It’s always exciting when different artistic forms interact to create something new – when poetry lends itself to movement, and spoken word inspires dancing. Originating from a collaboration between the Barbican Young Poets and hip-hop dance company Boy Blue, A Change is Gonna Come is a series of performances where this interaction takes concrete form.

An evening of poetic happenings, A Change is Gonna Come begins with a pleasantly linear development, starting with a poem about birth and moving on to puberty, make-up, clothes, transports, memories, and emotions. The format quickly switches from linear to three-dimensional, starting to encompass a greater and greater number of themes. The audience is almost taken by the hand and led into a world where every possible aspect of life becomes raw material for poetry. There is something beautiful and genuine in the highly personal accounts we hear declaimed.

All poets speak with a very distinctive voice. Particularly impressive is Bella Cox, with her vividly physical accounts of commuting, love, and family relationships. In her work, poetry truly becomes one with life, and words and gestures fuse into a single means of communication. With some performers more convincing than others, the merit of the group is to give all of its members a platform to express themselves, from loud cries to almost whispering, and from surreal stories to colourful renderings of emotions. On stage, the young poets are all truly themselves, with their unique personality and talent, and each of them with a story to tell.

This poetic narrative is occasionally enhanced by the addition of dance. Hip-hop performers, who use the spoken words as acoustic and semantic springboards, sometimes join the poets. The dance moves are palpitating, and fit in well with the hammering rhythm of the words. In some cases this works very well, and dance acts as a powerful companion for poetry: fluid and precise movements amplify the already rich poetic content. Exemplary of this is the piece on grief by Michelle Tiwo, which is intense and poignant, and all the more so as she performs surrounded by three dancers. This reminded me of the words of Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who said that “without injury, neither poetry nor art is possible” – Tiwo’s poem and its performance embody this in a visceral way.

At times, however, dance seems to have little to add to the power spoken word. The choreography is sometimes too literal, to the point of being slightly banal or distracting, and instead of enhancing the performance it flattens it out. When this happens, the two art forms (dance and poetry) remain apart from to each other, and nothing new spring out of the union of the two.

Visionary, energetic, and with a few poems ringing impressively true, A Change is Gonna Come aspires to remind us of the power of poetry to change our world. And although this might not be discernible in all of the poems, the show is still a testimony to the ability of poetry (and sometimes dance) to act as a vehicle for change. More than anything, it does so by giving young people tools to express themselves, and to make others relate to their own experience.

A Change is Gonna Come played at the Barbican from 25 to 26 May

Photo: Camilla Greenwell