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Great dancers from Brooklyn in unclear direction by Peter Sellars #HF17

Flexing is a street dance style from Brooklyn, New York. Thirteen men, three women strong is the formation that comes in various guises (HyperActive, MainEventt, Ringmasters) caused a furore in America, from the local talent show Flex in Brooklyn to America's Best Dance Crew. Now the crew led by pioneer Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray is on a world tour with a show, which they created with radical opera director Peter Sellars in 2015 for Park Avenue Armory.

Connecting

The dancers in FLEXN give full marks. Beautiful moves and mean tricks garner admiration. Sophisticated, full of devotion, varying, balancing, playing and striking, they throw their bodies into battle on the stage of the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg. The set consists of a super-aesthetic light installation by Ben Zamora. Subtle dashes, which move and pattern, but also occasionally explode in a blinding backlight, as befits concerts.

FLEXN, Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
FLEXN, Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

Bone-breaking

The beauty of flexing is the flow. By 'gliding' and 'connecting', phrases can be built and the dancing goes beyond single tricks. Muscular isolations, scary contortions with shoulder and elbow joints and juggling hats and caps are thus strung together. Popping and Pauzin, Bone-breaking and Hat-tricks are forged into one idiom. Yet there is no such thing as 'modern' choreography, based purely on movement. The movement sequences are invariably placed in the service of storytelling, based on the lyrics of songs.

There are a lot of solos in FLEXN, created by the dancers themselves. Swagger is called it if you dare. It takes something to show your skills in this hip-hop inexpert environment of the Holland Festival. The dancers visibly enjoy it, put an honour in sharing their way of dancing, their personal expression, doing what they believe in.

Something is not happening

The staging builds slowly. From a kind of warm-up and group presentation, to groups facing each other, with singles and duets as mediators between them, to theatrical solos. Everything runs like a train, and yet something is not happening.

The social context - the codes and values referenced by the dancers, the political struggles and outrage, the angry or mournful stories in the song lyrics - does not resonate with the audience. The white audience at the Holland Festival consists of elderly dance lovers, two-earning highly educated forty-somethings and their children. This is all miles away from what happens in America, in Brooklyn or elsewhere.

No theatre, no concert

Songs follow one another in rapid succession, but the audience does not greet them with the recognition that is normal in hip-hop or street dance sessions. As a result, the scenes remain self-contained and the performance does not build up, as is usual in theatre. At the same time, it never becomes a concert either; turntables and DJ are absent from the stage. The soundtrack dominates everything, via a sound system that is inadequate.

Personally, I am rather shocked by the large number of ballads, canned post-soul I call it. Overproduced commercial shit, which of course can have enormous sentimental value, but if you don't know the context of the songs, all the reverberations soon become unbearable. Moreover, the boxes are positioned between audience and stage, so that especially during solos, the dancer disappears in the decibels. It is cruel that the music drowns out the very dancers when they are doing their highly personal thing.

What did Sellars do?

So the question is, why did Peter Sellars do this, send these super-fat dancing, nice people into the international theatre festival circuit? And why is the Holland Festival participating in this cultural confusion? Find the answer in the following video:

In the end, the pre-talk is mostly about inclusivity and opening up theatre to people who do not have access to it. And about survival through dance, "to move faster than the legal economy, stay low and fly under the radar," as Sellars says. According to him, Flexn differs from other street dance in that it allows emotion, shows pain and tells stories, rather than acting tough in front of your friends or on Youtube. And that's right. FLEXN is terribly gentle in tone, despite the huge guns constantly conjured from contortions with arms.

Cultural gaps

The question remains how Americans can share with an audience in Amsterdam what moves them, what bothers them, what it means to fight back in America divided by intense segregation and racism. "D.R.E.A.M stands for Dance Rules Everything Around Me," says Reggie Gray during the interview. It seems that Sellars and Gray believe that dance can communicate across cultural gaps.

Fun and seriousness come across during FLEXN. But the performers' deeper motivations and how they, as Peter Sellars says, "create a future for themselves by dancing", is beyond me. The risk then is that the performance rather confirms prejudices, black men and women and those eternal fucking clichés: dope, guns, gangtrouble and foul cops.

Accessed

In fact, only during the encore was there any real interaction with the audience, when Reggie and his crew addressed the audience directly. It puzzles me why that direct communication, that genuine conversation with an audience, is delayed for so long in this performance. After all, that seems to be the ultimate premise, to form a community based on mutual expression. During FLEXN at the City Theatre did not succeed.

And for real flexn, you just have to go to Brooklyn.

Good to know
Still to be seen on Saturday 10 June during the Holland Festival, Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam. Introduction with Reggie (Reg Roc) Gray, Peter Sellars and special guests at 19:45. For more info see website Holland Festival

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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