An American Export Comes Home, Still Popping
NEW YORK TIMES

November 29, 2009

Krumping, clowning, strobing, turfing, breaking, locking. Few art forms boast as many subgenres as hip-hop dance. Though the differences between its various styles may be inscrutable to most people, mavens like Popin Pete of the seminal West Coast hip-hop dance crew the Electric Boogaloos have been known to split hairs over its terminology. “There are people who wave, and there are people who tut,” he told Dance Spirit Magazine last year. “They’re not popping.”

But at this year’s San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest, an annual festival held last weekend that showcases the work of dance crews worldwide, being able to tell “tutting” apart from “waving” hardly matters. Instead of compartmentalizing the myriad subgenres that fall under the hip-hop dance umbrella, the event, in its 11th year, illustrated just how easily all the different styles bleed into one another — even across geographic boundaries.

If this year’s event is anything to go by, what sets a Bay Area dance crew apart from, say, a South Korean one doesn’t really have much to do with the local group’s immersion in turfing — a hip-hop dance genre that started in Oakland and stresses theatricality and gliding footwork. The South Korean crew Last for One makes as much use of these elements as regional ensembles like Funkanometry and the DS Players. It is the level of artistic finesse versus attitude that seems to be the greatest differentiator between American groups and those from abroad.

Just as the music that accompanied the festival’s acts fused rap staples like Lil Wayne and the Wu-Tang Clan with Beethoven, Bjork and Britney Spears, among others, the choreography brought together steps from the different subgenres. “Invasion Involved,” a piece from New Style Motherlode of Oakland includes a heady array of hip-hop and hip-hop-derived movement. The dancers shake their bodies intensely, execute machinelike robotics, zoom around on skateboards and perform kung fu-inspired kicks and jabs.

Loose Change, a San Francisco ensemble, combines earthy, contemporary dance choreography with steps informed by funk and jazz. In his Michael Jackson tribute, Kenichi Ebina, a Japanese dancer based in New York, pushes Mr. Jackson’s signature steps like the moonwalk and the slide to their aesthetic limits.

A presentation by ILL-Abilities, a Chilean-Californian-Canadian break-dance crew whose members have a variety of physical impairments, powerfully demonstrated the innovative, inclusive and international state of hip-hop culture today. At one point, the dancer Lazylegz (who has arthrogryposis, a joint deficiency that affects his legs) leapt on his crutches over the prostrate frames of his cohorts Guns (who spins on his head with the ease of revolving vinyl though his right leg is amputated at the knee) and Kujo (whose deafness doesn’t prevent him from bouncing around the stage on his forearms with the rhythmic precision of a jackhammer).

Hip-hop dance is of course an urban art form that came of age on the streets, not in the studio. Improvisation and aggressive competition is a central component; it grew out of 1970s New York gang culture, after all. So many of the American groups in the Hip Hop DanceFest take a scrappy-streetwise approach to their art.

The Los Angeles crew One Step Ahead’s playful yet formless piece “Escalate” riffs on classical music themes. The three performers wear mismatched orchestral conductors’ coattails and dance to a distorted version of Pachelbel’s Canon, among other standards of the classical repertory. Their movements have a roomy, improvisatory feel but lack focus. Meanwhile, the raunchy “Final Call,” from Mind Over Matter of San Francisco, recalls the steamy videos of Madonna’s “Erotica” period. Dressed in assorted ’80s-style street clothes, the dancers perform simulated sex routines under sultry red lights. These efforts, though brimful of attitude, feel obvious and canned.

In contrast, the international groups have among the most technically precise and artistically imaginative performances at the festival. The six members of the Norwegian dance crew Deep Down Dopeizm move in perfect synchronicity in their playful piece “The Cube.” Their bodies morph together at various intervals during the work to create a compact human cube. This recurring motif is as visually arresting as it is physically demanding.

Last for One builds its piece, “Soul River,” on standard break-dancing and popping moves. But the physical agility, ball bearing-like bounce and showmanship of the six-strong group outpace similar pieces by others on the festival program. And in the London group Plague’s “Embodiment of MUSIC!” a reeling, kinetic tap-dance sequence performed in sneakers, sometimes on tiptoe, to Ray Charles’s “This Little Girl of Mine,” reinvigorates an old dance form. The performers in these three groups wear loose hip-hop clothes. But unlike the American ensembles, their Adidas and Pumas match perfectly.

Synchronized footwear isn’t terribly important though. What matters most is innovation. It’s telling that in this respect, the United States, though the originator of the art of hip-hop dance and its many subgenres, could learn something from the rest of the world.

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