featured photo
The Kitchen
Brought to you by
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.

Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Flashback, 8-2: And They Don't Stop
In Boogaloo Wonderland with Rennie Harris

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2004, 2006 Maura Nguyen Donohue

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Review Archive. This Flash Review originally appeared on November 24, 2004. Rennie Harris's New York Legends of Hip-Hop opens the New Victory season October 6.)

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 education.

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 expertise.

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 Mixed Company.

Flash Reviews
Go Home