What Happens When You Bring Street Dance On Stage?
Dance Magazine reached out to us with the questions: Over the years, how has increased acceptance and visibility on concert-dance stages affected hip hop and its artists? And how has hip hop influenced concert dance?
Our response? Whoa! Acceptance? Visibility? Immediately we knew that any conscientious attempt to unpack these questions would easily exceed the maximum word count. But we also acknowledged that questions like these affect what we do as dancemakers and artist-citizens.
So we interviewed our colleague Nicole Klaymoon and mentor Rennie Harris to contribute to a conversation. We are all multilingual dance artists with our own unique voices in hip hop and street-dance theater. We are from different backgrounds and generations whose work is presented as concert dance and builds on the groundwork of Rennie Harris Puremovement.
Amy O'Neal's Opposing Forces. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom, courtesy O'Neal
To begin, our use of the term "street dance" aims to encompass multiple dance cultures that do not necessarily identify as hip hop, yet broadly get lumped into the category of hip-hop dance. Street, club, party dances and dance forms associated with hip-hop culture have been happening on proscenium stages for a long time. We are sharing a few of our responses and asking our own questions to hopefully spark some dialogue.
On Hip Hop's Impact On Concert Dance
Amy O'Neal: These questions make the assumption that dances from hip-hop culture need the concert-dance world to have visibility. They have a ton of visibility outside the concert-dance world.
Rennie Harris: Concert dance basically has appropriated everything under the sun, which has affected it in every way. So I think you have to ask, "How has hip hop not affected concert dance?" Hip hop has affected all of mainstream culture, aka white culture. It has affected the language of an entire nation when you have white kids speaking the slang.
d. Sabela grimes: The movement vocabulary that's been absorbed has expanded the lexicon of non–hip-hop dance forms. I think about how the moves in breaking, for example, have opened up a gateway for fresh ways to explore the floor and multiple surface areas of the dancer's body.
Nicole Klaymoon: I am not an authority figure on this conversation, but I do know that when I get a job in institutions, they want to call it "hip hop," but I call it "street" because it speaks to a community vibe and a social-dance form. So when we are innovating by taking a social dance out of context, how do you do that responsibly without disrespecting the culture?
Harris: Ballet dancers were dancing with breakers back in the '80s, so nothing is new. I performed with Ailey and ballet companies. We were doing this stuff way before Rennie Harris Puremovement.
On What Gets Programmed
Harris: When you look at the scope of it nationally, how many street-dance artists are working at a high level in the theater? Not many. Although, for a while, the Hip-Hop Theater Festival was going to a lot of countries and places and giving some shine to local artists.
grimes: There seems to be an overwhelming preference for "hybrid" work. Which usually translates to modern or contemporary with a dash of hip-hop movement.
O'Neal: Even though there are more companies and independent artists creating work that brings hip-hop culture to the stage, the noncommercial art world is not always aware of them, nor do they know how to engage with them.
Harris: I think if presenters know these artists, they are waiting for them to develop, but presenters are not taking these artists under their wing and helping them to develop their work.
O'Neal: A lot of organizations talk about being diverse and welcoming of all kinds of artists, but don't necessarily do the work it takes to connect with the constituents they claim to serve. Just because you open the doors to your castle, it does not mean all citizens will flow in.
grimes: The proscenium is but another field of play. So, am I aware that presenting on the concert stage doesn't validate or legitimize our dance forms, techniques and overall culture? Yes. Conversely, I've peeped how dance projects that encompass canonic Western narratives and dance practices are considered extraordinary and upheld as successful. Rome and Jewels and Hamilton come to mind. It's like street culture has to keep close proximity to these signifiers of "high art" to gain greater visibility.
Don't get it twisted. I'm not implying that it's that simple. Nor am I saying that Rennie's scheme was to create Rome and Jewels to gain "real" visibility. I'm one of the core collaborators. Rennie invited us in on a passion project that happened to take off. Yet having been a part of Puremovement's previous work, I can't help but speculate about how a Harris + Shakespeare association translates differently.
On Respecting The Culture
Klaymoon: Is it devaluing or disrespecting the culture by bringing street dance to institutionalized Eurocentric spaces? These dances are from a place of "I'm feeling myself" in a country where there is an unseen war on people of color. We see it in the school-to-prison pipeline, police terrorism, thousands of people in Flint who lack safe water—that part of the conversation is important because that pain has played a huge role in the proliferation of these dance traditions.
When you are being exploited, you have to find liberation from within, and that is reflected in street dance. If we don't acknowledge that subjugation of African descended people, that's when we get into cultural appropriation. The cool thing about working in theaters is that there is space to explore and push the dance and what it can do forward.
O'Neal: If you are a white dancer or choreographer, the way you incorporate street styles into your concert-dance work is everything. Are you facilitating space for cultural exchange? Are you working with dancers from the vernaculars that you want to fuse together? Is there reciprocal sharing of power? How will you make yourself vulnerable in the process of bringing different worlds together? How will you hold space for multiple viewpoints and experiences? How much are you willing to study physically and intellectually to stretch your own abilities to become physically multilingual, instead of borrowing a few moves here and there? Are you willing to let go of your own previously held beliefs?
If you are willing to do all of that, then we have the possibility of creating more empathy and innovation through cultural exchange in an authentically powerful way. I didn't understand all of this when I was a younger artist.
Harris: There needs to be a lot more space dedicated to this conversation. This is way bigger than 1,200 words.
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: