Dance preview: Diversity

AS THE 2010 X Factor comes to a head, the names Rebecca, Matt and Cher are on the lips of the nation, without need for explanation or surname.

Asked to recall competitors from years gone by, however, most people will be found wanting. Such is the meteoric rise, and equally rapid fall, offered by the modern-day TV talent show.

In May 2009, when 11 young dancers from Essex and East London won the final of Britain's Got Talent, the word "diversity" changed from an abstract noun to the embodiment of energetic streetdance.

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Watched by almost 20 million viewers, and against the odds, all-male dance troupe Diversity pipped Susan Boyle to the post with an innovative routine inspired by Transformers.

Eighteen months later, the sweet smell of victory is now a faint aroma, another troupe (Spelbound) has been crowned the 2010 winners of Britain's Got Talent and life has moved on. Yet somehow, Diversity are still firmly in the public eye. Over the past year, the group have appeared in the chart-topping film Streetdance 3D, performed at the Royal Variety Show, danced outside No 10 and played to more than 60,000 fans on their first UK tour.

According to Diversity's leader and choreographer, Ashley Banjo, the key to their success is in the name. "We try to be different – to be diverse," he says. "Britain's Got Talent is on its fifth series, X Factor is up to series seven, and people get used to seeing the same thing, so it's always good to change it. What we do is find a different way to entertain people and let them have a good time."

Ranging in age from 13 to 26, the group formed in 2007 when three sets of brothers and four friends came together to practise streetdance. By day they were school kids, students, plumbers, electricians and engineers. By night they rehearsed tightly synchronised routines filled with humorous references and dramatic tension. Having put in the groundwork, all they needed was a break to show the world what they were capable of. When that break came, courtesy of Simon Cowell et al, everything changed.

"Life has turned completely on its head," says 22-year-old Banjo. "It's had its negatives because we see our families and friends a lot less and we're all a lot more tired. But those are completely outweighed by the positives, which are that we get to do what we love for a living."

Thanks to his mother, a former professional dancer, Banjo attended dance classes from the age of five. Training first in jazz, tap, ballet and contemporary before moving into streetdance. Did that foundation help mould him into the choreographer he is today? "Definitely," says Banjo. "It gives your thinking another dimension, and I think it gives you a discipline and a lot of things that you wouldn't understand if you've only done streetdance."

One of the defining aspects of streetdance is its broad appeal, crossing generations and genders, and entertaining people from all walks of life. Banjo in particular has been praised for his ability to think outside the box and come up with new and unexpected ideas – something he attributes to his years spent at local dance schools, both as a pupil and a teacher.

"I suppose it comes down to experience," he says. "I've been putting on shows and choreographing routines for different types of people for years now, and I've always tried to create a well-rounded performance. When I start a routine, I listen to the music and think through the dance in my head, watching it from as many people's points of view as I can – my own, my sister's, my mum and dad's. And if I think that all of those people would like it, then I know I'm on to a good thing."

Banjo's latest creation is Diversitoys, a large-scale show about to hit Glasgow, in which the dancers play action figures in a toy shop. From the group's first appearance on Britain's Got Talent, it's been clear that Banjo's imagination is a fertile place, so where did this latest idea come from?

"I was looking for a universal theme that would work for our really wide audience, which includes couples, families and groups of boys and girls," he explains. "And I thought that at any stage in people's lives, whether it be through their kids, their friend's kids or themselves when they were younger, everyone can relate to toys."

Get famous quick shows may have their downside, but if there's one thing we can thank Britain's Got Talent for, it's helping to give streetdance the exposure it deserved. "I knew that as soon as it got out there into the mainstream, people would lap it up," says Banjo. "And that's what happened with us and lots of other people. It's opening people's eyes to it, and they're loving it."

Diversity, SECC, Glasgow, Tuesday

www.diversityofficial.com

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 12 December, 2010