Dance Houston

The Urban Side of Houston Dance

Hip-Hop Takes Center Stage at Dance Houston Festival

by Adam Castañeda

Sneakers, oversized denim, and baseball caps in reverse were the costume of choice for many of the performers at the Wortham Center on April 6. Young people (many in their teens), stomped, pop and locked, and grooved across the Cullen Theater stage, their sharp skills accompanied by ear-to-ear grins ignited by the sheer joy of dancing to their favorite jams. To put it simply, Dance Houston’s 2013 festival was a hip-hop/urban revelation. I had no idea that our city had so many crews that are producing work that is not only highly entertaining, but culturally relevant.

Take, for example, choreographer Shate’ L. Edwards’ Ndani, a work of billowing movement set to the breaths of the dancers. The vigorous exhalations charged the ensemble in this investigation of the spirit (Ndani is Swahili for inside), which combined Limon technique with the African American tradition of stepping. Movement free of music, and given life by syncopation and rushing air, proved to be a standout in a program filled with dance that seemed plastered to its music.

Edwards’ entry set the bar in the middle of Act II, but it was matched by Riot Squad’s Hustlin’. Described simply as “a day in the life of a hustler,” the piece was sophisticated in its construction with the company of more than twenty-five dancers splitting the stage into three groups. The huge mass of bodies dub-stepped and b-boyed across the stage in a splattering of energy that could power an entire European country. Boys and girls danced as a single crew; the ladies were not playthings for the guys, as is so often the case in the misogyny of hip-hop lyrics, but femme fatales that could hold their own. There were no gender roles here.  Even the boys got sexy when it was time to groove to Ciara’s “My Goodies.”

Correlation also presented a vital piece of choreography in Still Breathing, a fusion piece that represented the copula of Latino and African American street culture. Hip-hop bravura was infused with salsa sultriness for a piece that was alive with the pulse of a neighborhood block party. The salsa steps could have been more complex, but the cutting in the hip-hop portions was tight and well-defined. Correlation’s piece made me wish I was a north side teenager again, but this time with the sense to take to the streets and dance.

These choices showed a savvy contemporary sense of discernment on the part of the festival’s curators, as did the inclusion of Cori Miller’s Not Even They Can Stop Me Now. It was polarizing without question (I’m almost sure that the older gentlemen in front of me booed at the end), but it was a smart, meaningful experiment that examines the elation of dancing for no one other than yourself. Moving from one spotlight to the next, Miller jived and gyrated to a KHS club track, a soloist in her own world free of audience and supposition. Part improvisation, part manic choreography, Not Even They Can Stop Me Now is testimony to the redemptive power of a night on the dance floor.  Miller’s dance is one that not everyone will get, but that’s just fine. It’s a twenty-something kind of thing.

Another high point was Jane Weiner’s called back, a dance previously seen at Urban Souls’ most recent concert. I enjoyed it the first time, but was left bemused by the contemplative story that unfolds. But on second viewing, the narrative became clearer and the relationships of the trio of dancers more compelling. The shifts in tempo and the sudden demarcations of movement styles create an accurate representation of a single lifespan, which can be more accurately described as a series of many lives. We change, we evolve, we transfigure into persons we had no idea we would become. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

World dance was also well-represented in quantity, but not necessarily in authenticity. Hierro Forjado, Shingari’s School of Rhythm, and Dance of Asian America brought flamenco, Bollywood, and Chinese folk dance into the mix, respectively. However, each of the pieces displayed the studio-slick aesthetic that runs contrary to the organic, spontaneous nature of the original traditions. Houston’s fledgling African dance community was represented by Kucheza Ngoma Dance Company, but the group chose to perform a West Indian-inspired choreography rather than a dance directly from the continent. The piece was charming, but disappointing in its inability to convey the raw energy and sacred abandon of movement of the diaspora.

At least these entries were representative of the city’s cultural diversity and hinted at an importance outside of the festival. Unfortunately, some of the oddities just didn’t work out so well. There was a clogging piece by the Collective Sound Cloggers that lacked inspiration in its formations and choreography, and the Hepcats’ contribution did little to encourage an interest in swing. It’s not enough to simply present a traditional form of movement; the choreographer must show the audience why their chosen style is worthy of preservation. Things become old-fashioned for a reason, after all.

Dance Houston has a wonderful concept in its annual concert: collect a handful of the city’s dance treasures and put them together in one big extravaganza of movement. The satisfying part of the whole affair is being able to discover companies and choreographers that the viewer had little awareness of. Granted, it would be nice if there were some consistency in the quality of the entries, but Dance Houston is all about exploring the diversity of genres at the audience’s disposal. It’s an all-inclusive show, and that’s to be celebrated

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *