In Concert Street Dance, Everything Old Is New Again

Adesola Osakalumi, Ephrat Asherie and Michelle Dorrance hold forth on Hip-Hop, collaboration and what it means to bring street styles to the concern stage.

“I feel that Hip-Hop culture—dance, to be specific—is the most important and dynamic American artistic creation in the past 100 years,” Adesola Osakalumi told me a few hours before the opening night performance of his newest (and oldest) work. It has impacted almost every other dance form. It’s given life to musical theater, it’s given life to film and it’s given ballet, modern and other western forms the understanding that there’s power in individuality.”

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Dancers in Adesola Osakalumi’s ‘JAM ON THE GROOVE 3 for 30’. CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN

It’s a bold statement, but the evidence is there. New York City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival commissioned two world premieres for their 20th Anniversary Season, and both are deeply rooted in Hip Hop culture: Osakalumi’s JAM ON THE GROOVE 3 for 30 and The Center Will Not Hold, a collaboration between street dancer Ephrat Asherie and tap dancer Michelle Dorrance.

JAM ON THE GROOVE 3 for 30

The importance of the original Off-Broadway hit JAM ON THE GROOVE (1995) cannot be overstated. It was the first-ever Hip-Hop theater production and received a Drama Desk Award nomination for Best Choreography. It brought Hip-Hop, in its pure form, to the concert stage. So, the commissioned reconstruction by Osakalumi, co-founder of GhettOriginal Productions Dance Company and one of the original cast members, was highly anticipated.

This wasn’t the case with the original production, though. Despite the GhettOriginals being the real deal (the company was made up of several early Hip-Hop groups that had joined forces in 1989—Rock Steady Crew, Rhythm Technicians and Magnificent Force—and featured legendary Hip-Hop pioneers like Steve “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente, Crazy Legs and Jorge “Fabel” Pabon), the 100-performance run at New York’s Minetta Lane Theatre from November 1995 through February 1996 and subsequent international tour received mixed (and occasionally offensive) critical reviews.

‘JAM ON THE GROOVE 3 for 30’. CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN

The mainstream media, in particular, seemed unsure of how to talk about the new dance movement. A theater critic for New York’s Channel 5 complained, “Some of the routines become repetitive and a couple of rap numbers left me cold, simply because I couldn’t understand the lyrics… But the dancing never falters, and the energy of these kids is atomic.” In a CNN Entertainment News interview, a reporter declared, “Hip-Hop is still young. Whether it will become accepted on the theatrical stage, in the way that tap or jazz has, is anybody’s guess.”

Contrary to the media’s portrayal of GhettOriginal Productions as a bunch of kids playing around on stage, the group had been part of the modern dance festival circuit for years, performing alongside companies like Eiko & Koma and Doug Varone and Dancers. They workshopped and reworked the piece as they went, so by the time it got to the Minetta Lane Theatre it was, as Osakalumi said, “pretty solid and locked in.”

SEE ALSO: Mark Travis Rivera On Breaking Barriers in Dance

But it was an earlier version that Osakalumi returned to when preparing for the reconstruction, thanks to film footage and Jorge “Fabel” Pabon’s skills as Historian & Archival Consultant. “I wanted to give myself space to see, to kind of almost tabula rasa and start from something that predated the Minetta Lane version.” Osakalumi was one of the Co-Choreographers, Creators and Co-Directors of the original show, but he has learned a lot since then. He’s performed in films, on television, in theater and on Broadway. He starred in FELA! (both the original and the Broadway return), the revival of EQUUS and Skeleton Crew, and is currently Associate Choreographer and Dance Consultant for Hippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical.

One of the main things Osakalumi wanted to do this time around was dig into the storytelling for Concrete Jungle, the section that opened both the original and current show. “Concrete was initially done as a response and as a commentary on the Rodney King incident and riots,” he explained. “Even back then we were very intentional about making a social, political statement.” That section was rarely mentioned in reviews, and if it was, it was often misunderstood. Variety wrote: “Unfortunately, this single nod to a hard edge is somewhat simple-minded, owing more to “West Side Story” than gangsta rap.” Osakalumi and his dancers felt that the topic was avoided because “to address what we’re saying, you have to then acknowledge that these are thoughtful, socially-aware artists, not just some kids from the ‘hood who decided to, you know, get up on stage and spin on their heads.”

‘JAM ON THE GROOVE 3 for 30’. CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN

The changes to Concrete’s choreography aren’t huge (“a different position here and a different movement pattern there”), but the effect was palpable. Some of the original lyrics were projected onto a screen which is something they couldn’t have done back then, and the narrative was more fully developed. This time there was no way around the topic of police brutality but through. The fact that their statement is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago—that could be a whole other article.

The second section, Portrait of a Freeze, is where the dancing was at its best. Three B-Boys (Victor “Kid Glyde” Alicea III, Anthony “YNOT”, Sammy “Samo” Soto) and one fierce B-Girl (Carmarry “Pep-C” Hall) got into an old school breaking battle, and it was a treat to watch some of the best traditional power moves and freezes around.

Moments in Motion, the all-male sextet, was a fun throwback to early Hip-Hop party dances like the snake, moonwalk, robot and boogaloo.

What this intergenerational cast lacked in the original’s tight-knit energy, it made up for with its all-star quality. And Steffan “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente and Antoine “Doc” Judkins’ original music was pure mid-‘90s joy.

The Center Will Not Hold

Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and Michelle Dorrance first met while teaching at the famed Broadway Dance Center. Asherie, born in Israel and raised in Italy then NYC, was teaching Breaking while Dorrance, raised in North Carolina, taught Tap. They didn’t seem to have much in common except a mutual friend—Brian Green—and an interest in Marjory Smarth’s legendary House class.

Dancers in ‘The Center Will Not Hold’. CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN

But in 2006, they were both invited to perform in Derick K. Grant’s Imagine Tap show in Chicago. “We were roommates!” Asherie announced delightedly as I spoke with them both over Zoom. Dorrance was trying to explain the historical and stylistic intersections between Hip-Hop dance and Tap, in the casually brilliant way that helped win her a MacArthur Fellowship, but the two are so close now and were so excited about their new work which had premiered the night before that it was hard to focus.

Dorrance recalled that Asherie and Cyclone did an interpretation of the Coles and Atkins soft-shoe in Imagine Tap, to show the relationship between the dance forms. “Yeah, exactly,” Asherie said. “In, like, suit tails…”

Dorrance leaned forward, remembering. “In Adidas—”

“Red—”

“Red Adidas suit tails.”

“And a little red Kangol. And a cane that we threw away to get into it.”

Ephrat Asherie and Michelle Dorrance. CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN

When they both returned to NYC after the show, Dorrance started taking Asherie’s Breaking class. “I’ve always been a wannabe,” she said, “so it wasn’t outside of the wheelhouse of my wannabe elements.” This was at a time when she was taking as many classes as she could in as many styles as she could. And then, after seeing one of Asherie’s solos that had an emotional depth she wasn’t accustomed to seeing in street dance, Dorrance realized they should work together, that Asherie’s style “belongs in the storytelling we’re doing as footwork-driven dancers and percussive dancers. These forms live and share space together. That’s not incongruent vocabulary with what we do. In fact, to me, it’s the next layer of what we could do.”

Their first official collaboration was Dorrance’s ETM (2016), made in collaboration with Nicholas Van Young. For Dorrance, Asherie’s presence in her piece meant that “we weren’t just living inside of this jazz legacy, we were living in the space that the jazz legacy led to.”

Since then, they have collaborated often, sharing a mutual respect for the interconnecting roots of their dance forms—tap dance is, after all, the original street dance—as well as a vision for expanding their forms’ expressive possibilities. “There’s always been a nod between tap dancers and any street or club dancers when you see each other,” Dorrance told me. “Because you know you’re in family even if you’re not.”

‘The Center Will Not Hold’. CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN

“Like lineage,” Asherie added. “Continuum.”

For their newest collaboration, they wanted to comment on the current state of the world. This meant creating a stark space. “There is a level of having to wear a mask or protect yourself–whether that’s suited up, or however you want to interpret that, while also trying to stay connected to who we are as emotional beings.”

Kathy Kaufmann’s occasionally blinking, cool, and beautifully smoky lighting helped create that stark space, as did the “prepared piano”/drum composition by Donovan Dorrance (Michelle’s talented younger brother). Everyone wore black.

The movement is a mash-up of styles: Rhythm Tap, Memphis Jookin, Detroit Jit, West Coast Funk, Step, Lite Feet, Breaking and House. The cast, coming from all over the country, share a talent for footwork and a familiarity with the choreographers’ styles. Most of them have worked with Asherie or Dorrance before, and many have worked with both. The result is an “emotional and artistic puzzle of styles” with a clear emotional arc that is thrilling to witness.

The piece opened with a duet from Asherie and Dorrance, sharing a literal spotlight. “The very first thing we do,” Dorrance explained, “is a gesture towards our pain. Physical and emotional.” The work explores themes of isolation, community and solidarity. At one point, the whole cast lined up and performed a sequence of rhythmic pedestrian gestures. It seemed they were just humans, like us. But then they broke off into solos and dance-offs and we were reminded of their otherworldly talents. There was pain there, yes, but also so much joy.

The entire group—John Angeles, Asherie, Manon Bal, Tomoe “Beasty” Carr, Dorrance, Fritzlyn Hector, Donnetta “Lil Bit” Jackson, Richie Maguire, Mike Manson, Charles “Lil Buck” Riley and Matthew “Megawatt” West—gave stellar performances. And Angeles’ (of Stomp fame) live percussion was phenomenal.

The Past, Present and Future

This year’s Fall for Dance Festival gave audiences—and performers—the rare opportunity to watch the 30-year evolution of Hip Hop dance.

The cast of The Center Will Not Hold rushed from their rehearsal to see JAM ON THE GROOVE 3 for 30. “Coming up in the breaking scene here in New York City,” Asherie said, “Jam was something we all heard about and dreamed of getting to see. People who had seen it told us it was a show unlike any other… Seeing it on the City Center stage was beautiful and moving.” Dorrance added, “We are because of their work. I have infinite and endless respect.”

“I’m proud of where we are,” Osakalumi said. “We are a testament to the fact that years ago we decided to promote our art in the face of, and in spite of, all opposition. And here we are, 30 years later.”

In The Center Will Not Hold, Asherie and Dorrance are tapping into something entirely new and of itself: a street dance style born from many street dance styles, with real emotional depth. It isn’t just about flawless technique and battles and one-up(wo)manship and community—though those elements are there, of course. There is something else, too—something softer, a bit surreal and very human. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

When I asked Osakalumi his thoughts on the future of Hip-Hop dance, he said, “I think it is in a space where it is still finding itself. As more artists look into full-length pieces and continue to tell authentic stories, there is nowhere to go but up and out.”

After the show, I watched a young girl in a sparkly white dress trying out a toprock while standing in line for the bathroom. She spun around then posed, and another star was born.

 

In Concert Street Dance, Everything Old Is New Again