General 3-12-2004

Dance Review: Trans/Lations/Ferrals: Vernacular/Pop Culture on the Concert Stage

Natalie Harter reviews this performance by University Dance Theater and Guests. Performances were March 5th & 6th at the Barbara Barker Center for Dance on the U of M West Bank in Minneapolis.

When I received the mailing for the University of Minnesota Dance Program’s Trans/Lations/Ferrals: Vernacular/Pop Culture on the Concert Stage, I initially misread the last word in the main title as “feral.” I was unaware at the time how oddly apt this mistake was. “Feral” – meaning untamed, uncultivated, undomesticated – is a fitting term to describe the origins of the movements exhibited here. What happens when these once feral forms are “tamed” by the concert stage is the central question posed by this event.

Trans/Lations/Ferrals takes vernacular dance, most notably hip hop, as its focal point; “vernacular dance” being the fancy term for what would, in this circumstance, be vernacularly called “street dance.” Underneath the question implied by the title of this performance – what happens when these dances move from the street space to the stage space? – lies a question that is posed not at the level of space, but at the level of embodiment and physicality. What happens when dance that originates primarily on underprivileged black male bodies is re-presented on primarily privileged white female bodies? What is gained? What is lost? What is changed?

Using these questions as a starting point, let us take a look at the components of the concert itself. In the center are local hip hop in works curated by Leah Nelson. That central point, a point of perceived “authentic” street dance, is surrounded on both sides by pieces choreographed by Doug Elkins and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and performed by the students of University Dance Theater. The program layout in itself creates a juxtaposition of hip hop once removed and twice, thrice, or more times removed from its original element. These layers complicate things, and make the questions already raised even more difficult to answer. But now, when was an easy question ever any fun?

The opening piece, “A Brimful of Ashe” by Doug Elkins of New York Based Doug Elkins Dance Company, includes eleven student dancers engaging in a fusion of movement forms. Mixing energetic hip hop and club moves, the sweeping kicks and challenges of martial arts and capoeira, the supple torso undulations and birdlike arm movements of Middle Eastern and West African dance, and a spin and flip from ballroom and swing thrown in for good measure, this dance claims many vernacular signatures from numerous cultural origins and links them all together through the fluid technique of modern dance. At one moment when the majority of the dancers are on stage moving together in unison it feels as though we’ve stepped into a Bollywood musical. I am no doubt helped in this illusion by the bhangra music backdrop of Panjabi MC, incorporating Indian tabla drums with western mixing and sampling, the music providing yet another point of fusion.

The middle section comprised of local artists showcased both the athletic skills and improvisational artistry that are the trademarks of the hip hop form. From the verbal acrobatics of Desdamona (check her out Mondays and Tuesdays at the Blue Nile) invoking “Mother Hip Hop” and conjuring images of an archaeological excavation of the “era of hip hop days” in “B-Girl,” to the disconnecting and seemingly double-jointed robot moves of “Pop!” (a definite crowd favorite), to the well-known circle dance challenge style of “Break!” where one dancer freezes with his elbows on the ground and head in his hands like he’s just hanging out, even though the rest of him is unbelievably vertical, these pieces prove beyond a doubt that the hip hop scene is alive and well here in the Twin Cities.

The final piece, “I Don’t Know But I Been Told If You Keep on Dancin’ You’ll Never Grow Old,” created in 1989 by the founder of Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, aims to make visible the undeniable presence of dance and art in our public schools. The work, reconstructed here for the student dancers by dancer and scholar E. Gaynell Sherrod, revels in the found art that can never lose funding, from playground double dutch to pep rally mania. Twelve dancers don schoolgirl uniforms of short black pleated skirts and artfully modified (as girls are wont to do) red Urban Bush Women T-shirts. The dancers are accompanied by the masterful drumming of Bashir Shakur, and the voices of the dancers themselves, be it singing, scatting, or shouting. At the end of the piece, with a strong marching drum beat from Shakur and drum-majorette whistle cues, it looks like a bunch of hip hop girls are gearing to take over the “76 Trombones” number in The Music Man. Now that would be an interesting remake for a high school drama department.

The two pieces performed by the students of the University Dance Theater have an intrinsically different feel to me. Although both are works that showcase hip hop moves on dancers that are not necessarily immersed in hip hop culture, “I Don’t Know But I Been Told . . .” taps into the undercurrent of energy that is hip hop much more successfully. These dancers own it, whereas the dancers in “A Brimful of Ashe” seem to merely be borrowing it. While beautifully executed on a technical level, “A Brimful of Ashe” seems somewhat detached. It’s lacking in a necessary attitude, an attitude without which these movements appear uncomfortable on the bodies that perform them, as if they know they’re only temporary.

So, what happens when vernacular dance is performed on the concert stage? About as many different things as there are dancers to dance it and audiences to experience it. True to hip hop form, different bodies, spaces, movements, and interpretations meet, challenge, mimic, and modify one another and just keep right on adapting and evolving. This performance and the conversations created by it – between student dancers and notable choreographers, “high art” and pop art, academy and community, as well as cultures, classes, races, and movements – are testament to the adaptability of the genre. Hip hop is here to stay, concert stage or no.