Category Archives: Urban Street Dance

Rhythm machines old and new.

I recently watched a short made-for-television film of Boy Blue Entertainment dancing Emancipation of Expressionism. I’d seen Boy Blue last summer perform Blak Whyte Gray at the Edinburgh Festival. I thought the company was impressive but, maybe because I was sitting too far back in the theatre, I didn’t find the choreography particularly exciting. Emancipation of Expressionism, in the short film that Danny Boyle has made for the BBC, seemed to be more ambitious in terms of its choreography.

[Danny Boyle’s film of Boy Blue’s Emancipation of Expressionism]

Dancers form blocks, moving in unison, out of which each dancer seems to emerge for a brief solo moment before sinking back into unison again. Often two very different blocks share the stage dancing moves with contrasting qualities. Sometimes a tight group performs clear, low key gestural material while another explodes across the stage beside them acrobatically. At one moment one side of the stage, lit in blue, contains a tight knot of angry dancers rhythmically punching the air while on the other side, in white light, dancers progress in a line out of the wings with softer more lyrical movements. It is like a symphony of movement.

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[screen capture from Emancipation of Expressionism]

Watching it I found myself thinking about the way Boy Blue use hip hop movement and comparing it with my memories of break dancing in the 1980s. Somewhere in my room an old VHS tape of Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film Wild Style is gathering dust, but it was easier just to look on youtube where I found I very useful extract from it.

[extract from Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film Wild Style]

For the Rock Steady Crew who appear in it, break dance is a solo form, whereas Boy Blue, in comparison, are an ensemble whose unison execution of their hybrid vocabulary of street dance moves is immaculate.

Boy Blue have developed a vocabulary drawn from a wide range of styles – breaking, popping and locking and related robotic moves, waves, bits of crumping, waacking. No vogueing however as their choreography is formal and abstract, tells no stories, throws no shade. The Rock Steady Crew are all individuals each with their specialities, pulling out sensational new moves they’ve just been perfecting at home. At one moment in Wild Style, two dancers crouch in the same crab-like pose mirroring each other briefly before bouncing up lightly to go on dancing, jamming with one another, not competitively, but egging each other on to do more tricks.

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[screen capture from Wild Style]

There is a rough, excitingly unpredictable, improvised quality to their dancing that makes them exciting to watch. The dancers in Boy Blue are individuals as well but dance together as a close-knit group. They are superbly rehearsed and almost effortlessly synchronised; but what is exciting about their work comes from the choreography, the lighting, and crucially, of course, from the interdependence of their dance and the music.

I was going to say that just as Boy Blue follows on in the movement tradition that the Rock Steady Crew did so much to establish, there are also continuities between Grand Master Flash’s scratching and mixing and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s music. Kodwo Eshun, however, rejects the idea of continuities, genealogies and inheritance in black music, arguing instead that a ‘fluidarity’ is ‘maintained and exacerbated by sound machines’.

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[Grand Master Flash: screen capture from Wild Style]

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[Grand Master Flash scratching: screen capture from Wild Style]

Dancers, musicians, and the music they scratch, mix, and sample all combine together to make a rhythm machine. Eshun says scratching isn’t just an effect or a rhythmic accompaniment to the music but part of a process of rhythmic layering. The Rock Steady Crew and Boy Blue aren’t just dancing to the music. Their aim is not a musical visualisation or a subtle interpretation that makes us hear the music differently (although that does of course happen). Being part of a community that is dedicated to this black cultural form requires total solidarity with the musical rhythm. The dancers are the rhythm, totally committed to hearing it and faithfully receptive to it, sensitively responsive to its subtle shifts and changes. This commitment to the rhythm machine is what unites the artists in the extract from Wild Style with Boy Blue.

What the machine does is to recombine found material – different styles of dance move, different musical tracks, and different aesthetic sensibilities. I’d like to call it a fusion, although I know this is a much contested term within the street dance community. The music for Emancipation of Expressionism includes ‘Til enda’ by the Icelandic musician Olafur Arnalds which itself combines, or is a fusion of, techno rhythms with the plaintive melodic sensibility of Nordic music (to me it sounds a bit like Arvo Pärt or a folk lament with techno rhythms). ‘Til enda’ gives a melancholy colouring to the choreography, which allows the dancers to express a strong sense of yearning.

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[screen capture from Emancipation of Expressionism]

The title Emancipation of Expressionism suggests this yearning. But it also hints at an emancipation of street dance, an assertion that when lit, costumed, and well rehearsed it has a right to the same serious consideration as other forms of contemporary dance. And of course emancipation, like jubilee, has particular resonances for people whose ancestors suffered slavery. They are dancing a yearning for a joyful, brilliant future at one with the eloquence of the rhythm machine.

 

quotes from Kodwo Eshun (1999) More Brilliant Than The Sun. London: Quartet Books

details of original broadcast http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09qjl7l

Juncture at Yorkshire Dance, 1: ‘Wallflower’.

I only managed to attend one day of Yorkshire Dance’s Juncture festival, curated by Gillie Kleiman. On the Saturday that I was able to get to Leeds, there was a really packed programme. Talking to people who’d been there for a couple of days, I sensed the festival had gathered a momentum – people referring in conversations to pieces they’d seen earlier in the week, or things that had come up during previous talks.

I got to the Yorkshire Dance building by 11am for a talk on dance and politics. Then in the afternoon I saw Nicola Conibere’s Assembly, going on from it to see part of a five hour durational version of Quarantine’s Wallflower, and then, in the evening, I saw Immigrants and Animal’s new Double Penetration version of Laura Laura. I had wanted to see Assembly and Laura Laura, but only booked for Wallflower because it was on. I knew nothing about it and it was a big surprise for me.

I only know about Quarantine from their website. They seem to me to be a project-based theatre or performance company with a northern focus who work on projects in an experimental way but do so in ways that can engage diverse communities (rather than the usual dance or drama audience). Wallflower‘s premise was an attempt by each of the dancers to individually remember every dance they’d ever ance and try, during the run of the piece, to reconstruct it. I’m guessing the Quarantine creative team deliberately chose particular performers for Wallflower and brought them together to create it since they all have such different backgrounds.

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[Jo Fong. photo from http://qtine.com/work/wallflower-2/]

I must have been seeing Jo Fong dancing with various companies – including Extemporary, Rosas, DV8, Rambert – for 25 years or more. The other performers I didn’t know. My guess is that James Monahan comes from a drama background while Nic Green from live art? Sonia Hughes is a writer and dance-floor queen. She was a formidable presence performing while sitting with the audience having got a leg injury dancing the night before. There was one more dancer who I guess was there because Hughes couldn’t dance, but she was not listed in the programme. All the dancers sat in the audience when not actually presenting their memories of a dance or of some other movement event.img_2104-705x400

[Sonia Hughes, James Monahan and Jo Fong in Wallflower. photo from http://qtine.com/work/wallflower-2/]

A lot of the time I was there, the performers remembered parties and clubbing, so danced to a variety of different kinds of music, including rock, motown, punk, funk, soul, indie. There were also bits of remembered contemporary dance. Jo Fong danced to Steve Reich’s Piano Phase remembering, I assume, a few phrases from De Keersmaeker’s Fase. Sometimes these bits of choreography were performed full on, sometimes marked. Those with some formal dance training remembered ballet and contemporary classes, and there were bits of folk dance and Irish step dancing.

DU16 Quarantine 3 Photo Simon Banham.jpg[Sonia Hughes. photo from http://qtine.com/work/wallflower-2/]

The music came from a DJ (who changed each hour) who was sitting at a table with laptops and other equipment at one end of the performing space which was arranged in a traverse stage format. Dancers requested tracks, sometimes without remembering their name but just humming them in a way that reminded me of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

Sometimes performers talked through personal memories – one dancer, as a teenager, had had a television that was right up against the foot of her bed and at night lay watching it with her foot on the ‘off’ button ready to turn if off if her parents peeped in to check she was going to sleep. Another remembered a scary encounter when he was with a group of friends out late who were held up at gunpoint by a gang and robbed.

The cast took it in turns to be the archivist and write a brief record of each dance in a big hardback notebook. They changed over, I think, once an hour, and at one moment we were told exactly how many thousand dances they had remembered since the first performance in Groningen last year, and how many hours and minutes this had taken. On a table on the way to the exit was a typescript ‘The Index’ which listed each dance up until today’s performance.

I turned up an hour after the performance had begun and stayed two and a half hours. Because I’d been late it took me a while to work out what was going on. Audience members came and went. Sometimes we saw high energy dancing, sometimes there were great stories, a bit of karaoke or a party piece. But there were also lulls and quiet moments. I suspect there were some fixed, rehearsed moments that they always did during each performance, and some kind of running order for these key moments were spaced out during the performance with room between for new, impromptu memories.

Performers paced themselves to last the full five hours. And they seemed to be supporting each other, chatting together and commenting on what they were doing, sometimes standing in for someone in the past or becoming an extra body for a re-enactment.

Although they were all from such different backgrounds, they empathised with each other. They too had felt something like that, or had done something like that. Sometimes they laughed at cultural references I didn’t always catch. Because I became immersed in the piece because it went on so long, I too somehow felt myself being drawn into the sense of community that the piece was generating.

The dancing itself often looked and felt quite spontaneous and rough though actually there was some wonderful dancing that is still fresh in my mind as I write this review a week later. This roughness seemed to give an ‘accessible’ feeling to the show, but there was nothing superficial to it.

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[Nic Green. photo from http://qtine.com/work/wallflower-2/]

Memories are powerful stuff. Memories are something that we share with others who were there with us at the time or that we told someone about just after it happened. I don’t think I have many memories that no one else has, things that I never told to anyone. Memory is both personal and collective, and we can sometimes adapt or revise our memories so that they conform with what others, who were also there, insist happened. There must have been occasions when I myself have insisted that my own memory is better than someone else’s.

There is something particularly poignant about some performers’ struggle to remember a movement sequence that has almost gone, the detail already irretrievable but the feelings that accompanied it still lingering. Memory’s failure, a reminder of mortality, and preparation for dying.

But one of the wonderful things about trained dancers is their ability to remember long complex sequences of moves which they can bring back sometimes ten or fifteen years later with the help of the original music, or diagrams or words in a notebook, photos, or snowy video tape. Magically, if at the right moment the other dancer in the piece is in the right place behind them, even that can bring back muscle and spatial memories. Dancers’ acts of remembering are for me sources of hope.

There were moments when the archivist looked at what they’d noted down and gave us a brief summary of what they felt were the highlights from the previous hour. These summaries magically brought dancers and spectators together in a collective act of remembering that was quite special. And to think that I almost hadn’t book for Wallflower … hmmm.

My Christmas holiday project

My Christmas holiday project has been to make a video essay about Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning.

I’ve been showing bits of Paris is Burning to my students more or less every year since the early 1990s. Initially it was inextricably linked in my mind with ideas about the performance of gender. What I’ve noticed recently are the transsexuals in the film, probably because there has been a lot more about trans issues in the media lately.

[Venus Xtravaganza – from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/482940760011514915/%5D

 

Paris is Burning is probably the first film I saw that treated transsexuals in a sympathetic, non-sensational way. But the main reason I have been showing it to students studying dance is because of the footage of vogueing which it locates within Black and Latino gay communities and thus within African diasporic movement traditions. When I show it, I point out the link Livingston makes between vogueing and the politics underlying the gay lifestyles documented in the film.

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What I’ve tried to do in this video essay is to look again at vogueing from a twenty-first century point of view, one that sees similarities between the politics of vogueing and recent discussions about transgender and transexuality.

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