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Boy Blue turn 21

A group of people stand together with arms in the air and an orange light is shinning on them
18 Jul 2022
5 min read

Acclaimed Hip Hop dance theatre company Boy Blue marks its 21st anniversary this year. Founders Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy MBE and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante MBE look back over their journey to the world stage.

Defying Gravity

"Because we’re now 21 years old, in a way we’ve defied gravity," says Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy. "So now people have high expectations. We’re seen as representing what UK street dance is. The world is watching."

Sandy says when he and producer Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante set up Boy Blue in Newham 21 years ago, they had no idea it would lead to them becoming fêted worldwide.

After meeting at school, they formed Boy Blue in 2001. Their reputation quickly grew, and their crew expanded to 175 people. Asante and Sandy were funding the company through their individual work – Asante as a producer for the likes of grime superstar Kano among others, and Sandy as a dancer for people such as Victoria Beckham, Fergie (Black Eyed Peas), Leona Lewis and George Michael.

And then in 2007, their hip-hop theatre production Pied Piper propelled the company to new heights. First performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East, the show found a further home at the Barbican and won a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.

‘We’re seen as representing what UK street dance is. The world is watching.‘
A group of children stand on stage in front of a red backdrop, dressed in denim, staggered in height with some holding their hands up over their heads.

Blue Boy and the Barbican

That production led to Boy Blue becoming a Barbican Associate Artist in 2009. "We found that after becoming an Associate, different people came to see our shows,’ recalls Sandy. "Usually we would have a lot of Afro Caribbean and East London people come, and then we were seeing an array of people of all different backgrounds and ages – it was beautiful. The fact people thought the show resonated with them regardless of whatever colour or creed they were was great."

Asante adds: "One of the first times I went to the Barbican, I saw a returns queue, where people could buy tickets for a sold out show that others couldn’t use. I remember thinking “I hope one day that could happen for one of our shows”. When we had our first residency, there was a queue for returns for our show because people really wanted to see it. It was amazing."

Since then, the company has gone on to create shows such as Olivier-nominated Blak Whyte Gray, Asante’s debut in our Hall Outliers, they’ve toured the world, performed as part of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and even had one of their pieces, 'Emancipation of Expressionism’, included in the AQA GCSE dance course (the first hip hop piece on the dance syllabus).

Purpose, mission, and values

Inspiration for their productions comes from a wide variety of sources. But what guides everything is their three aims: education, enlightenment, entertainment.

Sandy says: "When we’re making pieces, we always want the audience to feel entertained, because it’s dance; we want them to feel educated in the styles that we use and how we use it artistically; and we want them to be enlightened, so they leave feeling provoked. It’s about people going, “Okay, this was about identity, this was about courage, this was about grief, this was about what’s going on on the streets.”

‘As an artist you’re driven by a desire to get better and to challenge yourself to grow and build. You're never satisfied‘

"I’m not afraid to give people applications and tools and devices that will enable them to do what they need to do. And if it doesn’t work for them, at least they had an opportunity to know what works for them and what doesn’t."

Asante agrees: "As an artist you’re driven by a desire to get better and to challenge yourself to grow and build. You're never satisfied. So I've always wanted to try and do new things and create new ways of making work.

"A lot of the time I have a vision in my head of something that wants to come out. And I visualise it through music first. Sometimes it's a bit of competition, or the idea of wanting to challenge one of the other dancers. It's like a competitive energy, wanting to push someone out of their comfort zone or challenge someone."

In front of a red background dancers are crouched on the floor and one dancer is in the air with their hands stretched out wearing a blue hoody

Blue Boy's impact on the wider community

Sharing of knowledge has been an intrinsic part of Boy Blue’s ethos from the start. Made up of groups of different abilities and ages for almost all its 21 years, the company trains hundreds of young people each week aged five to adults through its education programme run in East London.

"It all goes hand in hand: community, culture, dance, expression, creativity. And the more that you can get people to be creative, the better,’ says Sandy. "Creativity brings entrepreneurship. It brings a sense of freedom. It brings a sense of orderly chaos. If you can put your mind into that maximum space of creativity, your confidence goes up, your self-esteem goes up, you find your inner space – a happy place."

‘The more that you can get people to be creative, the better.‘

The old saying ‘each one teach one’ is important to Asante, he says. "You have to support the growth of the community. It's a part of the hip hop culture, a part of Black culture, especially from an African sense, which is my background. But education does a few things: it creates the next generation, it allows for that to be not only a source of energy from a youthful point of view, but it creates a market. It also supports your growth and understanding. And I find that if you teach someone, it frees up space in your head to fill up with something new. If you hold on to information, you won't be filled again."

Sandy and Asante following the success of Boy Blue

In 2017 Sandy was awarded an MBE for services to dance and the community in the Queen’s New Year’s honours list, the following year an Honorary Fellowship from Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and in 2019, a Companionship from Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. While Asante says he’s always wanted to be a bit more in the background, he also was awarded an MBE in the 2021 New Year’s Honours for services to Hip Hop Dance and Music, as well as being awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

Both say they never set out with these levels of success and accolades in mind, although they’re very grateful for the recognition. Sandy says: "But the bottom line is, I still love my dance, I still strive to be the best I can be in my dance. And I want to support others to be able to do the same thing. So for me, one of the biggest highlights of the last 21 years has been to see dancers evolve."

‘I'm so proud of how far we've come. It was never planned, but we're living the dream.‘

"I’m not only living my wildest dream, says Asante, "this is like a dream. I'm really proud of where we're at as young men, specifically Black men who’ve come from where we're from, and that we're able to an example to others. Many different things can be against you, especially as a young man."

"There are things you could get into, a lot of the way our communities are shown to be, but we're here saying, “at least there's Boy Blue”, and it comes from a space that's true and honest. I'm so proud of how far we've come. It was never planned, but we're living the dream."

Find out more about Boy Blue and their 21st birthday plans on their website: https://www.boyblue.co.uk

A group of people stand together with arms in the air

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