Take One: Gender Politics on the Dance Floor
by Philip Szporer
Solid State’s new work, “Take it Back”, is a dance that crosses boundaries, re-sourcing the language of hip hop and the Lindy, presenting elements of street dance and swing in a theatrical setting. The artistic directors and choreographers of the Montréal-based B-girl group, JoDee Allen and Helen Simard, are vocal and articulate about the cross-referencing, and what they do creatively evades the commercial exploitation that is often found in the popular growth of urban dance.
The one-hour production, which is divided into sections, fundamentally challenges the representations of and politics surrounding the notion of men and women dancing together. “Take it Back” investigates the realm of dancing in partners, and celebrates what attracts people to each other on the dance floor. The directors have worked collaboratively with their dancers and have gleaned information from dance nights at some of Montreal’s swinging-est swing clubs (Cat’s Corner, to name one). What they’ve come up with is not so much an historical celebration of street dance, but a lesson in what can come across on the dance floor if 1940s Lindy hop swing dancing, freestyle dancing, locking, popping, rocking and breakdancing meet on the same ground as contemporary dance aesthetics. The emphasis often shifts between high energy, acrobatic moves and a more poetic, reflective quality. Sometimes the shifts are effortless, sometimes not, and that contributes to an unsettled energy in the work.
As Tangente’s artistic director Dena Davida made perfectly clear at the start of the show, the production is a significant shift for this women’s collective: “Tonight, guys are dancing with the gals.” Ground-breaking, at least from the company’s gender perspective, in many ways “Take it Back” solidifies another key to the group’s ethos: to entertain the audience and, palpably, to entertain themselves in the process.
The dance expertly demonstrates the awkwardness and joy that everyone can experience from dancing, cheek-to-cheek or alone. The vocabulary in the show is physically demanding: whether it’s in the Lindy sequences, which rely on the pure momentum of the swings and volleys between the partners, or in the dynamic practices of breaking or rocking (whether top rocking, and just grooving to the music, or uprocking in a battle between two dancers).
Our first glimpse of the stage, fringed by a few chairs scattered around the edge, reveals the dancers (Allen, Simard, Joe Danny Aurelien and Raul Guevera), apparently playing dress-up. In fine duds, they’re getting ready for a family photo, posing, grinning, with a kind of wide-eyed innocence, all to the sounds of a big-band-era tune. We get a sense quite quickly that all is not right with this picture: lanky Guevera squirms. He fingers his pant leg, seems a little uncertain, and then gets back into the pose. It doesn’t take a few seconds before he’s at it again, crouching, tappin’ his toes, restless. Eventually he starts — and is soon followed by Aurelien — spinning, working through footwork, freezes and popular power moves: a dolphin-like headstand or the downward diving worm. And so the evening of fierce invention begins.
Later we see the two talented B-girls assertively working through their own rocking action and breaking moves, shifting directions forward and back. In the past, Solid State has always been loud and clear on the score that they, as representatives of a generation of young women, are here to challenge the accepted gender norm on the break dance floor. But with this production, Allen and Simard are asking themselves another fundamental post-feminism question — when did guys stop asking women to dance?
The message in “Take it Back” is that both roles — male and female — are essential to dancing. The traditional leader and follower roles are challenged to the hilt, with the important statement that the follower is as valued as the leader. The women rebuff the guys often, and find themselves dancing solo, but there’s a clear desire on the gals’ parts to have a spin with the guys, to be acknowledged as both partners and breakers. That’s the storyline in the piece. It’s performed in a gawky way, kind of like non-dancer actors doing the best they possibly can but never quite getting in the groove because of a lack of technical skill. The work also plays with ideas about physical contact and sexuality in dance, in that the Lindy portions hark back to an earlier set of gender conventions on the dance floor; whereas, the contemporary urban sequences are a more aggressive and hyper-sexualized display. Not all of “Take it Back” is so serious in intention — there are laughs and some character work that charms in this playful urban, theatrical break dance comedy.
When the couples get to the final Lindy section, the styling seems relaxed. Their bodies move fluidly from side to side, the footwork nice’n’easy, and executed so well that the dance is a joy to watch (and probably as much to do). Here again, the meaning is in the physical relationships. Leading or following, both partners are riffing off each other, communicating through their bodies. This is conveyed in delectable little ways — how they locate the centre of the movement, how they shift balance and direction. The dancers respond in a seemingly improvisational way to the ideas they hear in the infectious big-band music played in this section. The dance just seems to evolve and grow. By the time that the dancers pull two audience members on stage and lure them into the dance, everyone is smiling broadly.
Finally, playing with the notion of freedom — whether it’s the powerful gravity-defying movements of both the guys and the gals or the postures and positions of intense physicality — Allen and Simard are contemplating new relationships. The dancemakers are finding a way to remove a forced gender reading, and emphasizing a give-and-take. At the core of the show, Solid State is really saying, “Get out and dance”, and let’s have partners as powerful as ourselves. The desire is to shift the meaning, in this case of how a man and woman can be on the dance floor together.
Take Two: A History Lesson
by Lys Stevens
I didn’t attend the performance of “Take it Back” primarily to write a review. I brought my notebook to the show simply because I’ve learned, over time, that I will enjoy dance performances much more if I can funnel my impressions directly into a concrete form in the moment of experiencing them. Caught in darkness, in chairs bolted to the floor, restrained by the codes of the theatre, the absorption of a performance has to have, for me, some kind of outlet — a physical response being so clearly restricted. It’s an irony, particularly so for staged dances originally formed out of a participatory imperative, but one that does not entirely escape the choreographers of this genre.
This is why near the end of “Take it Back”, when co-director and dancer Helen Simard approached the audience — clearly sizing us up for participation — rather than shrink, as my peers apparently did around me, I graciously put aside my notebook and smiled at her. Yes, I would accept this invitation to dance. And so I missed the last section of the performance as a viewer. Instead I engaged in a small but significant gesture of blurring the lines between seating and stage, audience and performer. It was fittingly symbolic of one of the central issues this piece hoped to address: why do young people not dance socially in couples anymore?
Some history: Solid State has changed quite a bit over the years since its inception in 2000. The company began as a support group for women who wanted to breakdance, and very quickly became focussed on performing both structured and “freestyle” choreographies. Formally known as Solid State Breakdance Collective, it is only very recently that they have dropped the word “breakdance” from their name, reflecting their increasing foray into other popular and vernacular dances such as house and, as “Take It Back” so clearly demonstrates, swing or the Lindy Hop.
Breaking is the more accurate term for the Bronx-originated dance comprised of the upright footwork of the up rock, the flying foot and hand maneuvering of the down rocks, and the distinctive power moves often based on centripetal motion (head spin, windmill, etc.). It is a solo dance performed in a circle of peers, often competitively, as dancers try to outdo each other in terms of style and technique. The word “breakdance” was only coined and became current after breaking became popular in the early 1980s (a good decade after its first beginnings as a party dance). It was performed as a spectacle by youth, who often incorporated other street dances, namely what was then called the “electric boogie”. Though they no longer reference the specific term, it is nonetheless still fitting for Solid State’s work in that they create “shows” for audiences and have increasingly incorporated “other” movement vocabulary into their breaking technique.
The group’s interest in the Lindy Hop was evident throughout the various incarnations of their previous piece, “It’s Not You… It’s Me…”. In the first version of that piece, Emmanuelle LePhân closed the show with a lilting and nostalgic Lindy-inspired solo, danced to a jazz standard. In the second version of that piece, the concept had transformed into a duet. It seems, however, as if the possibilities and the inspiration of the Lindy Hop were too strong to leave at that, and so the Solid State group developed an entire piece in and around the partner dance. The need to break away from the partnership within the Lindy, and other delicious transgressions which link it to breaking, were surely among its multiple influences. For me, the most successful part of “Take It Back” was the easy slippage between the two forms, demonstrating their historical connection in movement more eloquently than words.
“Take It Back” takes us back to a 1930s-style Lindy Hopping ballroom. It meanders through variations on the push-pull dynamic of social dance partnering. Will you reject me? Are you good enough to dance with me? Can I keep up to your style, your technique, your aesthetic? Can we bliss out in this magic of communion in the energetic dynamic between two individuals, between that temporary and improvised unity and the music that propels us?
But there is no sugarcoating in this ballroom. The euphoria of partnered flight and jive, of Harlem Renaissance in embodied celebration, is only half of the picture. The angst of judgment is also explored as one of the darker aspects of social dance encounters. While the four individuals in this ballroom take turns tripping off on happy solo explorations, they do so under the watchful and critical eyes of their peers. The moments they successfully come together in a joyful pairing are few. I probably missed the most eloquent one in that last sequence, absorbed as I was in my very basic footwork and light conversation with my old acquaintance, Simard. For me, the question “why not partner dance?” seemed to be answered in “Take It Back” with “because the risk of rejection is just too damn scary.” But then, maybe that’s the thing with social dance — you kind of have to be in it, in order to get it.
Another key change in the Solid State profile is again represented by a word dropped from their name. The word “collective” is no longer in their company title. What began as a group of fourteen women is now reduced to two core choreographers, Helen Simard and JoDee Allen. Presumably they still choreograph and administrate the company collectively, but it’s not the same strong force of constant negotiation and compromise between many female voices. I am completely sympathetic about the heavy toll that large collective mediation takes on a creative entity, but I still hold some nostalgia for the feminist utopia, best represented in their 2003 work “Etch-a-sketch”.
The inclusion of men in their works may be a new development to a Tangente-going audience, but not revolutionary to their practice. Solid State has long been hiring b-boys for some of their school performances. Thankfully Allen and Simard didn’t use their men as backdrops in the pursuit of maintaining a female-positive presence. Raul Guevera (b-boy 4EverFresh) was the surprise and the gem of the performance for me. I had heard he was a great b-boy, deserving of the winning title at the Bonnie and Clyde battle last February and of the opportunity to attend the Redbull Beatriders summer b-boy/b-girl intensive in 2006. I was charmed to see not only his dynamic breaking style, performed with facility and clarity, but also his ease at characterization and dramatization. Joe Danny Aurelien (b-boy Dingo) was already one of my favorite freestyle cypher dancers, a smooth and floating movement style. With considerable stage experience, Aurelien is also an original member of the Red Mask crew.
Please don’t be fooled into assuming that Solid State is the only representation of b-girls in Montréal, just because they are the most visible. Breaking has long been criticized for being a boys’ club, a sentiment often expressed by Solid State both in interviews and in their choreographic parodies. To be fair, both Solid State and their pre-cursor, the Ellemental-5 crew (active in 1998), were largely responsible for drawing b-girls into the cypher and inviting them to adopt the dance. But by now, the number of excellent girl breakers in the city is respectable.
“Take It Back” is a history lesson, but a history lesson of the most valuable kind. It doesn’t attempt literal or linear accuracy, but it brings a dance to life in all its social complexity. While hip hop may be the hook (and still some of the meat) in “Take it Back” simply because that is what audiences expect of Solid State, the piece weaves as its main thread a dance that had its heyday generations ago. But the Lindy Hop has a wealth of inspiration to offer dance enthusiasts today, as this piece so eloquently demonstrates.