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Feet first, from street to stage

WHAT Anthony van Laast always wanted to do, he says, is get dance out of what he calls its ''holy sepulchre''. Not that he's unfamiliar with its sacred spaces: he started at the Royal Ballet and did 10 devoted years with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. At 29 - a male dancer's prime - he left; he was tired after 10 years of dancing and tired of what he did. He still wanted to dance, but he wanted it to be fun. To be entertainment; to put on a show. Which is why, in his 60s, he has become the British maestro of street dance.

Three years ago, van Laast created Blaze, a street-dance spectacular that has been touring the world ever since. He is credited as director; the choreographic credits go to younger names such as Mike Song and Lyle Beniga, some of whom, he says, came out of the scene themselves. He was there, however, building the show by asking his dancers to improvise within their own styles and then giving it some structure.

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''I'm not a street-dance choreographer, I'm a choreographer who loves dance and knows how to make shows,'' he says.

When he was a young dancer, jazz was considered left-field. We do a few celebratory ''jazz hands''. Yes, he laughs, that was about it. ''You watch what these kids do now - I'm continually impressed by their athleticism and human ability to do the most exciting moves. I look at them thinking that there is no way, even in my best of times, that I could ever have done that. But I suppose the generation before me would have looked at me and thought that.

''The great thing is that it is continually evolving. I genuinely think street dance is the true contemporary dance. Because what does 'contemporary' mean? It means 'of the moment, now'. What we call contemporary dance was actually created in the '30s; then there was the Merce Cunningham era, all of that. But there we're dealing with a kind of classical form of contemporary dance, which is an oxymoron.''

For Blaze, he says, they keep auditioning and recruiting for their 25-strong troupe (Melburnians Demi Sorono and Sid Mathur join the cast in Australia), while their DJ scouts new music. What they did three years ago would look old now. Of course, van Laast can't tell one track from another, he says, laughing, but that doesn't matter; his job is to surround himself with people who can.


They include lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe, who comes by way of the Olympics and the Rolling Stones; and set designer Es Devlin, who has done sets for Lady Gaga and Kanye West as well as the Royal Opera House. When we start talking about opera designers, we're not exactly in the ghetto any more. But that's the thing: street dance is everywhere now, van Laast enthuses: incorporated into jazz styles; adapted by classical ballet; and a TV staple, not least in reality talent shows. It wasn't always thus.

Van Laast started working with street dance in the late '90s when Bounce, a multi-ethnic group based in Sweden and doing small-scale hip-hop performances, came under his radar. They were thrilling. ''And so my business partner, Nick Grace, and I decided to go in there and work with them and see what we could do to make a really exciting street dance show,'' van Laast says.

''We brought that show to Britain, opened there, and were the first street-dance company ever to go into Sadler's Wells.''

He is still clearly moved as he describes busloads of kids arriving from schools in London's no-go zones for the matinees. ''They had never been to a theatre before. And now, out of this, the kids went back to school and started dancing and the whole thing has exploded. It's so exciting when people discover dancing or discover movement, all of that, because it suddenly opens up huge new avenues.

''It's not about becoming a performer or professional. Just in terms of being a human being, it's a good thing to discover.''

For van Laast, enthusiasm is, admittedly, a default mode - he even gets fired up by the memory of choreographing trick trampolinists on skis, one of his first gigs - but he is clearly inspired by working with people who aren't conventionally trained dancers. When he choreographs big musicals such as Mamma Mia! or Sister Act, he is often working with actors who can walk across a stage with confidence but can't dance. ''There is an honesty to the way they move,'' he says.

''Sometimes you can get a glitzy little show dancer where there is no depth of feeling; when you get someone who is not a natural mover, it can sometimes be really rewarding and give you so much more than these very athletic contemporary-dance people - of which I was one, you know - doing an evening of dance.''

With street dance now absorbed into the mainstream, he is unlikely to find himself working with many kids whose last gig was a rumble under the Brooklyn Bridge. ''But the one part of street dance I would still call 'technique-free' are the breakers,'' he says. ''These are the people who spin on their heads; who do these amazing moves. In our company, there is this Brazilian who literally came from the streets; we had two Americans from the original Air Force Crew. These kinds of breakers are phenomena who move 'round the world; they are the gypsies of the street-dance world.

''When we first did Bounce, one of the breakers from Los Angeles came up and thanked me for doing the show because it had given him an income.'' A lot of the breaker's friends from the Air Force Crew were dead or in prison.

Of course, something must be lost in the domesticating process of bringing street dance under cover. ''Does it lose its rawness?'' he asks. ''Yes, it probably does. Does it lose its sense of real battle? Yes, it probably does.''

They do invite a battle after the show, van Laast says; the DJ goes into the foyer and the audience is asked to challenge Blaze's dancers. It's hard to imagine anyone busting moves in the Arts Centre at all, let alone working up the gritty urgency of a gangland dance-off, but perhaps that is no longer the point. ''It's fun!'' van Laast says, gleefully.

That is the point.

Blaze is at Hamer Hall, January 23-27. artscentremelbourne.com.au.