San Francisco Letter 19

Hip Hop Dancefest 2006
November 17-19, 2006
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

TchéTché Dance
December 1, 2006
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

by Rita Felciano
copyright 2006 by Rita Felciano

Two recent events served as reminders of how satisfying it is to watch dance over an extended period of time. Observing artists pop up, develop and mature satisfies journalistic curiosity but also a deeper-seated desire to find out in which direction so-and-so is pushing the art.

But there is nothing quite like the thrill of windows opening unto unfamiliar landscapes. They offer new vistas and, maybe, even an adventure or two. It happened in the nineties with Butoh. It’s also occurring in world dance, many of whose practitioners are changing forms from the inside out. The mutations of Hip Hop and the emergence of contemporary African dance are just the most recently encountered phenomena.

San Francisco eighth Hip Hop DanceFest, is an ongoing demonstration lab of what has happened, of course, many times before: the transformation of a social into a theatrical art. Of the twenty-four groups performing on two separate programs this year, a mere quarter came from studio ensembles. These were generally large, often multi-aged groups who electrified the stage with disciplined and enthusiastic performances. The pumping unisons and heavy beats became a bit wearisome but every piece was choreographed to show the performers at their best. The episodes were carefully layered; the syncopations intricate, the attacks razor sharp. The presentations still have something of a recital quality to them yet there is something wonderful about watching such high energy in pursuit of a common goal. Interestingly, couple dancing, sometimes with raunchy undertones, has entered the genre. These days you can even find romance in Hip Hop.

The most personally involving choreography came from smaller groups or soloists. These choreographers had clear ideas of what they wanted, taking thematic and kinetic inspiration from a huge pool of possibilities and shaping it into theatrically viable expressions. Hip Hop to them is a tool, no longer an end itself. More variedly collaged scores where even the likes of Beethoven, Verdi and Satie found an occasional spot also are becoming the norm. Whether the genre can accommodate more extended essays than those dominating the Festival remains to be seen.

The Festival’s most unusual piece, “Grumpy Old Men”, by New York’s Mop Top Music & Movement, plugged into colonial as well as into Hip Hop’s anti-fighting street history. Two 18th century garbed “founding fathers” (Stretch and Ill Cosby) competed, upstaged and squabbled through arthritic popping, only to go their separate ways. A very fresh idea, “Grumpy” was tight, resonant and funny.

Takahiro Ueno and Kenichi Ebina, both from New York, offered differently strong versions of sad-sack characters, beset by the vagaries of urban life. Infinitely agile and athletically impressive, both artists expanded basic Hip Hop vocabulary to create sly and touching mini-dramas. Ueno’s appropriately named “Nightmare Spiral” sent him from a chilling flat-onto-his-back drop to running on his knees like a legless man. Throughout he looked like a trembling bundle of nerves, not knowing what would hit him next, bullets among them. Ebina’s “A Day of Kenichi-Cyborg” started with him snoring on the floor and ended by his being taken to jail. In between he scooted around run on his head, became a street musician and got a date who knocked him out cold.

The festival impressed with the range of the thematic material choreographers chose to explore. Loose Change’s business-suited dancers satirically reversed evolution by gradually changing briskly efficient walking into communal monkey-like cavorting. France’s superbly skilled Sanrancune exuded gloom and doom but tumbled, jerked and crawled through some kind of nether sphere into stances of resistance. Fremont’s super-delightful Nu-Origin—in formal evening wear, including spats—took their inspiration from the Nicholas brothers, oozing slow motions, freezes and slides like so much frosting onto a cake.

Some of the works were enigmatic. Over The Influence had its quartet in differently colored Chinese-styled shirts, masks and headscarves. Splendid poppers with martial arts influences, the piece felt like a mystery story which, however, I couldn’t read. Soul Sector’s “Robot Chicken’s” petered out towards the end but its dancers shone as they came out of a deep freeze into ever more athletic encounters. Finally they looked like elegant underwater swimmers.

Not everything worked out equally well. W.H.A.T's country hicks version of Hip Hop, was just too cute. D.C. Tribe & D.C. Shorties may have had a bad day, but they looked like they needed another rehearsal or two. One real misfit was Lux Aeterna Dance Company from Los Angeles, a septet of sleekly buffed and painted. Theirs was an athletically showy but emotionally hard-edged physicality, performed against Asian-flavored pop. Even though they didn’t included any robotic moves, the performance looked mechanical.

The Festival badly needs a lighting designer. Those roving spotlights made no sense. Denmark’s Haus Fraus, one of two all female groups (the other was Montreal’s Extreme) must have brought its own. It made all the difference in the world.

Contemporary African dance is just beginning to appear on American presenters’ radar screens even though the movement started more than twenty years ago. (Germaine Acogny’s seminal book on modern African technique, “African Dance”, was published in 1980). Clearly, as a preview screening of Joan D. Frosch’s documentary, “Movement (R)evolutions,” showed, today contemporary African dance is exploding on a continent which has been defined by its rural and tribal expressions.

As Frosch explained in a post-screening discussion, the emphasis on traditional, officially sanctioned dance was a (probably) necessary part of post-colonial Africa’s nation building. It remains for American presenters—as some are finally doing—to step up to the plate and introduce more of what looks like modern dance’s most vital recent development. “Movement” was shown in connection with Yerba Buena Center of the Arts’ presentation of one of these thriving groups, the TchéTché ensemble from the Ivory Coast.

Founded by Béatrice Kombé in 1997, TchéTché’s four women dancers (Nadia Beugré, Nina Kipre, Flavienne Lago and Kombé) have been together since the beginning. They work collaboratively and chose to introduce themselves with one of their early pieces, “Dimi” (Women’s Sorrow) from 1998. The work had gained them a UNESCO award in 1999. Like the three companies seen before them at Yerba Buena— Salia nï Seydou, Compagnie Jant Bi and Faustin Lineykula—TchéTché’s is a dark vision.

Deeply felt and powerfully realized, “Dimi” treaded on risky territory. At almost an hour and a strophic structure, the work didn’t develop a discernible trajectory. Yet “Dimi” came as close as a piece of theater can be to successfully re-enacting a ritual. These dancers, their faces often overflowing with emotion, drew from a well of ancient pain and memory. When at the end, they embraced with their faces bathed in tears they seemed to have moved beyond mere performance. One almost had the sense of having witnessed a moment of transcendence. No wonder, the audience hesitated to applaud.

“Dimi” was about endurance. Individual episodes may have exploded with highly charged actions but the overall sense was one of an endless journey. The predominant image of walking—calmly or rushing—returned again and again. Whatever strength these women found derived from an awareness of not being alone. Becoming almost iconic, they often moved away from us. The repetition of quasi-ceremonial unisons—fierce, lyrical, dejected, sometimes ramrod straight, sometimes bent the hip—reminded one of those in Greek choruses.

The basis for Kombé’s choreography came from an embracing of the earth—common to both modern and traditional African dance—and a detailed gestural vocabulary. Dancers would lie on the ground caressing it like a lover’s body; their flattened feet tried to absorb its texture. Kombé’s curled up toes practically screamed. With their hands they carved parallel grooves—maybe for planting, maybe to create a road. They fiercely wind milled their arms. Yet fists opened into splayed fingers that delicately plucked from the air—a blossom? A wisp of hope? The dancers also examined their own bodies, by touching, washing forearms, and tearing at their faces as if trying scrape off masks.

“Dimi’s” solos, which periodically exploded out of the unisons, eventually accumulated into something along individualized emotional states. Not all were as clear as others. Kombé’s beating against a wall and the ground seemed to signal an ongoing desperate attempt to break through barriers. The most specific was Beugré’s. Her easy ambling became that of a caged tiger’s. In a man’s coat which she tore off, she bunched and pummeled it, just about devouring it. And then she carried it away like a baby.

In the musicians, Kombé had invaluable collaborators. “Dimi’ would not be possible without them. The playing and simultaneous vocalizing by flautist Ali Wague excavated inarticulate memories, gut wrenching pain. Bomou Aboubakar Bassa’s keyboard provided both percussive and lyrical support for the dancers.

Top: Nu Origin. Photo by Sterling Larrimore.
Bottom: TchéTché in "Dimi". Photos by Wolfgang Weimer.

Volume 4, No. 43
December 4, 2006

copyright ©2006 Rita Felciano



©2006 DanceView