Monday, December 7, 2009

Future Possibilities: Reinterpreting Choreography

The end of the year always brings periods of thoughtful reflection. So for this week, we're looking at future possibilities for our street dance culture and where we might end up many years from now. This isn't an exercise in predicting the future. Nor do we have access to any crystal balls. It's simply reflections on where we as street dancers can apply ourselves in exciting new directions. Our underground culture was born out of humble beginnings and it has since grown into a worldwide phenomenon. But for our community to grow, there have to be some of us who must choose to adapt and innovate. Mistakes will be made during this experimentation. But if it's done with the greater good in mind, it will establish a platform for future generations of dancers to express themselves. Today, we want to look at the idea of reinterpreting choreography. This was an idea inspired by the generations of portrait painters from Jean August Dominique Ingres to Pablo Picasso. (Photo above is from a Google Image Search for Picasso's Woman with a Book.)

Let's take a moment for some historical context in the world of portrait paintings. Prior to the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a status quo in Europe of creating portraits that glorified distinguished figures in formalized portraits. The ruling class often were portrayed as worthy subjects for this art form. When the Impressionists and later the Expressionists and painters of the 20th century seized the reins, we suddenly saw new approaches to portrait painting. Middle and lower class citizens were depicted. We moved out of the academic salon and into public venues like bath houses, parks, and factory mills. Now, the painter's aesthetic style became a character in the portrait. And often, the portrait subject was used as a means to showcase this style.

As visual artists, painters were inevitably influenced by their predecessors as well as their peers. As street dancers, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Our visual context for the dance world has expanded beyond the borders of our own neighborhood and city thanks to Youtube and social networking. While our predecessors in the 1970s and 1980s may have been primarily influenced by the other dancers they saw in person, we can be impressed by dancers from other parts of the world with the click of a mouse. This reality has serious ramifications for how we respond to our previous generations. Our understanding or dance is more instantly influenced by outside sources as well as complicated by the more diverse options. In the portrait painting world, Pablo Picasso could start an artistic dialogue with a predecessor like Jean August Dominique Ingres by reinterpreting a work from the latter. Picasso's Woman with a Book draws from an earlier Ingres portrait, but he infuses it with his own visual style and a female subject who was his lover at the time. Picasso is paying homage to the earlier Ingres work while making an artistic statement of his own. His Cubist tendencies have come into play and he is capturing multiple views of a three-dimensional subject onto a two-dimensional plane. For street dancers, we have now started to develop an archivist's appreciation for choreography and performance pieces from previous generations thanks to digital video recording and file sharing through social networking. So how will we reinterpret the work of original generation bboys, poppers, and lockers?

So far, this is a movement that hasn't taken full hold in our community yet. We do see imitation videos of individual dancers mimicking their favorite crew's routines on personal Youtube channels. Or we see flash mobs honoring inspirational dancers like reenacting the Thriller choreography after Michael Jackson's recent passing. But there haven't been strong aesthetic statements coming out of these ventures. Is our culture still too young to have artistic works to reinterpret? Or is the spontaneous nature of our art form not leading us to break new ground by reinterpreting a past choreographer's routine? On subtle levels, we see this in the bboying and popping communities where the elite dancers have trained with OG mentors and then forged their own artistic paths with their freestyle sets. Our new generation dancers have taken the foundation they've learned and built upon the shoulders of their mentors. In the choreo community, we aren't seeing this as distinctly. The community is still very young since the origins of hip hop choreo teams in southern California date back to the early to mid 1990s. We're not seeing choreographers create an artistic dialogue with choreographers from their past. Part of this hesitation may be due to the fear of being a called a "copycat" or for "biting someone else's choreo." That's a legitimate concern since our street dance and choreo communities have very few regulating entities to determine what is original and what is an imitation.

But why not break away from the mindset of the masses? If we're open about experimentation, why not set aside time and resources to try creating a new style or concepts by building on an actual routine from a previous choreographer? Take the Thriller routine. We saw elements of reinterpretation by Kaba Modern during their rendition of it on the first season of America's Best Dance Crew. But it wasn't enough. Was Kaba Modern imitating the moves, making a surface reinterpretation of the routine, or going for something deeper? It's hard to say since that was rarely discussed during their time on the show. Adam Sevani and several of his dancer cohorts from the ACDC crew have done a Thriller reinterpretation on Youtube. But it still seems visually faithful and similar to the original. What if Cirque du Soleil did their reinterpretation of Thriller? That would be something to behold. Surely, the Montreal-based troupe would bring something new to the table with their command of circus arts and theatricality.

One thing that we're lacking is a larger forum for street dance enthusiasts to have a critical thinking dialogue about our art form. Painters had their academics. Filmmakers from the 1960s French New Wave had their film critic circles. We don't have that yet in our community. If we did, we'd have more opportunities to acknowledge and present the idea of creating an artistic dialogue with a past choreographer's work. These thoughts could be debated, discussed, and picked apart for the greater understanding of interested parties in our community. Maybe some new approaches to bboying, popping, and locking could arise. Who's to say that this isn't possible?

Some may say that this is too academic for the raw spirit of our street dance culture. But isn't that condescending? Can't street dancers have thoughtful dialogues about their art form as well? This is a broad generalization but Pablo Picasso led us to see the art of painting in a very new way with his wild experimentation. Perhaps there is a street dancer out there who is ready to do the same by taking an approach that goes against the grain. By infusing the work of the past, we might find some gems to lay the groundwork for a new future.

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