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Flash Review, 8-2: B-Birds
Decadance Delivers

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2006 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK -- This past Saturday night Decadance Theatre member Jamilia Hall was sitting in a downstage center spotlight on the floor of the Joyce SoHo stage. As she spun the dial on an old boombox covered in spray-paint, each stop offered selections from the pantheon of rappers dishing out rhymes about "bitches 'n' ho's" and "ho's 'n' bitches." It was almost funny but bitter reality hit once Queen Latifah's hit "U.N.I.T.Y." blasted out with the line "Who you callin' a bitch?" It's been well over a decade since that song hit the charts and nailed the Queen a Grammy but what's different? Jennifer Weber's Brooklyn-based all female troupe knows that women's voices are still too rarely audible in the clamour of current hip-hop culture and they are out to power (move) their way up to some proper respects.

In her Joyce SoHo program, Weber managed to bridge some of the gap that occurs when street meets stage. She deftly brings many traditional concert dance steps and structures into a contemporary urban context. She's got her eye on the big picture, looking to create the proper atmosphere while also offering choreographically complex ballets. On Saturday night, composer/DJ Prof. Rockwell spun records on the downstage right corner of the stage before the dance performance started. He continued providing an excellent live mix for each piece on the program and offered DJ sets between each piece. Weber's first work "I was there from the beginning" included images of graffiti artists Toofly and Lady Pink. Lighting designer Melanie Lipka handled the Joyce SoHo's small space with a fun blend of concert/club style cues.

"I was there from the beginning" paid tribute to the early days of break-dancing, in a playful homage complete with knee socks, short shorts and taped down cardboard dance floors. Some of these women brought the rambunctious athleticism of b-girling into a distinctly girly place. And I love that. They have liberated themselves from the marginalized status on most crews where they're set up against the showier virtuosic stunts of their male peers. In a very neo-feminist way, we're finally allowed to enjoy the patently different way in which women move within this vocabulary rather than watch them try to duplicate what the boyz are doing.

Weber's a studied advocate (U.Penn grad and current Mt. Holyoke faculty) for considering hip-hop "as the key emerging language of a global youth culture." Her international, culturally diverse company consists of dancers from the U.S., Colombia and Japan, with some coming straight from battling on the streets and others from ballet in the studio. Members of the company had traveled to Tokyo in 2004 to research hip-hop's role in contemporary Japan and develop "Gamon," based on a Japanese ghost story. Unfortunately, the excerpt shown here was presented out of context, so I won't get to comment on how the ol' East-West thing played out -- although it did provide some fun optical illusions, with black suits covered in strips of light that the dancers could turn on and off. When the stage was dark enough they resembled disembodied spirits, at times frozen in midair.

The centerpiece of the evening was a suite of sections from the company's popular "Firebird," set to Stravinsky's music, re-mixed. Weber took on this classic a couple of years ago, creating an evening-length hip-hop ballet that won the 2004 NYC Fringe Festival's Excellence in Choreography award. The suite provided enough of the key scenes to keep the narrative going and, more importantly, to showcase the strengths of several company members and reveal Weber's adroit eye for developing movement signatures for each character. Keely Wright was an explosive, alluring Firebird, shifting from brisé volés to back handsprings to knee-drops and kip-ups with unfaltering expertise. She projected the confidence and sensuality of the fantastic creature with sharp assuredness, sexy power and a wry smile. Taeko Koji as the Story Teller was an exuberant force. Every entrance thrilled and satisfied. Her execution was seamless, her quality bright and sparkling, and her blend of popping and locking into revealing mudras emanated so innately that she seemed to have been born with Pumas on. Tomoko Onozawa Peters was a delightful Princess Iva and Angela Crain a compelling Evil Spirt with the rock solid crew of Megan 'Megz' Alfonso, Hall and Stephanie Vovou.

The program finished with a jubiliant extended bow disguised as rousing celebratory dance, titled "Just Begun." It was followed by a hilarious bowing out to the musician, much like in an African dance class, with each artist approaching Rockwell and dancing at him. He in turn worked it out with a full-on white man's overbite. Weber's fluency in various forms sets her to take the lead in the next waves in dance and level the playing field. But though these women are dancing out loud and proud it's gonna take more than a few voices shouting for the chorus to be heard. Weber's crew may have just begun but we're all still so far from the end.

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