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Review 1, 11-24: And They Don't Stop
In Boogaloo Wonderland with Rennie Harris
By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2004 Maura Nguyen Donohue
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NEW YORK -- In a recent
conversation in Cambodia, I found myself bemoaning the canonization,
or maybe just standardization, of traditional dance as I've seen
it around Southeast Asia. Up and down Vietnam folk dance ensembles,
hotel restaurant performers, national ballet company dancers and
university teachers will perform for you the exact same, "authentic"
dance from any of our 54 ethnic minorities, complete with synthetic
costumes, stage make-up and, probably, ballet slippers. I've seen
the same from neighboring countries, where traditional folk dance
is a major part of any proper National-Royal-People's-School-of-Dance
I compared it to experiences
I've had as a teacher at various universities in the States. I'll
ask my students how they came to dance, or what they love about
dance, or what kind of dance is their favorite. I was blown away
when my first fair-and-lovely, white bread, properly Protestant,
young New Englander said, "I do hip-hop." I was floored. I guess
I'd been kinda out of the loop for a while. I hadn't realized hip-hop
had made it all the way to Miss Jane's School of Dance. My friend
Alan, with whom I was having this discussion, was a little further
out of the loop; having been working in arts funding in Asia for
over 12 years he had missed the overwhelming mainstreaming of hip-hop
and its fusion with urban culture in the minds of the masses. But
my point was that some Saigon-trained ballet dancer had as much
in common with the mountain peoples of Sapa as a young woman from
rural Vermont had with a b-boy from the Bronx. But both have assumed
Moments after this conversation
we were watching Abell, a beautiful young woman studying for her
BA in choreography at the Royal University of Fine Arts. She had
been trained in classical dance but busted out of her traditional
wear for the modern section of her solo performance. She reappeared
in spandex pants and ran through a weak mix of MTV-style slithering
with a few pop moves. My husband Perry told me later a similar thing
happened to him when he was working with circus kids from RUFA a
couple of years ago. A young woman wanted to share her modern choreography
with him and suddenly the circus performers where smacking their
butts and tossing their hair like watered-down Paula Abduls. I bemoaned
the absence of Everett Dance Theater's Sokeo Ros in this Dance Theater
Workshop-supported Mekong Project residency, which
had brought us to Cambodia. Man, would it blow these local dancers
away to watch Ros popping his way through the story of his family's
flight from the Khmer Rouge. If America's cultural imperialism must
continue, let's send dance ambassadors from closer to the source
rather than the pale MTVAsia and karaoke video imitations.
I'm not a hip-hopper,
be-bopper, boogaloo, or b-boy (or rather, girl) though I did put
in many summer months working it out on a cardboard box with my
friends from da City. (Okay it was just Providence and it was more
than 20 years ago. Though I did put in my time trying to get the
perfect backspin. Backstage during tours of "The Nutcracker.") I'm
nowhere near an expert, but that Anthro degree is worth one thing
only these days and that's my belief in keepin' it real. And understanding
context, which is what Rennie Harris does with abundant joy in his
"Legends of Hip-Hop" tour, currently running at the New Victory
Theater, through Sunday.
Harris is a modern choreographer.
His Bessie-award winning "Rome & Jewels" and more recent "Facing Mekka" are involved concert works addressing
issues and using movement invention with a thorough hip-hop aesthetic.
"Rennie Harris's Legends of Hip-Hop" isn't that. It's an exhibition
piece, a well-delivered schooling into some of hip-hop's history.
The show opens with great Soul Train video footage and commentary
from some of the originators of b-boying, boogalo, popping and locking.
Listening to old school innovators talking about issues of originality,
artistic freedom, movement invention and regional differences is
fascinating, a veritable breakdown of breakdancing.
Members of the Mop Top
Crew send up a playful sequence between two women and two men. Coming
from the Soul Train footage this piece jumps right into a more immediate,
urban pace. The beats are faster, the music less funk and more lounge.
The dress is less flash and more brand but the competitive nature
of the form gets highlighted as the girls battle the boys. When
members of the Rock Steady Crew, and friends, come flipping out
onto the stage I hear my first "ooohs" and "aaahs" from the youngsters
in the audience. Everyone loves a flying body. The section highlights
the kind of feverish athleticism that makes hip-hop so appealing
around the globe. It takes no amount of socio-political understanding,
or English, to appreciate a good hollowback. There is an addictive
mania at play here. The top-rocking and 6 steps are so fast you
have no idea how the performers end up balanced on an elbow. And
the women are headspinning and powermoving everywhere too. It's
equal opportunity showmanship.
Three DJs have been
spinning behind the dancers. Each is set up on a separate scaffold
platform and they showcase their licks one by one, spinning tracks
and breaking beats. Getting faster, reaching behind the back or
under the legs they get to show off a little of the performance
aspect of DJ battle culture, with one scratching the song "Lean
Back" with his back. Though the program promised Kenny "the Human
Orchestra" Muhamad, a different and very capable young man provided
the beatbox section for the matinee I attended.
So we are well into
the program before the official old school legends join us. Don
Campbell appears after a video in which he talks about developing
the "Campbell lock" that is best known today as popping and locking.
He clarifies that "the points" were in fact just him pointing at
people back in the early '70s when he was coming up with his own
style. Now they're a codified part of the movements. Campbell is
joined on stage by the Tokyo City Lockers, a kind of disciple group
that wears his signature brightly-colored knickers, suspenders and
floppy hats. They maintain and continue his carefree, bouncy, continuous
weight shifting style with zealous delight.
But it's really the
Electric Boogaloos who own the show. Four men appear in sharp, pin-striped
suits to show off their "boogaloo" style, most recognized as the
short, freeze-frame holds followed by rolling muscular shifts called
popping. Sam Boogaloo joins the group dressed in a red suit and
fedora. He is pure old school and still bringing it on with total
style and finesse. These men are a direct challenge to the notion
of hip-hop as youth culture, though they might disagree about their
placement in hip-hop culture all together. The Boogaloos, though
a major influence on modern hip-hop, having taught Michael Jackson
many of his most famous moves, consider themselves funk and do clearly
maintain more of that air. They're older, thicker, refined and specific
but very, very down.
My biggest critical
response to the show is to its audience. This program provides a
respectful and exciting overview of hip-hop dance's historical development.
It'd be great in high schools and colleges. The kids in the house
seemed a couple years too young to value much beyond the wow factor
and their parents seemed acouple years too old for the nostalgic
appeal. The only thing the mother sitting next to me seemed to recognize
was a brief disco spoof by one of the Electric Boogaloos.
Maura Nguyen Donohue is artistic director of Maura Nguyen Donohue/In
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