DANCE The Hip-Hop Dance Fest has grown up. What started 12 years ago as a showcase for local crews and studios has become an excellently balanced showcase of national and international artists. Only four of this year's 11 participants came from the Bay Area. Sad to say, the sorriest performance all night long came from a local one. Still, the future for hip-hop dance on stage looks brighter than ever.
One of the most moving and wildly applauded works on Nov. 19 was South African dancer/choreographer Jane Sekonya-John's deftly and economically choreographed Spoti. She donned an old spoti — fisherman's cap — and transformed herself from a limping, bent old woman into a victorious (though scar-bearing) freedom fighter. Another highlight was Raphael Xavier's almost oppressively serious Black Canvas, in which breakdancing, much of it floor-bound, became the paint that portrayed three men in fractious, competing, and cooperating relationships. It's one of the best examples I've seen of hip-hop's theatrical expressiveness.
Los Angeles' exuberant VersaStyle Dance Company's Legacy paid tribute to hip-hop's ancestry by weaving live dance with beautifully chosen video clips from past greats such as Bill Bailey (inventor of the moonwalk), Fred Astaire, Peg Leg Bates, and the Nicholas Brothers. DS Players from San Jose returned with Before Old School, a tribute to the ballroom style of the 1930s and '40s. Anything this trio touches is blessed with understated wit and a sense of camaraderie.
Also from Southern California, One Step Ahead presented Tables and Chairs, which brought split-second timing and a sometimes humorous approach to the subject of an argumentative family. The kitchen table became the locus for blame-assigning, with flips, kicks, and leaps as synchronized as clockwork. Everyone took as much as they got. Bringing up the L.A. contingent was the b-boying duet between Rock Steady Crew's YNOT and BailRok, a pint-size virtuoso with a mountains of attitude. Remember the name.
Pro-Phenomen, seven men from France, closed the program with a performance of Signum that justifiably brought down the house. Thematically, the piece had something to do with the preservation of freedom. Impeccably performed, the dancers' silken combinations and fabulous sense of timing were mesmerizing. Gestures ran down a line or through a circle. Helicopter-like movement popped up like an afterthought from otherwise engaged groups, and tiny dramatic or tender duets exploded out of nowhere and evaporated as quickly. Huge stretches went into military-type push-ups; dancers "fainted," were thrown, or ended up on the sidelines.
The 12th Hip-Hop Fest also embraced more traditional presentations. Future Shock Bay Area, a large studio company, opened the evening with Rappin Da Bay. The choreography broke what could have been tedious unisons into ever-shifting small ensembles, with a spot for a soloist or two. Perhaps not terribly original, Rappin stayed vital through its performers skill and commitment. SoulForce Dance Company enlivened its choreography by assigning it to characters such as Brandy Logue as "the Elder" and Meegan Hertensteiner as "Miss Meow Meow," among others. The piece was an amusing, successful mashup of individuality.
Mind over Matter was this year's serious misstep. Choreographer Allan Frias, who recently appeared on So You Think You Can Dance, has made it something of a specialty to go for sex and violence. Psyke was probably inspired by gangsta rap and underground aspects of gay culture. (The performance was announced as having "adult material.") Raunch — in this case, simulated violence against women and simulated sex — can be funny, ironic, and pornographic. What it should never be is boring.