – each bar is tailor-made for each moment. As a result the music really adds to the feeling, more like a film soundtrack, than the traditional ‘numbers’ you get in a stage show.
It’s been a journey for Boy Blue that almost matches the vast learning experience that The Five go through. And, like The Five, Boy Blue have emerged stronger and ready for the next challenge.