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Flash Review 2, 11-21: Don't Believe the (Body) Hype
Hip Hop DanceFest: Where's the Hip Hop?

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2001 Christine Chen

SAN FRANCISCO -- In college, there were two rival student-run dance companies on my campus: "Expressions" and "BodyHype." "Expressions" was composed mostly of classically-trained women who were trying out modern dance for the first time in the university's introductory level classes and were using "Expressions" as a platform for their new ideas. Wearing unitards, and dancing to musicians like Enya, Mickey Hart and Ani DiFranco, the company performed to half-full houses composed mostly of friends, significant others, and the occasional dance faculty. The jazz-baby women of "BodyHype" wore navel-bearing halter tops and tight flare pants, while their technically unpolished but charismatic male counterparts wore baggy jeans and no shirts at all. Re-enacting sexually charged MTV videos to Madonna's "Erotica" album or Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Doggy Style," "BodyHype" brought in the crowds, always performing to sold-out houses of rowdy and appreciative students. Friday at Theater Artaud, the performances at the SF Hip Hop DanceFest reminded me (a little too much) of my college years, when I use to banter with my boyfriend about which dance company was better. Did I mention that I was in "Expressions" and he was in "BodyHype?"

Me: "We're trying new things choreographically, we're challenging our audiences (that's why they don't enjoy it as much), you're just showing sex on stage -- it's cheap." Him: "We're having fun and showing the audience a good time -- the fact that we're always sold out speaks for itself, and just because we're not as highly trained doesn't mean that we don't bring unique movement and ideas to the stage." More than trying to convince each other, I think we were trying to convince ourselves of the merits of our respective groups. And, while the "Expressions" vs. "BodyHype" rivalry seems laughable now, there is a lot there. Like high brow art trying to rationalize audience apathy, and justifying oftentimes uninteresting, selfish explorations with claims of experimentation. Or pop culture fighting for a legitimate space in the art world, then using their pop status as an excuse to pass off sexual overtures as dance, and exploiting scantily clad bodies as sexual objects rather than as instruments for the creation of art. These were some of the issues that came up for me as I watched the various dance troupes shed their clothing and shake their booties Friday night.

Theater Artaud has been in some much publicized financial trouble of late. Suffering from low attendance and some internal politics, Artaud recently had a blow-out fundraising event where hordes of high-caliber artists (including Robert Moses, Project Bandaloop, Kim Epifano, Jo Kreiter, and Bill Shannon, to name a few) came out to perform in the street outside the theater to save Artaud from becoming another lost art space. The Hip Hop DanceFest, which ostensibly featured "the best hip hop companies from the Bay Area and beyond," put butts in Artaud's seats. Outside the theater a half hour before show time, there was a mob of teens, kids with their parents and hipsters in their early 20s rushing towards me to ask if I had any extra tickets (the show was sold out early). Even superstar modern dance choreographer Margaret Jenkins did not draw this kind of crowd when her company performed at Artaud a few weeks ago. Duly impressed by the turnout, but feeling geriatric at the ripe old age of 25, I smiled, shook my head, made my way through the crowd and took my seat.

Before the show, several dancers took the stage in an informal -- albeit highly impressive -- display of understated virtuosity, off-the-cuff movement innovation, and playful interactions. Individual performers took successive turns in the center spotlight and warmed up the crowd with tour de force acrobatic maneuvers, inhumanly articulated popping, and a slippery, smooth style reminiscent of the newly resurgent "King of Pop" (Michael Jackson -- more on him later). More than performing for the audience, I felt like they were performing for each other -- to gain respect from their peers. These were the most genuine performances of the evening because they were not about giving the audience what they thought we wanted (sex) but rather they were about going deep into each performer's own personal movement style and showing off unique skills and virtuosity with flair.

Then the actual show started, and with it came an onslaught of large groups in endless, repetitive unison, a barrage of flesh-baring performance divas (Spare me the pursed, wanna-be-seductive lips. And please, please, stop mouthing the words to the song while you dance!), unchanging movement qualities, and, with a few exceptions, a general dearth of individuality and inventive movement. Individual groups had their moments, but overall the night, because of the lack of variety between the groups, and because of the length of the show (2 plus hours -- 14 pieces!) blended into a cacophonous movement blur.

Performing the night I attended were: Culture Shock, Audionauts, Khaotik, New Style Motherlode, and Mind over Matter (all from the Bay Area) as well as In-Effect (from Seattle) and Motion Underground Dance School (from Boulder, CO).

Culture Shock, with collaborative choreography by Kim Sims-Battiste, Johnny Lee, Rauly Duenas, Karen Lara, Brian Chew, Alesha Brewster, Teddy Almaraz, Elanor Burkey, Allan Frias and Vernon Newton was enjoyable enough. This company relied heavily on celebrity spoofs, pop culture references, tongue-in-cheek impersonations and an attention-stealing performance by a young but sassy girl for its entertainment value. The antics got a rise from the crowd, but failed to be anything more than short lived antics, never building to a statement or taking on any greater meaning. They were doled out, rather, as familiar references good for an easy laugh. In one such spoof, a Britney Spears doppelganger came out with a stuffed green snake draped around her neck. She cooed at the audience for a few moments then left. In another, a man wore a sparkly purple low-hanging pants get-up with "Hammer Time" blazed in glitter across his back. He shimmied his way across the stage then off a la MC Hammer from his "U Can't Touch This" days. Still, Culture Shock admirably used all its dancers to create a fun party-like atmosphere on stage, rather than the clutter which descended with some of the other large companies.

The Audionauts were the most innovative group of the evening. It helped that there were only three performers (Ralph Monteo, Lonnie Green, and Juan Cruz, who were also the choreographers) in each of the company's two pieces -- making their movement easier to see and allowing more time for their individual movement styles to flourish. Their biggest choreographic coup was the intricacy of the men's interactions -- the way they interlaced then extricated their arms with each other with military, robotic precision.

Khaotik's gift to the evening was musical variety. Using a diverse mix of artists from Bjork and Nine Inch Nails to Ludacris and Busta Rhymes, this company was able to display a little diversity in its movement vocabulary -- which was a welcome relief, especially as the movement was ably executed by the dancers. Still, with hordes of dancers constantly on stage, the choreography by David Collier seemed busy.

In-Effect's choreographer Kari-Lee Florentine created some nice theatrical constructs within which to set her dances. Donning large orange jump suits (the fashion de rigeur of the men in this concert), three men started off the piece "X" as if prisoners in shackles -- throwing around and stopping their bodies with a beautifully angry passion.

New style Motherlode's repertory for the evening contained a diva solo, "Black China," where a well-oiled man in an enormous headdress undulated his arms and body for an eternity, and "Wicked," a pseudo-political rant. In "Wicked," dancers wore American flag rags and lashed out physically, while the pledge ofallegiance warped on the soundtrack in the background. This piece seemed to embrace the idea of making a political statement -- without actually making one.

Motion Underground Dance School, hailing from Boulder, performed a Michael Jackson medley as well as an unmemorable dance which involved a big wind machine.

Mind over Matter was probably the biggest offender in terms of using sex to sell. In the middle of "Time to Settle Down," three women seductively took off their shirts, leaving them wearing only black bras and pants which hung strategically low enough to see the strappy g-string numbers they wore underneath. Suitably naked, they proceeded to make lewd gestures like shoving their hands in their pants then shaking the hands to air them out. I could go on, but I won't.

In sum, the dancers in the show were young and generally talented. The evening offered a good mixture of untrained dancers with fresh raw skills and technically trained dancers who could also move well in a looser style. They are still at the stage of mimicry, however -- copying Michael Jackson's movement and Jennifer Lopez's sex-pot seductive tendencies rather than trusting their own voices and showing us what they can do.

Many of the questions I hoped would be raised by the event were, unfortunately, not addressed. Like, how do you take a dance born in a specific place (the Street) by specific people (predominantly African-American) from a specific political and cultural consciousness and place it in the theater? Who has the right to do hip hop, and, if its form is changed for the theater, is this appropriation done with sensitivity and awareness? These are questions addressed, but also left open for further debate by artists like Rennie Harris and others. The reason these questions were not addressed by the Hip Hop DanceFest was because there was so little actual hip hop in the show. The music used by the dance troupes was predominantly pop, with Michael Jackson as an overwhelming favorite of the groups (Motion Underground Dance School and In-Effect both used exclusively Michael Jackson mixes while Mind Over Matter and Khaotik both included him in their mixes). Furthermore, the dance vocabulary was primarily studio jazz dance based when it was not borrowed from Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" days.

Reading over the company bios, it is obvious that many of these groups are doing very good things for the communities through their kids outreach programs. They are getting young people excited about dance, and just maybe some of the audience members who attended will venture back to Artaud for another show.

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