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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.
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
In today's dance world, it seems to go without saying: The more varied the training, the better. But is that always the case? Rhonda Malkin, a New York City–based dance coach who performed with the Radio City Rockettes, thinks trendy contemporary techniques that emphasize improvisation and organic movement quality are detrimental to the precision and strength needed to be a Rockette, in a traditional Broadway show or on a professional dance team. Her view is controversial: "If you really want to work, making $40,000 in three months for the Rockettes or $25,000 in one day filming a commercial, you need ballet, Broadway jazz, tap, hip hop—not contemporary," she says.
On the flip side, techniques that allow dancers more freedom may help them connect more deeply with their body and artistry, while providing release for overused muscles. We broke down the argument for both sides:
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."
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.
Not all ballet dancers cling to their youth. At 26, Lauren Lovette, the New York City Ballet principal, has surpassed the quarter-century mark. And she's relieved.
"I've never felt young," she says. "I can't wait until I'm 30. Every woman I've ever talked to says that at 30 you just don't care. You're free. Maybe I'll start early?"
When Beatlemania swept through the U.S. in the 1960s, Mark Morris was one of millions of young Americans who fell head over heels for the revolutionary group. "I was not immune," the choreographer says. "My sisters were mad about The Beatles and so was I. At age 12 I had a crush on Paul, of course."
Flash forward 50 years and he is still rocking to the British band, but this time with a new Beatles-inspired dance work his company is touring across North America, starting this month with scheduled stops in Seattle, Toronto, Portland, Oregon, and another 25 cities before the end of 2019.
You could call it island-hopping, but it's not exactly a vacation. After choreographing last season's Come From Away, and winning a Tony nomination, Kelly Devine zipped from frosty Newfoundland to the Caribbean beach resort that is the setting for Escape to Margaritaville.
In the fall, she was shuttling between them, before they start this month: flying to Toronto to prepare a new Canadian production of Come From Away, then jetting back to Chicago for the final stop of Margaritaville's four-city pre-Broadway tryout.
"These two shows could not be more different from each other," Devine says with a dash of understatement. Come From Away is about the small Newfoundland town where airliners grounded by the 9/11 attacks dumped thousands of unexpected visitors; Escape to Margaritaville, at the Marquis Theatre, is a comic island romance concocted from the beachcomber songbook of Jimmy Buffett.
How does someone go from being a New York City Ballet corps member to training Hollywood A-listers like Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara and Jennifer Lawrence? By getting injured, says Kurt Froman.
When an ankle sprain left him sidelined a few years back, Froman was "sitting at home, depressed" when he sent his friend Benjamin Millepied an email asking what he was up to. It turned out that Millepied had just been hired to choreograph some scenes for a movie, but had to be in Paris during pre-production. "He needed someone to teach two actors choreography and get them in shape," says Froman. With nothing else on his plate, he said yes, and started prepping Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis for Black Swan.