Moonwalk meets Stravinsky in hip-hop ballet


By Sara G. Levin

Delicately, then fiercely, Keely Wright introduces the all-female “hip-hop ballet,” Decadance vs. The Firebird, by softly writhing her arms and torso, then slashing her elbows and knees in hatchet-like thrusts. Loosely based on the Michel Fokine’s 1910 Firebird—the Russian folktale of prince Ivan lost in an evil forest and saved by a magical bird—Decadance Theatre director Jennifer Weber pits streetwise princess Iva against b-girl thugs who compete for respect in popping and locking duels.

But club moves aren’t all these girls can show. Last Thursday at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, urbanized scenes interlaced break-dancing with quadruple pirouettes, aerial splits, layouts and leaps. The result is an exciting adaptation that the group, has been touring for a year. Though the piece gives an originally gritty subculture an over-polished, MTV sheen, its choreography reveals an imaginative story. Led through the streets by a miming Storyteller wearing UFO pants and a basketball jersey, Iva encounters the Firebird who teaches her how to defeat the female street gang. To set the mood, samples from Stravinsky’s original score mix with synthesized beats.

As the movement unfolds, Wright’s three leaps lead to summersaults and little Tomoko Onozawa (Iva) impressively holds an upside-down breakdance freeze. All the dancers are strong and acrobatic. Unique moves, however, are occasionally overshadowed by the corny context, like when Iva desperately crosses the chain-link fence forest and decides to rebelliously spray paint one, or when enemy creatures appear in black biker gloves with outfits and moves too reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” In these cases, the dancers’ badass attitudes plead for some self-conscious comic relief. Taeko Koji, the Storyteller, adds intermittent laughs with kooky imitations, but the welcome sense of humor is something the piece could use more of.

Like the trite street scenes, the soundtrack downplay the dancers’ intensity by overusing techno. While composers Aphasia and DJ Cer adeptly mix Stravinsky and groovy guitar riffs, their synthesized rhythms become monotonous. The trance-like tone lacks one of hip-hop’s essential draws—remixing funky beats that make the crowd move.

Still, Weber’s creative choreography carries the show. Since she formed the all-female group in 2000, her mission has been to create more opportunities for female hip-hop dancers outside music videos and performances that exploit their sexuality.

“[Missy Elliot] is great, and she’s definitely pushing the boundaries of music and dance, but there’s no real established outlet to show skillful women in hip-hop,” she said.

Her choreography for “Decadance vs. The Firebird” is high-energy and emotional. As dancers cross the stage in leaps or moon-walk-type transitions, the audience feels like Iva is really on a journey. While the story might not always be obvious, hip-hop moves shout confrontation. In one innovative scene, the princess must prove herself through a choreographed basketball game where the dancers thrust at each other as opposing teams. But the mix of movement technique is most beautiful when watching Wright play the Firebird. As a dancer she is captivating, leaping gracefully then suddenly pounding her chest, clenching her teeth, and twisting her feet against the stage, as if she were grinding them into the floor.

“When I first started [Decadance], it started as a jazz/hip-hop fusion,” Weber said. “Our makeup has changed to dancers who are more hip-hop oriented, so we now do a lot of breaking in the piece.”

“Decadance vs. Firebird” marks the company’s fourth hip-hop ballet, which follows “I Dance” (2001), “Heroin(e)” (2002) and “Behind the Beat” (2003). It returns this January to Manhattan’s City Center.

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