Last week, the nominations were announced for this year’s National Dance awards, and it’s no surprise that Tommy Franzén is in the running for outstanding male dancer. Whether touring in Zoo Nation’s Some Like it Hip Hop and Russell Maliphant’s The Rodin Project, or starring in Flashmob during its long Edinburgh run, there can hardly have been a night when Franzén wasn’t on stage during the past 12 months. But its not his stamina that makes him outstanding, it’s the quality and range of his dancing.
This glitzy showreel, culled from his appearance in the BBC’s So You Think You Can Dance, offers a quick tour around his signature skills. On a purely athletic level, there may be other B-boy dancers who execute fiercer turns or hold more heartstopping balances than Franzén – but I’ve seen none to match his quicksilver fluency. He glides and twists through a dance phrase like an eel (0.25-30), yet at the same time moves with a buoyancy that brings air and light to his footwork (0.50–59). It’s the hip-hop equivalent of classical ballon, and Franzén – who has worked with ballet dancers like Tamara Rojo in the past – seems to be consciously working classical elements into his repertory. At 1.27 he slips a brief pirouette in among the B-boy spins, while the climactic tumbling spin that concludes his final routine is like a reckless hip-hop version of the classical revoltade, in which the dancer appears to be vaulting over his own leg.
These clips were assembled to show Franzén’s best, point-scoring moves in SYTYCD. But while the shenanigans of the personality contest element robbed him of first place, what made him the honorary winner of that series was the exceptional musicality of his performances. In the first three routines, every move maximises the surface speed and bounce of the rhythm, yet Franzén still has the time to fill out the larger phrases, carving out his own expressive structure. It’s the secret of great popular dancing (Astaire had it too) and it’s very evident in the Beggin’ clip, where Franzén captures the song’s core dynamic of emotional yearning (the suspended spiral at 0.23) even while hurtling forward on its beat. In the final slow routine, set to Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River, it’s fascinating to watch him experimenting with the natural choppy pulse of hip-hop – slowing it down, stretching it out across the action of his arms and torso.
Franzén’s willingness to push himself against the grain of his genre is even more impressive in this clip from Classical Break, choreographed by Tony Adigun to a fragment of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
The music develops through challengingly slow increments of harmony and melody – if Adigun’s choreographic response occasionally seems a tad gauche (0.58), Franzén’s body gets deep inside it. Here too he rounds out every phrase (O.24), but there’s a floating suspension to some of his movements (0.28-30) and a miraculous, gliding evenness of footwork (1.19) that create an uncanny dialogue with the long, romantic lines of the score.
Franzén can also do stillness, and in the concluding moments of this solo you can see him daring to use the full force of his physical presence. It’s a quality that made him a natural dancer for Maliphant, even though the latter’s choreography owes far more to the meditative dynamic of t’ai chi than the urban gregariousness of hip-hop.
In this section of the wall duet from the Rodin Project, Franzén and his fellow B-boy dancer Dickson Mbi perform the extraordinary feat of dancing on a vertical plane. It takes strength and balance (Franzén is also a dedicated rock climber), but their graceful, molten manoeuvres combine a fusion of the human and the monumental that’s powerfully affecting – and a true homage to Rodin’s art.
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