The Street Dance Style That's Tackling Today's Toughest Issues
FLEXN caused quite a stir when it premiered at Park Avenue Armory in 2015. Pairing opera director Peter Sellars with flex pioneer Reggie "Regg Roc" Gray and members of The D.R.E.A.M. Ring, the work took the Brooklyn-born street dance style to the concert dance stage, using it to create a series of vignettes that openly confronted the social justice issues brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, the piece has toured internationally, and the D.R.E.A.M. Ring has coalesced into a group focused on using dance to bring communities together and inspire change.
This week, Gray and The D.R.E.A.M. Ring return to the Armory, where they are artists in residence, with FLEXN Evolution. The updated take on their 2015 work will be performed May 18–21, with a special fundraiser event benefiting the D.R.E.A.M. Ring's community events following the Sunday matinee. (You can also catch a free preview of the work this Tuesday at the Brooklyn Public Library.) We talked to Gray about what's changed in the last two years.
How would you describe flex as a style?
Flexing has different characteristics: bone-breaking, pausing, gliding, get-low, hat tricks. The base is reggae, mixed with bruk-up [a Jamaican style that was popular in dance halls in the '90s].
Is the social justice/autobiographical aspect of the work built into the form, or is it something you consciously add to your work?
That's consciously added to the work. It's something that we've been doing for years, telling stories and describing things that are part of the environment. When we were working on FLEXN, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and all of these things were on people's minds. Those are the things we were talking about as dancers, those are things that we speak about with our bodies. So it was definitely a conscious effort.
FLEXN Evolution. Photo by Clementine Crochet, Courtesy Park Avenue Armory.
How has The D.R.E.A.M. Ring grown and developed since the last time you were at the Armory?
The dancers have learned to control themselves and their physicality. They've grown professionally; they're teaching now, they're doing work out in the field and the city, volunteering with programs and community organizations—schools, community centers.
How has FLEXN Evolution been updated for 2017?
Number one, the dance style itself has upgraded. It upgrades almost every day! In two years, wow, we've come so far. So not only that, but the world is not the same, politically. We chose to speak about some of the decisions being made—the wall, the Muslim bans, some of the decisions Trump is making. All of these things are part of the world now, so we're putting those in the show. The music has changed, the dancers have changed, the piece has changed. We've done all of that while also keeping some of the main parts that people have loved. We also have fewer dancers, and now we have a more focused situation where you'll be able to see faces and everyone in the show a lot better than two years ago when there was a big, long runway.
There's also a conversation series before every show, right?
We're inviting a lot of special guests within the community who are also involved in social justice. We'll be having an open discussion and conversation about what we can do. It's not about right or wrong, just real people coming from real places speaking about real situations.
What can audiences expect from the show? What do you hope they'll take away?
I really hope that they leave with the message. It's definitely the most powerful part of what we're doing. And an understanding of the dance vocabulary; opening their minds to a new style of dance and respecting it for what it is.
FLEXN Evolution. Photo by Clementine Crisp, Courtesy Park Avenue Armory.
And what is that message?
Come to the show and find out! The show resonates with different people in different ways, and we don't want everyone to see the show the same way. We've noticed that on tour: Everyone takes from it what they need to take from it. It's a real conversation through dance.
What does it mean to be back at Park Avenue Armory?
We're back at home. It feels great, and it's great to see the evolution of it take place right back where we started.
We knew that New York downtown dance darling Okwui Okpokwasili was a big deal. Critics and audiences have been raving about her dance-theater works for years, and the new documentary about her, Bronx Gothic, has attracted the attention of the larger arts community.
But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine she'd show up in a Jay Z video, along with flex dancer Storyboard P. Though we're slightly less surprised to see Storyboard in Jay Z's "4:44" video than we were to see Okpokwasili, we're jazzed that two of our favorites are featured on such a huge platform. (We're also feeling #blessed that we didn't have to subscribe to Tidal to watch this.)
Throughout the years, choreographer Seán Curran has worked with a diverse array of talented collaborators—from Kyrgyz music ensemble Ustatshakirt Plus to the the Grammy Award–winning King's Singers. But perhaps none are as meaningful as his most recent group of co-choreographers: At-risk teens from the after school program and nonprofit The Wooden Floor.
Curran has been in residence with The Wooden Floor since June, where he's worked with students to build choreography based on their lives and communities:
Their creation will be shown July 20-22 at The Wooden Floor Studio Theatre in Santa Ana, California.
"Besides the stage, baking is my other happy place," says New York City Ballet corps member Jenelle Manzi.
Four years ago, she thought her baking days were over when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Manzi had been dealing with pain, frequent illness and joint inflammation for nearly 10 years. Once she cut out gluten, Manzi gradually started to feel better, noticing a transformation in how her body felt and functioned. She found her joints were less inflamed, and she got sick less often.
New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan and American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary spend every day making their hard work look effortless and graceful both in the studio and onstage. That's exactly what makes them the perfect spokesmodels for the dance-inspired activewear line, Belle Force.
To celebrate our 90th anniversary, we excavated some of our favorite hidden gems from the DM Archives—images that capture a few of the moments in time we've documented over the decades.
This image was captured during a 1978 New York City Ballet tour that took the company to Copenhagen—home turf for Adam Luders (right), who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and briefly danced with the company before joining NYCB as a principal dancer in 1975. Next to Luders is (of course) George Balanchine, in conversation with ballerina Suzanne Farrell. And looking on with a smile? NYCB's current ballet master in chief Peter Martins.
On March 8, 2016, Rami Shafi found himself inspired to film an impromptu dance video of his best friend, Aaron Moses Robin, improvising on Gay St. in New York City's Greenwich Village. Thus was born Pedestrian Wanderlust, a collection of dance videos that has grown to include a monthly improv jam.
Shafi works with anyone who wants to take part in the project, filming videos in locations chosen by the dancers and later adding music. The videos are shot on Shafi's iPhone in one take and, other than the starting and ending points, are entirely improvised. The editing afterwards—including the music choice—is minimal. "I don't like to edit too much. It's just what it is," says Shafi. "I usually can do the editing on the train ride home."
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.