In the Cypher

Three street-to-stage performances in Montréal By Helen Simard
  • Frédérique “Pax” Dumas in Sovann Rochon-Prom Tep’s Un temps pour tout / Photo by David Wong
  • Jean-Édouard “Sangwn” Pierre Toussaint, Frédérique “Pax” Dumas and Ja James “Jigsaw” Britton Johnson in Sovann Rochon-Prom Tep’s Un temps pour tout / Photo by David Wong
  • Dancers in 100Lux show / Photo courtesy of 100Lux
  • Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli and Roya the Destroya in their work Creatures / Photo by Pierre Castera
  • Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli and Roya the Destroya in their work Creatures / Photo by Pierre Castera

2019 might be the year that the Montréal stage dance community finally catches on to what’s going on in our city’s street dance scene. At least that’s what I was thinking as I watched the final presentation of choreographer Alexandra “Spicey” Landé’s new creation, IN-WARD, back in January. Sitting in the gallery of the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels), I was moved by the six dancers’ precision and raw power as they pushed themselves through the physically and emotionally challenging work. Of course, having worked on the project as an outside eye and artistic consultant, I was far from objective. But rarely have I seen choreography that manages to make such bold comments on race, gender, social isolation and the policing of racialized bodies, all while generating such infectious visceral empathy in spectators.

While it used to be rare to see hip hop dancers claiming space in the concert dance world, Montréal’s 2018/19 dance season is literally bursting with shows bringing street dance aesthetics and sensibilities to the stage. In the span of a week I had the opportunity to see not one, not two, but three different shows, each one as unique as the artists who created them – Sovann Rochon-Prom Tep, a quadruple bill from 100Lux and the duo of Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli and Roya the Destroya.

First up was Sovann Rochon-Prom Tep’s Un temps pour tout, a ninety-minute experience that magically captures the joyous and rebellious spirit of freestyling. As I entered La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines, the fourth wall disappeared: Rochon-Prom Tep walked around the space, greeting spectators and offering herbal tea, making it feel more like we were in his living room than at a theatrical presentation, inviting us to sit on cushions on the stage to get closer to the action. After a short wait, three dancers entered the space with calm determination: Jean-Édouard “Sangwn” Pierre Toussaint, Frédérique “Pax” Dumas and Ja James “Jigsaw” Britton Johnson. For an hour and a half, these incredible performers took turns dancing, vibing off and encouraging each other. The experience was as powerful as it was beautiful, and I felt we were witnessing something that was, for lack of a better term, real. The dancers were in the moment, never holding back: their intensity and absolute control was hypnotizing, and they conveyed a profoundly personal sense of ritual in their dancing that so many street dancers in the room could clearly identify with. Indeed, throughout the show, audience members yelled with approval and squirmed in their seats, some barely resisting the urge to jump up and join in the cypher. The live music, played by Thomas Sauvé-Lafrance and Vithou Thurber-Prom Tep, shifted from jazz to experimental noise to nineties-inspired hip hop jams, sometimes complementing the dancers’ improvised movements and at other times creating exquisitely strange contrast. A unique, touching experience – simple and honest in its infinite complexity.

Whereas Un temps pour tout brought the energy of a hip hop jam into a theatrical space, 100Lux showcased street dance techniques through the choreographic conventions of concert dance. Presented at the Cinquième salle of the Place des Arts, the evening featured four short works with a clear desire to communicate stories through dance. ARTMOXÏE’s Karma is a short and emotionally charged hip hop piece that explores the idea that we get back from the universe what we give. The work was performed by a group of students from Urban-Element Zone’s pre-professional training program, and I was impressed by how well the young dancers captured the essence of Lakesshia Pierre-Colon’s movement, all while expressing their own personal styles. Their tense bodies created contorted shapes in a struggle between right and wrong, between helping or causing hurt, between the individual and the group. In Mom’s Spaghetti, Dominique Sophie served up tightly choreographed house and waacking moves while offering a glimpse into the feelings of elation and self-doubt that come with practising an improvised dance form. Her honest questions surrounding why we choose to dance and what we’re trying to express when we step into the cypher were touching and surely rang true with many dancers in the room. Marites Carino’s fantastic short film Crack the Cypher features choreography by Tentacle Tribe and follows the story of two dancers hoping to escape the confines of the city’s concrete jungle. In Filigrane, Forêt Noire’s Martine Bruneau and Axelle Munezero revisit and reimagine four waacking duets from their repertoire as group works. The opening image is what stayed with me most: a light shining through the rotating blades of a fan cast shadows on the six performers, creating a tracing effect on their whipping and whirling arms. The effect was haunting.

My week ended at the MAI with Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli and Roya the Destroya’s Creatures, a charming multimedia piece mixing gravity-defying dance moves with live music and video projections that explore the quest to discover, accept and go beyond one’s self in the face of challenges. As differently abled artists who dance with crutches, Lazylegz and Roya pushed themselves to incredible levels of physical prowess in the sixty-minute performance, all while sharing touching moments of fear and vulnerability. Structured as four short pieces – two duets and two solos performed by the choreographers – Creatures challenges normative conceptions of the human body by highlighting the beauty of difference. The intricate geometric patterns created as the two performers balance on and support each other were mesmerizing. The complex mechanics of manipulating the crutches made some transitions more laborious than others, but seeing the labour involved in the choreography actually drove home just how hard these artists worked to develop their high level of physical virtuosity. Short films, created by Mat Rich, played between each piece and humorously poked fun at the way people living with disabilities can be infantilized and disempowered by those around them in a number of everyday situations. Delightful and entertaining from beginning to end, Creatures also makes room for an important discussion around ableism and the need for inclusive practices in dance spaces.

2019 might indeed be the year that the Montréal stage dance community finally catches on to what’s going on in our city’s street dance scene. But I wonder: is catching on the goal? What I mean is, are street dancers creating work for the stage to gain recognition from the stage dance world? Or are some artists simply choosing to use the stage as a platform to share another facet of their artistry? While I’m excited to see so many dance spaces supporting street dance creations, I also love how the underground hip hop community continues to thrive in this city despite having very little institutional support or funding. Street dance forms remain primarily improvised practices, and for many dancers, including the artists I’ve discussed here, creation doesn’t only happen on the stage; it also happens in the cypher. If the stage dance community is truly going to catch on to what’s going on in our city’s street dance scene, they’ll have to go out to battles and jams to see what goes on beyond the stage and understand and appreciate street dance on its own terms.


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