A revolutionary icon in New York street art, American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat grew into a startling young powerhouse in the world of enigmatic neo-expressionism. Graffiti artist, painter, drug addict, poet, and icon: Basquiat ruffled countless feathers in his pursuit to liberate class, race, and deeper truths about the individual. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the work he inspires continues to ruffle feathers today.

Matthew Xia’s nitroBEAT Pit Party – Suckerpunch Boom Suite is the latest experimental performance to draw on Basquiat’s work. Granted, the title doesn’t say ‘serious piece of theatrical art’ so much as ‘your weird uncle’s school reunion that he’s convinced he can DJ himself’. Nevertheless, with a technology-rich setup and dramatic use of captivating projections (designed by Michael Barnes-Wynters and Dead Human), the Pit Party exudes a wave of the professional. Many performances are thought out, yet jumbled, an array of scattered beats and pounds that rebel against the rules of music composition. This is not just a party; this is a protest against anyone who attempts to define art in rigid terms.

Several award-winning artists are the hosts of the evening. Emma-Jean Thackray, composer, producer and singer amongst other roles, opens the night with the moody tones of a dull trumpet, marrying shreds of jazz with a contrasting house beat booming behind her. What follows is an attack on prevalent societal issues, concentrated into a visual, auditory and lyrical battle based on each of the collaborators’ skills.

Maya Williams cultivates it in the physical form. She lashes and pulsates in a vigorous dance, all to the tune of apathy and liberty of self-expression. Jack Miguel and Titi Dawudu add to it the spoken voice, the latter’s words bubbling with anger as she anguishes the days of being called ‘Bounty’, shunned for ‘not being black enough’. And while the other artists are somewhat shy in their performances, Mikel Ameen rips forth like a firecracker, passionately rapping his protest as society pummels him to the ground.

One particularly noteworthy performance is given by live loop musician Xana, whose ability to compose an entire song in front of a live audience is utterly enchanting. Using only her voice (and a head-splitting assortment of dials and buttons), we get to witness her add layer upon layer to a soon flowing wall of sound, which is eventually revealed as hip hop’s answer to Eenie Meenie Miney Mo. It is an utterly impressive display of what modern music can do.

At times, what would have been a powerful, engaging performance is sadly diminished by a piece of paper held in front of the artist’s eyes. For all the effort that has gone into such an exuberant production, a couple of the collaborators fall short by not learning the words they, presumably, wrote themselves. In addition, the same ribbon that stitches each section together, the ubiquitous, echoing sound, also works against the show by becoming wearily repetitive. Some of Throwing Shade’s contemporary melodies, for example, feel more like background music than a centrepiece to be enjoyed on its own.

In spite of its flaws, nitroBEAT certainly knows how to capture an audience’s attention. To a sudden surge in beat and energy, the finale saw the crowd be lured down onto the stage while Ameen shouted ‘oggy oggy oggy’. This impromptu disco at a wedding felt wildly out of place, but having spent the final 10 minutes dancing mindlessly with the cast, the audience certainly left with a smile, if not a slightly bemused one on their faces.

nitroBEAT Pit Party – Suckerpunch Boom Suite played The Barbican Theatre from September 29 to 30.

Photo: Pablo Melchor