Balletic Breakin'

December 15, 2011

When did hip hop find its swan side?



Lil Buck: “Creamy transitions and a polished smoothness.” Photo ©2011 Erin Baiano, Courtesy Vail International Dance Festival.



The wildly popular “Lil Buck and Yo-Yo Ma” video on YouTube features a strange and lovely fusion of romantic music and urban dancing (see “25 to Watch,” page 36). Rather than the clichéd juxtaposition of opposites (fashion model in construction rubble), Ma and Lil Buck are a carefully crafted couple put together by Damian Woetzel. Instead of city streets or cipher we see a garden. Rather than slammin’ beats, hard-core raps, and posses, Ma plays Saint-Saëns’ cello solo Le Cygne while Lil Buck (Charles Riley) performs his jookin’ interpretation of Anna Pavlova’s The Dying Swan, choreographed by Michel Fokine in 1905. The director Spike Jonze just happened to video this benefit performance for public school arts programs and posted it on YouTube, where it has gotten more than one and a half million hits since April.

Riley matches the cello’s notes with unhurried grace, flowing from one point to another, echoing Pavlova with his birdlike toe perches, rippling arms, and, finally, the way he gently melts into the floor. However, because Riley is a well-known Memphis jooker who learned largely on the streets, a question is circulating in the dance world: “Is hip hop going classical?” The answer is: “Sure. Hip hoppers and ballet dancers have been getting it on for a long time.”

Ballet and hip hop (used here as an umbrella term covering myriad forms from breaking to uprock, toprock, popping, locking to newer forms like jookin’ and turf dancing) have co-existed onstage since the late 1970s. In a recent phone conversation, Jorge “PopMaster Fabel” Pabon of the legendary Rock Steady Crew pointed out that the most famous early alliance occurred in 1978 on Saturday Night Live. That’s when Toni Basil paired four of The Lockers (including Don Campbell, father of locking) with four ballet dancers (including New York City Ballet’s Stephanie Saland) in the Four Little Swans variation from Swan Lake. Dressed in white from pimp hats to shoes, four guys locked and popped alongside four women on pointe, transforming the cygnets’ quartet into a witty octet. Basil repeated the concept, mixing the street-dance style to include locking and boogaloo with classical dancers in another Swan Lake on The New Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which was nominated for an Emmy in 1988.

San Francisco Ballet’s 1984 opening night gala featured 46 California breakers, poppers, and lockers dancing in the finale. Of the original group, 14 were selected to inaugurate the short-lived but well-intentioned San Francisco Ballet Breakers, who studied ballet and taught hip hop. A long-ago video contains a nanosecond clip of the hip hop boys dancing to Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony No. 4.

Doug Elkins, who came to modern dance after breaking and aikido, was commissioned in 1991 by Christopher d’Amboise of the Pennsylvania Ballet to choreograph a ballet piece in which Elkins mixed James Brown with Frederick Handel, and ballet with hip hop. Audiences and dancers loved it. Critics did not.

A more seamless merging occurred between postmodern dance and hip hop—in large part because their choreographic methods are younger, experimental, and tuned to each other. Since the mid-1980s, hip hop music and moves have been omnipresent. Kids and adolescents absorb their rhythms and moves, consciously or not; so, when they learn formal dance techniques such as modern dance, ballet, release, tap, or martial arts, their muscles also can recall the other hip hop information, enabling them to slip from one technique to another.

Victor Quijada personifies the new millennium dancer-turned-choreographer. He learned first from the streets, then transitioned into formal training in modern, postmodern, and ballet; after dancing with Rudy Perez, Twyla Tharp, and others, he formed his own Rubberbandance Group in 2002 in Montreal, enjoying critical acclaim and public support for Secret Service, a futuristic noir work that merged urban hip hop and Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet. Inevitably, the technical blend carried in the bodies of dancers and mixing of styles will define future directions in dance. In fact, Pacific Northwest Ballet is presenting a world premiere by Quijada in March.

Lil Buck’s jookin’ looks like a sophisticated blend of hip hop’s popping, locking, waves, and electric boogaloo, flavored with balletic grace and smoothness. In California, a style related to jookin’ called “turfing” or “turf dance” (an acronym for “taking up room on the floor”) has emerged. A 2009 video posted to YouTube shows a stunning and graceful turf dance performed in the rain by east Oakland dancers “No Noize,” “Man,” “BJ” and “Dreal.” Shot by YAK Films, it has clocked almost 4 million hits.

What is truly admirable—and related to ballet—is that whether these languid, powerful dances are done in Memphis, Los Angeles, or Oakland, the dancers must have iron technique to look effortless. They are fluid. They appear to glide rather than “do steps,” their arms floating around bodies, framing the torso or head. Sometimes hands reach out, leading, and the body follows. These dances stress creamy transitions and a polished smoothness. They epitomize cool control. Silken steel.

Poised between disaster and beauty, both the ballet and hip hop dancer perform at the highest peak of their skills. Risk makes them vulnerable and elegant. To do the dance well, they wear special shoes. According to Rodney Hill (a great dancer and company manager of Rennie Harris Puremovement), the proud, well-dressed hip hop competitor—like the ballet dancer—rarely wears the same shoes twice.

The question “Is hip hop going classical?” is more accurately rephrased: “Is hip hop graceful, suspended and lyrical?” The answer: “Yes.” When more subtle and flavorful forms of hip hop like jookin’ and turf dancing emerged from the streets of Memphis, Oakland, Los Angeles, and New York City, they immediately went viral and worldwide. These guys can move as lightly as feathers floating on little bubbles of air, expanding the dynamic range of hip hop choreography.

It’s about time. We needed an alternative to the played-out repetitions of flashy, fast, power moves promoted by the media and commercialized battle-competitions. Whether they are the humongous competitions like those put on by TV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, So You Think You Can Dance, or movies like You Got Served, then You Got Served: Beat the World, we can only hope Hollywood won’t serve it up again.   

The current trend in hip hop performances highlights dynamics of fluidity and suspension—which steps into balletic territory. Slow-mo hip hop is not new, and Lil Buck is not the only dying swan in hip hop. What is new are how many dancers are experimenting with the lyrical, relaxed qualities in jookin’, turfing, breaking, locking, and popping, and how many millions of YouTube viewers like it. A wonderful Brazilian locker, John Lennon da Silva, performed his Dying Swan on “Se Ela Dança Eu Danço” (similar to So You Think You Can Dance) that went up on YouTube last February. Sweet-faced and sincere, Da Silva transformed Pavlova’s trembling arms into shimmering arm waves rippling throughout his entire body, causing a male judge to weep. Eight or more swans are dying in hip hop style on YouTube today, but many more hip hop videos are using classical music, electronically tweaked but still recognizable. Hip hop in many of its various styles has evolved. Once hard-core and harsh, the dance and dancers now have the maturity and technical finesse to slow down and reveal a little tenderness.

Sally Sommer, Ph.D., produced the documentary film Check Your Body at the Door, about NYC club house dancing.