Dance Dance Revolution?


In the current climate of “street culture” reporting, dance slips through the cracks. Other movement based arts/activities find constant support (skating, biking, even parkour), yet beyond the occasional mention of a major crews or jokes slung at Soulja Boy’s expense, street breed dance has no presence. When it does pop up, the approach is unnecessarily nostalgic and connects more to the re-release of heritage products than a celebration of contemporary vibrancy. I find this somewhat curious. On the one hand, dance finds its way to the silver screen in a rehashed thinly plotted tale of adversity every six months or so (and is oddly popular in the with the stars format). Yet, despite mainstream interest there is only minor celebration of authentic and engaging dance that follows the growth and trajectory of street culture. 


Like graffiti, break dancing is steadily making inroads into the institutional art world. Not new, just as street based arts have been in and out of favor with the art world for some decades, but stronger than ever, the notion that this art must be validated and understood outside the core culture building. Desire for institutional validation of American vernacular arts has plenty of precedents. Eric Porter beautifully describes Wynton Marsalis’ work with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in this context in his book What is This Thing Called Jazz. There is a clear avenue for advancement (institutionally) with Marsalis, elevate jazz to the same status as classical music.   


Progressive dance companies have occasionally mixed breakin’ in to spice up some pieces, but the flowering of purely hip-hop driven troupes in the past decade pushes the folk form more solidly into the academy. Philadelphia is a hot bed for hip-hop dance companies, most famously Renne Harris’ Pure Movement. Over the years I’ve seen a good number of them, mostly at Washington DC‘s Dance Place, which next week will host its annual hip-hop dance festival. They kicked off a little early this year inviting olive Dance Theater in for a one week residence.


The mission of the theater is “validate indigenous American hip-hop dance forms, specifically Breakin’, through the creation and performance of new dance theater works.” Unfortunately, in offering authentic breakin’ AND poignant interpretive pieces the aim is stunted. Director Jaime stresses that breaking is the sole dance form employed by Olive. Certainly true, however the interpretation of breaking within the frame of contemporary dance minimizes the pace, pulse and power of break dancing. Isolating movements also works to limit the potential of the dancers to express a confident identity. 


olive undeniably is about breaking. The most powerful piece of the performance wasn’t even live. The film presentation “’83” nicely discussed the nature of community through mentoring, as well as opening my eyes to a new connection. Raphael Xavier, Olive’s lead dancer, also rides flat land. Moving between his riding and dancing, similarities in movement are apparent, and the linkage fascinating. In the film, the company best relays the power of street arts to combat social ills, and only here does the company really push the original intent of the hip-hop movement. 


In the more “serious” pieces, olive faces tension between salient points and actually doing great dance. There are moments of excitement and flow in each, but they never quite hit a stride. Ultimately, the attempts at validation are overly focused and sadly miss the proper fusion of vernacular and high art. 


I am reminded of Donte Ross’ review of the recent Banksy instillation in my thinking about olive. The New York show raised similar questions about intent. The small scale pieces presented in NY divorce Banksy from the interactive power of the street paintings and his large scale instillations. The connection is limited, however, in that olive minimizes their own mission in the work, whereas Banksy falls to the hands of outside curators. 


What does build in both is the difficulty of bringing new forms of folk art to traditional audiences. Balancing expectation and authenticity has pitfalls. Certainly, as I mentioned above, street arts have taken the fancy of the art world before. Basquiat is the prime example. But, street arts now have more cultural and economic capital, and I would argue there is more at stake with current moves toward validation. The core purveyors of the culture have more power to ease the entry, and have opportunities to positively push agendas. 


With olive, I was bothered by the overall feel of the product. They have an ambitious mission, but have a long road ahead in pulling it off the right way. Break dancing needs passion. There is a need to react, to the music or to fellow dancers. Formalizing the movements, while an interesting exercise, removes the EXCITEMENT. The dancers faces showed just that and the audience could feel it. They had come to be enthralled, and left (at least in my case) uninspired and a little let down.   

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