There is something particular about this Canada Dance Festival (CDF) intermediate year programming, also the festival’s first thematic five-day event. Is it the YouTube trailer, the graffiti artists spraying large wood panels outside the National Arts Centre (NAC) box office, the abundance of youth sporting hoodies and baseball caps, the men outnumbering the women by a proportion of ten to one? Is it the absence of most of Canada’s contemporary dance community?
“HIP HOP 360 aims to be an authentic hip hop event that promotes hip hop as a valid form of artistic expression while recognizing the positive social impact of hip hop in youth culture,” announces the CDF mandate. We are encouraged to favour the terms bboying and bgirling or breaking over the term “breakdance”. The event is equally comprised of performances and workshops for bboys, bgirls and youth. This leads me to ask festival artistic director Brian Webb: is this event to be considered art or outreach? “Art,” he answers emphatically, “The outreach has to come from the art.”
The Canadian premier screening of the documentary film “Inside the Circle” kicks off the festival at Library and Archives Canada. The house is full, the audience young. Before the film begins, in the theatre foyer, the CDF marketing coordinator announces the first festival cypher, a circle in which bboys and bgirls take turns dancing in a kind free-for-all (distinct from a battle), and turns the volume as loud as it can go on a little boom box. There is a delicious hesitation from the bboys and bgirls; the context seems overly constructed in this palace of old documents. When they do launch, the audience members and I marvel and gape at the most exciting display of movement I will witness throughout the festival. I am moved by the strong personalities of the dancers; individuality and invention draw more applause than acrobatics. The CDF marketing coordinator calls an end to the cypher, stopping the music, and everyone files into the theatre.
With “Inside the Circle”, documentary-maker Marcy Garriott follows the lives of two bboys, Josh and Omar, over four-and-a-half years in Austin, Texas. They are friends turned dance floor rivals, one struggles with the law and both eventually garner underground and commercial success. Much of the action centres on an annual competition, B-Boy City, hosted by impresario and promoter Romeo Navarro, one of the few wealthier bboys shown in the film.
The extensive battle footage, where one crew of bboys competes with another, conveys incredible tension and invention. As a B-Boy City audience member explains, “It’s called a battle, it’s not called friends dancing in a circle!” Though the bboy and bgirl scene is apparently not as close to street gangs and violence in Canada as in some parts of the United States, the documentary is a good festival opener. It informs about bboying or breaking as much as it presents exciting dance footage; discipline, dedication and injury are on even footing with head spins and flips.
The following night at the NAC Theatre flips us into another world with Victor Quijada’s Rubberbandance Group in an evening of works, dating from 2002 and 2003. Six small dances strung together form the first part, followed by the half-hour-long “Hasta La Proxima”. In comparison to breaking, Quijada’s choreography is most polished and balletic: from the portrayal of strong men, ethereal women and their drama-filled relationships to the ornamentation of movement that strictly follows the music. Dancers move their joints in isolation, turn on bent knees and invert themselves. Their limbs flow softly, occasionally extending out beautifully in contrast. Slow, dramatic moments in which the dancers walk or stare out into space invariable follow very dense movement sections, as in story ballets, and this form becomes tedious over the course of the evening.
Breaking values fast movement, and Quijada’s craft lies in playing with speed, in the nuances of fast and slow. Because of this, the movement flies when the dancers move to the multi-layered classical and romantic music, following the crescendos and lilts of the music. Conversely, the even rhythm of the hip hop and popular music, mixed in haphazardly with Prokofiev and Verdi, flattens the movement, and adds an odd subtext with lyrics about snorting cocaine, among other things. In the context of HIP HOP 360, Quijada’s vocabulary is worlds away from the raw attack and spontaneity of breaking. In this sense, it is odd that Rubberbandance Group should be the festival headliner. They seem to be the one group bridging art and a regular theatrical dance audience to the outreach-based performances and events comprising the rest of the festival.
My next stop is an indoor noon-hour cypher at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau. The large crowd of children sitting around the circle make a fantastic audience, exclaiming at freezes (hand stands in which the bodies and legs are held in various contorted positions), power moves (big upside down movements involving legs sweeping in a circle and carrying the torso along) and the ever-impressive head spins. The audience responds with visible fear as arms and legs swoop right near them. I am most compelled when bboys and bgirls punctuate and enhance the music with their movements. Luca Patuelli (Lazylegz), who has unusually short legs due to a disorder called anthrogryposis, walks and dances with and without crutches and draws the biggest screams. At the end, two young audience members venture into the circle, encouraged by the bboys and bgirls. The children go wild as one performs a flip.
In the evening, hosts DJ Ben Jammin and Conway Kootenay (MC Creation) welcome the audience, including many young children, to the NAC Studio for Showcase #1, a performance of several bboy and bgirl crews. Ben Jammin spins upstage centre, framed by two suspended graffiti panels. For both showcases, the DJ is accessory: though the music is fun, their “sets” between crews are very brief and there is no room nor incentive for the audience to get up and dance. The MC comes on stage at the beginning and the end of the DJ’s sets to announce the next crew or congratulate the last. The first crew, Bag of Trix, from Toronto warns that they have come unprepared, and the trio takes turns dancing. Elbow stands are their strength and I recognize more simple variations of difficult moves I have seen previously. Each bboy takes several turns and I note restraint in the first sequences, as though they are saving tricks for the end. As they work the crowd and grab at their crotches, I feel quite far from an artistic event.
The distance to art increases as Ottawa’s all-female Decypher Cru takes the stage with All work and no play. Their choreography begins with poorly mimed office-worker boredom and evolves into several short sketches. Their bgirling vocabulary seems limited to top rock — the upright dancing and footwork — weaving of feet and calves with the body close to the ground, supported on the hands and elbows. Solos and duets unfold in front of dancers holding a pose, crouched on a knee or standing feet wide and arms crossed in an oddly exaggerated way. These poses are a constant for all of the crews — a universal choice for the “off” dancer. Decypher Cru unfortunately dances past both their endurance and ours.
Hailing from Montréal, Illmask also starts off with mimed boredom, this time in the classroom setting, and progressively builds to a full party. The musical mix is tight and the six dancers punctuate their movements with punched freezesand different dynamic attack. Each dancer has a unique style and they throw themselves into space with complete commitment; this is a celebration of movement and energy.
Freshly Squeezed, an Alexander First Nations crew from Edmonton, follows. MC Creation, who has presented the other crews in the evening, is a member of Freshly Squeezed and leads us through an educational performance, drawing parallels between First Nations and hip hop, and explaining some First Nations precepts: “When you take something from the earth you give it back”, “We honour our mothers”, “We are the same people”. He first introduces a hoop dancer and a fancy dancer in traditional costume. The hoop dancer seamlessly and progressively picks up the ten hoops lying on the floor around him and decorates his body with them in various ways, always jumping softly and turning. Meanwhile, the fancy dancer skips in a circle around him, demurely at first, then throwing her shawl up as wings. MC Creation raps a song about the daily challenges of First Nations. Three bboys follow, dancing in similar configurations as the other crews, in simple unison and solos, but for myself, resonating images of the hoops and the shawl eclipse them.
The next day, another noon-hour cypher unfurls at the World Exchange Plaza in downtown Ottawa. The big outdoor amphitheatre is not as energized as yesterday’s confined indoor space. It is cool and so windy that DJ Ruby Jane has trouble keeping her vinyl from skipping. The bundled-up bboys and bgirls look cold but they still draw a considerable crowd of passers-by stopping to gape.
DJ Ruby Jane and MC Ben Jammin animate Showcase #2 in the NAC Studio. The Canadian Floor Masters (CFM) and their young counterpart crew, Funk Thieves, kick off the evening with Back in tha Day, a lecture demonstration complete with slide show on a large screen suspended above the DJ. The leader, Stephen Leafloor (Buddha), at forty-seven years, is by far the oldest bboy at the CDF. He appropriates the fictional experience of an angry teenager in the Bronx in the early 1970s in order to explain why “hip hop is the voice of youth around the world”. He describes some bboy movement vocabulary as other crew members demonstrate. Then he insists that, back in the 1970s, breaking, graffiti art, DJing and MCing substituted forfighting and crime, using such sweeping statements as “it was all about the anger” and “it was all about the [bboy] battle”. Buddha dances mostly upright, swinging his arms out grabbing the air at his sides, kicking his calves out, always grinning, and he usually ends with a flip. When the propaganda winds down, he announces “this is the real hip hop” and his crew performs several short sections, often in matching costumes. I was uncomfortable with most of the choices in this performance, from the presentation of the self-proclaimed “real” history of hip hop, to the blanket statements about society, such as “sex and violence isn’t only in hip hop, sex and violence is everywhere!”
Thankfully, East Rock Crew from St. John’s, Newfoundland takes over. Five bboys enliven the stage in the most elaborate choreography of all the crews, namely with varied configurations so that the audience sees phrases from different angles, simultaneous solos, variety in tone, dynamic change and movement-based transitions (as opposed to walking and posing). Greg Bruce (Square) raps a short song about life on the rock and when his crew members collapse on the floor, he noodles them back to life by playing a baritone saxophone. As with Illmask, East Rock Crew moves with clear movement expression, and pleasure. Dead Reckoning from Vancouver follows, and prove themselves as the most technically proficient crew presented by the CDF. They opt for a story performance, introduced by a sign reading “BBoy Boot Camp”. The camp leader mimes out a voice-over in which he instructs his four trainees, requesting top rock, freezes, footwork and power moves, which start out shaky and eventually involve Jesse Brown (Casper) kicking himself into a flip off of a crewmate’s chest. Many short sections unfold at a schizophrenic pace, but the crew has the moves and technique to pull it off. Dead Reckoning’s performance is fun, crisp, tough and Olympic rather than joyful. They know they are good and they show us how.
HIP HOP 360 rounds up with the House of PainT Block Party at Brewer Park and Dunbar Bridge, a free event where bboys and bgirls battle, cypher and host workshops for families. DJs spin, MCs rap and graffiti artists cover the bridge walls with their writing. This is where I catch up with a smiling Brian Webb and ask him about art, outreach and this new CDF format. He plans to target different cultural groups every other year with a biannual five-day CDF event, keeping the seven-day contemporary dance events for alternating years.
Throughout the festival, I witnessed a number of bboys and bgirls express gratitude towards the CDF for providing a mainstream window and an opportunity for crews from across the country to meet, exchange and attend workshops on developing parallel careers, self-promotion, community leadership and talking with presenters. Audiences were full and enthusiastic; the event was fun and positive. This intersection of art and outreach has given me food for thought. The CDF website describes HIP HOP 360 as a “national, cross-cultural, multi-arts gathering of youth”, clearly pushing the right buttons with private and public funders. I applaud the success of the initiative, highlighting dance in a entertaining way, and hope it has a positive impact on audiences for dance in general, creating more flow from the street to the theatre — and back.