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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.
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.