I have shamelessly stolen all images in this post from The Hip Hop Dance Conservatory’s facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/hiphopdanceconservatory) In an effort to give credit where credit is due, I believe all photos were taken by AK47 Division.
“Education first.” That’s how resident choreographer, Raphaela Riemer, summed up the purpose of the Hip Hop Dance Conservatory last night during the talkback of its performance of Scrooge, “a Charles Dickens classic, re-imagined by Safi A. Thomas.” One of the major things that sets this dance community apart is that behind each repertory performance stands not only a dance company, but an entire educational institution doing what it does best – educating. For anyone, this intention is clear. There are the Friday Open Classes where members of the community come into a class and are welcomed with the support of a team of H+ instructors who provide them with one-on-one spiritual encouragement as well as technical instruction. There are contextual classes of those enrolled in the Hip Hop Dance Conservatory where dancers learn the history of hip hop, anatomy, and “pathways” among a lieu of other related subjects. And of course there is the Blade Dance Technique, codified by Safi A. Thomas, that presents dance as a mental challenge, rather than physical.
This educational program is set in place with the higher aim to preserve the art of hip hop and protect it from the tainted commercialized semi-version of it that society is exposed to daily. Thus, bringing back Charles Dickens’ classic of A Christmas Carol went hand in hand with the H+ mission of education and cultural preservation. In last night’s performance, not only were the original elements of hip hop emanated, but Dickens’ original 1843 tale of a man called Scrooge was brought to life.
H+ stayed true to Mr. Dickens’ classic in ways Disney hadn’t thought in its 2009 take on the novel. The colors of the spirits costumes that visited Ebenezer were down to what Charles Dickens had originally imagined – the first spirit, a vision in white with gold accents, the second dawned green with gold accents, and the third, a dark and shadowy creature. This was pointed out to me by the same company member who explained that the reason the character of Jacob Marley was played by two dancers creating a four footed, two headed, chained creature was because that too was a detail from A Christmas Carol’s history, neglected by recent generations.
The first portion of the performance was slow to start, being sure to provide the audience with exposition – the woes of townspeople, drudging through the mentality, “we shall live hard, but we shall live.” As the performance’s playbill states, “we witness the townspeople tell their story of poverty, affluence, betrayal, sadness, and redemption.” (H+ always tips off its audiences in this way, keeping them on track with the story via informative pamphlets that lay out the story line. They also open up the floor post performance for questions to clarify unclear moments. This is something I have always appreciated about their work. Some may argue that this leaves less room for interpretation, but I believe imagination and mystery is still fully infused within the choreography itself. I appreciate being spoon fed the logistics of the plot and allowing the themes and quality of the movements to work on me emotionally. I also think this is a great way to start up conversation, something that a lot of art these days has forgotten about.)
Rehearsal photo from “Funeral of Tiny Tim.” Pictured are Flacita Reyes, Andrea Pickens, and Silas Miller.
Once we hit Tiny Tim’s funeral, the show’s power really launched. This was the first real memorable action that set the story spinning and this action within a story is what keeps audiences truly engaged. This scene was a powerful ensemble picture with a lot to take in. We saw the immensity of the grief weigh down on the family and the town. We watched as The Gypsy sprung into action, attempting, yet again, to elicit a response and a change in Scrooge, and we saw Scrooge’s indifference to the despair around him and his obliviousness to the fact that he was the root of it. The ensemble of characters had their work cut out for them in order to spark a change in this man. Haunting images were set forth on Scrooge, littering the stage with a sense of foreboding and fear. The most notable of these images was that of the Harpies, “a ravenous three headed creature, half woman, half bird” danced by Sara Ahn, Yvonne H. Chow, and Elana Jaroff. The girls’ teamwork was remarkable as they glided across the stage as one. Spatial awareness, body awareness, and selflessness were key for these three as they successfully embodied one single creature, despite their individualities. The second most notable and remarkable thing about them was their lack of ego. From one performer to another, I applaud them for throwing themselves completely into their fiendish character, placing vanities aside and having the willingness to contort their faces and bodies in the ugliest of ways. They were right on track – doing whatever was needed, putting the character first in order to serve the greater story. This is something else I have always admired about the H+ dancers – complete commitment. They really embrace what we learned during a recent Friday Open Class, which is “if you’re not giving it your all and really throwing your body into it, you are not serving the art form.” H+ puts hip hop first and themselves second. Right on.
One thing I’m not sure about. In almost all of the pieces I see from this company, the dancers lip sync the lyrics during various moments. I’m interested to know what led them to this choice because they make it so often and I actually don’t think it’s necessary. I believe they are powerful enough with the dance itself, that as an audience member, I’ve already been informed just by watching the choreography that their movements are embodying the lyrics. I can tell already who is “singing,” just by watching. The lip syncing for me, seems like superfluous information. In playwrighting, I would equate this to “writing on the nose.” It doesn’t seem to provide anything more than what I already know since the dancers already do well communicating who is who. What say you, H+?
I loved the language in which Scrooge, danced by Edward D. Lathan IV, “spoke.” It was only during his solos that the theatre was blasted with rap. His mannerisms were the most anachronistic of anyone in the ensemble, but it worked. His modern day body language, paired with the choice of rap music, perfectly bridged the world set in 1843 with the world of today. Scrooge moved and sounded like a Scrooge of the 21st century which would later tie in perfectly to Safi Thomas’ notion that “there is a Scrooge in everyone you meet in the world today.” Lathan, as the character of Scrooge, carried himself the way he would in contemporary society, curiously making himself the most relatable character. This challenged our idea that Scrooge is just a cratchety old man from the 19th century and instead, proposed that perhaps he lives in ourselves and those with whom we interact daily. This is important and speaks to the piece’s overall theme of seeing ourselves in others. This way, we may fight off the inclination of becoming sub oppressors (that is, those who take on the characteristics of those who have first oppressed them). As Safi breaks it down, when we oppress someone, we dehumanize them. When we dehumanize them, we judge them. When we judge them, we lose empathy for them. And in this, we create a major disconnect among humans sparking a huge societal problem. This is what H+ aims to prevent with this performance as their vehicle.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Scrooge: A Christmas Carol. I have seen the Hip Hop Dance Conservatory Repertory Company perform on a number of occasions, and they are consistently up leveling. The costumes (Tatter(deux)malion) were a step up from the last show I saw. The lighting design was far more seamless than in their last piece, and their dedication to professionalism continues. I encourage H+ to keep moving forward (although I know they intend to) and to continue challenging and educating their audiences.
Thanks for the lesson, guys, and until next Friday’s Open Class, class dismissed.