Let the rhythm hit ’em

Pub date November 25, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionDance

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REVIEW The exuberance bouncing off the walls of the Palace of Fine Arts at the Nov. 22 opening of the 10th annual San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest probably kept the audience in a buoyant mood well beyond the theater. These young dancers — and hip-hop is still primarily a young person’s art — presented a show that was sassy, skilled, and a hoot to boot.

Artistic director Micaya has developed a dual approach to programming, and it works. She showcases local hip-hop schools that are worthy of exposure and that bring in audiences, and features them with professionals who, increasingly, may come from abroad. This year, in its infinite wisdom, the US Department of Homeland Security denied visas to dancers from Russia and the Netherlands.

Still, the DanceFest carried on. By their very nature, the school performances are ensemble-oriented. To watch these dancers is to be drawn into the sheer joy of what they are doing. Split-second timing and constantly shifting relationships within the group compensate for the relative simplicity of the individual steps. The whole, with its sense of interlocking gears, is held together by a sometimes almost militaristic discipline. Yet the format is flexible enough to showcase individual talent.

The DanceFest also gauges hip-hop’s ongoing evolution. Having started in the ’70s as a popular expression — urban folk dancing rooted in African and African American practices — hip-hop has been moving from the streets to the theater, from the community center to the concert hall. Whether that means that hip-hop will lose its grounding in pop culture remains to be seen. It probably has already. But there are gains.

Returning to this year’s festival with their mesmerizing HipHop/Beebop was the first-rate MopTop Music and Movement from Philadelphia. Two years ago they took on the founding fathers. Last year it was The Wizard of Oz. This time they brought a fabulously slinky vision of a hot night on the town. With Buddha Stretch and Mr. Valentine in zoot suits and rakishly tilted hats, and Uko Snowbunny and B-girl Bounce in flouncing minis, they were a marvel of strutting control, flashing showmanship, and barely contained heat. Flawless’ Manipulation was indeed flawless in the way its two ingenious dancers — dressed in metallic hats and jackets under black lights — sent currents of energy into each other’s bodies, both to support and to control. It’s no surprise that they were the UK’s World Hip Hop Dance Champions in 2006. Another champion was one-man wonder, veteran hip-hopper Popin Pete from Electric Boogaloos. With appropriate wigs on hand, he unfolded popping’s history in one smooth take — from a vibrating ’70s style, to raucous ’80s moves, to today’s elegant, dinner-jacket-clad incarnation.

Breaksk8 Dance Crew from Indiana, on rollerblades, disappointed. While somewhat impressive for their technical skills, they performed This Is How We Roll with a studied nonchalance that was off-putting. Also new to the festival was the all-male Formality group from San Diego. Their well-performed Players Club had the energy of a traffic jam and stood out in its fresh use of arm gestures. SoulSector turned out to be the only company interested in exploring hip-hop’s capacity to delve into deep issues: their Reinvention: Headhunters was a tough examination of militarism and war.

There was much to enjoy in the studio-based ensembles — the clean and swift U.F.O. Movement among them. Sunset’s smartly staged and hilarious Toonz dressed its dancers as Looney Tunes characters. Its smallest elementary-school-age dancers, of course, got the biggest applause. If this year’s DanceFest proves one thing, it’s that the artists have barely begun to scratch the surface of the genre’s potential for entertaining and thought-provoking dance. Now if we can just get Homeland Security off their backs …