Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Body-Based Vernacular: BBoyizm Company's Music Creates Opportunity

Yvon "B-Boy Crazy Smooth" Soglo

Crazy Smooth’s dancers fling themselves into the air. They spin on their heels and caterpillar their spines before spinning, dervish-like, on the tops of their heads. Their hard-body athleticism is married to an artistry so dazzling in its intricacy and speed that watching them is itself a kinetic rush, a lightning bolt to the brain. There are six of them altogether – actually seven when you include Yvon “B-Boy Crazy Smooth” Soglo, the Benin-born, Aylmer, Que-raised, Ottawa-based street dancer and choreographer who founded his BBoyizm company in Canada’s capital in 2004. And they bring down the house at Toronto’s Enwave Theatre where the ensemble performed at the end of April as part of the Danceworks series of contemporary dance, presenting an hour-long show called Music Creates Opportunity.

Don’t fret if you haven’t heard of them. BBoyizm started as a studio project, with the now 34-year old Smooth, Bboyizm’s energetic and easygoing artistic director, teaching others the street dance styles witnessed, absorbed and mastered on travels to urban centres around the world where hip hop flourishes as an art form of today. The troupe only started performing in theatres as of 2009, says Smooth during a post-performance chat in Toronto, citing his company’s motto: “Dance to express, not to impress.” Commercial success appears beside the point. “If you love to dance,” adds Smooth, smilingly, “just do it.” It’s a genuine stance born of hip hop culture where the rapper is a rebel artist, an outsider hero. The accompanying dance form is no less rule-bending, as BBoyizm makes clear.

The company offers up street dance but in a theatrical setting. Its pavement pounding endurance test is transported to a stage where the onlookers are not passersby but an audience that has paid for a ticket to sit and watch. And yet, while employing sharply defined lighting techniques, costumes, however casual, and a soundtrack offering up a global smorgasbord of rhythm and percussion, Bboyizm still delivers the thrill of discovery that is a key component of the urban dance phenomenon. The dancing is jet-fuelled as well as skillful and so hot it sizzles. It comes courtesy the body-based vernacular which has grown out of hip hop over the past two decades. From its origins in New York as an alternative to gun culture for African American youth, hip hop and its accompanying dance styles have spread to urban centres as far afield as Belgrade, Moscow Paris and Seoul, Korea. Along the way it has spawned several movies, including the recently released feature, Battle of the Year, 2008’s Planet B-Boy, and the documentary, screened at Hot Docs in Toronto last year, All Out War. It was first known as break dancing, a word that lost its currency somewhere back in the now distant 1990s, and is today known as b-boying, a boom-bat, body-rocking and locking dance style inspired in equal measure by the propulsive drive of breakbeats and the improvisational tour-de-force aesthetic of graffiti art.

Smooth is a self-described autodidact of the global street dance scene. The first B-boy to get a Canada Council grant to study the dance in New York, Philadelphia and Orlando, he has gone on to teach the acrobats at Cirque du Soleil in Montreal after winning the Most Valuable B-Boy award at the Kings of NY Competition in 2006. In Ottawa, his students have tended to be like himself, desirous of embracing hip hop as an expression of the new. Smooth dances on stage with them. But he does not hog the spotlight, even though he is a nonpareil loose limbed mover and shaker, a powerful presence both physically and artistically. While his company’s choreographer, Smooth creates dances which encourage expressions of individuality within the group. Choreographic structure exists to showcase mind-blowing displays of prowess, including dizzying spins and gymnastic tumbles that elevate the performance to sky-high levels. Besides the full-on, head-spinning assault of b-boying, the dancing expands to include popping, freeze-frame and the fluid, leg-oriented funk dance style known as electric boogaloo. Competitions are a core component of b-boy, and often the spectacle erupts into dance-like sparring punctuated by martial arts kicks and air punches. The victor gets the bigger applause.

It is obvious that the dancers, what they can do, how they look, the high-octane sex appeal they exude, is a source of inspiration. Smooth draws on their individual talents to craft dances which revel in synchronicity, the meeting of two or more bodies in time and space. Several bear singling out. Julie “Julie Rock” Benoit, for instance, is an incredible dancer, seemingly inexhaustible, who on several occasions holds the stage all on her own, her large halo of hair as distinctive as her punching doll dancing style. She is one of the few in the troupe with a honed technique in Latin dance, which she continues to practice as a member of Las Tchutchucas Locas, which performs in feather headdresses and rhinestone g-strings at Brazilian carnival celebrations across Canada. Just as flash (in a good way) are fellow dancers Melissa “Melly Mel” Flerangile, a former jazz dancer turned street dance practitioner and teacher, and Marie “B-Girl Miss Marie” who, when not dancing, uses hip hop as a tool of social work among First Nations and Inuit youth through the Canadian organization, Blueprint For Life.

The remaining members underscore the boy in B-boy: El Houari “Wary the Warrior” Si Abdelkader, a native of France and a master of the competitive hip hop urban dance style known as rocking, Mathieu “B-Boy Strife: Bilodeau, an urban dancer for the past 10 years, and 20-year old Rahime (NOSB) Gay-Labbe from Hull, Que., the youngest member of the company who started as an 11-year old student of Crazy Smooth and who today teaches B-boy to others through elementary and high schools in the Ottawa region.

B-boy, in other words, is not a fad. Having already made inroads into the mainstream and used to inspire community empowerment and social healing, the dance form is clearly here to stay. BBoyizm energetically makes the argument that the art of dance as whole will be richer for it.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She has written for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). The Globe and Mail’s award-winning dance critic for she is the author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released paperback. She will read from Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection at the Verity Club in Toronto on June 4.

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