A certain palpable energy was humming through the audience at the Palace of Fine Arts on Sunday, November 19th, where Micaya’s San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest played host all weekend to two dozen groups from around the world.
Festivals like these should be archived for textbook study. After all, we’re living out a golden opportunity to trace the evolution of a dance phenomenon that has been growing and absorbing changes rapidly in the last ten years. Moves and conventions borrowed from gymnastics, capoeira, modern, African and jazz dance have all been steadily seeping into hip hop and, I dare say, hip hop has been crossing over in the other direction as well. The SF Hip Hop DanceFest offers a timely look at where the forward momentum is taking the culture.
“Work it out! Represent!” someone shouted in the darkness as Funk Beyond control took their places for “Side Show,” a jubilant free-wheeling routine for the nearly 30 dancers. This Bay Area-based troupe—made up mainly of teenagers—took top honors at the Hip Hop World Championships and it’s easy to see why. “Side Show,” a winking tribute to the auto sydeshows of the now-emerging hyphy culture, was choreographed by several of the dancers along with director Darnell Carroll and these young dancers set the bar for the whole night at a high level. With a zippy pace and flambosting solos that merged into pulsing urban funk parties “Side Show’s” rowdy hyphy-train fired up the audience, who grooved along with tunes from Too $hort, e-40 and Keak da Sneak as well as Santana and Janet Jackson. But lest you think it was all frenzy, lurking under the rollicking atmosphere was an unmistakable focus and discipline that made FBC one of the cleanest crews of the evening.
For a change of pace, local group fLO-Ology Dance Collective moved into a house groove, adopting a dramatic narrative approach to their politically-charged “Dancing in the Wind.” If the quintet of dancers looked a little less focused than FBC nevertheless, their clear command of the driving rhythms underscored a sense of desperation in the pulse of modern life.
Later in the program, the brawny Lux Aeterna had a slightly different take, merging capoeira with hip hop beats in a more fully-realized work titled “Navaras,” to the music of the same name by Juno Reactor. Colored in twining silver body paint against a blood red screen, the five dancers seemed tinged with the slime of urban dystopia. Less refined than gymnastic, nevertheless, the dancers made good use of their charismatic physicality, and Jacob “Kujo” Lyons’ fearless tumbles across the floor, planches and gymnastic flares, while seemingly out of context, were impressive nonetheless.
Clad in grey and black hoodies, Khaotic GroovemintZ, from Vallejo served up sexy breaks in a fly routine titled “VII,” while the tough-as-nails Extreme, a group of six women from Montreal, Canada set a convincing “don’t mess with the b-girl” tempo. Hailing from Boulder, CO was Elements of Motion, whose athletic “Mile High” featured power moves, freezes and acrobatics that sent the crowd into cheers.
The clubbing couples of “2 AM” from Phoenix Dance Company showed a more industrial sensibility melded with hip hop, while SanRancune’s “It’s Deep…” for the Paris-based duo of Meech and Joseph Go along with David Imbert, mixed an animatronic pop-and-lock feeling with a dark cool European delivery. Shaun Evaristo’s serious-looking, thirteen member Gen 2, from Daly city, adopted a casually grounded urban style in the group piece “Team is Back.”
Somewhat mystifying was Mind over Matter’s “Ghetto Circus,” which closed the evening. Featuring a bewigged Allan Frias as ringmaster, “Ghetto Circus” looked less like a circus and more disturbingly like a cross between a poorly costumed voguing act and a questionable cheer routine. That the dancers of this crew have skills was evident, but they deserved better material to work with.
High points of the program, though, were two solos, one from a rubber-man Kenichi Ebina, who replaced an injured Rauly Dueñas at the last minute and one from the human cartoon, Takahiro Ueno. The liquid-limbed Ueno, who won the 2006 Showtime at the Apollo Dance challenge, also won spontaneous cheers from the crowd with his contortionist antics in “Nightmare Spiral,” which called up images of a carnival shooting gallery, a hat trick that weirdly inverts the “bullet time” effect, melting legs. He has to be seen to be believed.
Looking a bit like a lanky, nerdy otaku in his loose red track suit, Kenichi delighted the audience with whimsical but expert mime perfectly synced with a soundtrack of noise effects. From the old flashlight in the jacket trick to hovering balances à la Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, it wasn’t that it was hard to see how the tricks were done— the magic was in the artistry of the perfect illusion, which made us suspend any disbelief entirely. Now that Jet Li has retired, maybe it’s time to call Kenichi and Takahiro in.