By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Spend two seconds with a music video or a Gatorade commercial, and you'll see hip-hop dancing. Hoofers who pop and lock, flip and bounce, and freeze on the tips of their toes are an everyday part of the pop culture routine.
Seeing an ad, however, is not the same as understanding a movement, and that's why there's Groovaloo Freestyle
, now playing at Union Square Theatre. A genre-bending spectacle that blends dance, spoken word, and original music, the show exists not only to wow audiences with hip-hop choreography, but also to bring them closer to the people who perform it.
stars the Groovaloos, a hip-hop dance troupe that formed in Los Angeles in 1999. They began as an informal group of friends, but eventually Bradley Rapier, who left Canada and medical school to become a dancer-choreographer, gave them an official identity. Soon after, they were performing at dance championships, in music videos, and on television shows.
But something was missing. "We had done a variety of performances in our style, but we wanted to give people a glimpse of what electrified us about the dance, about how it's affected our lives," Rapier says. He started writing a fictional show that would capture both the energy and the history of hip-hop dance. For research, he interviewed the other Groovaloos.
If you think that sounds like a hip-hop Chorus Line, then you're not alone. "We realized that we had all these common things in our stories," Rapier says. "Then I finally had that Michael Bennett moment of, 'Oh my gosh, these are really the stories that make this so important to me."
Working with director Danny Cistone, Rapier shaped the lives of eleven performers into Groovaloo Freestyle
. There are sobering scenes (a dancer recalls getting shot), playful metaphors (robots try to make a dancer conform), and even a dance battle. "Obviously, it won't affect everyone like it did me, because not everyone is going to quit their lives to become a dancer," Rapier says. "But hopefully, it will give people an understanding of what this dance culture does for people."
One of the biggest hurdles has been explaining dance with words. The show doesn't have book scenes, but it does feature voiceovers and spoken word segments. "Creating those moments has been challenging because we can't overload people with voiceovers," Rapier says. "We have to trust that the audience will visually understand what we're saying, and of course, we have to tweak and twist what we want to say."
There's also the question of creating choreography that can be repeated night after night. Unlike, say, classical ballet, hip-hop dancing is rooted in improvisation and freestyle. If Rapier had choreographed rigid steps, they would have been easy to recreate, but they would have violated the spirit of the dance. "We can't allow only freestyle, because then you have no structure," Rapier says. "But one of the things behind street dance culture is, 'How do I freak you out?' How do I move my body in a way that you're not expecting?' If the audience can see it coming, then it's not exciting."
As a compromise, Rapier and Cistone created a flexible template that lets every performer do something unique. Rapier says, "They have to know the structure, and I might say, 'I need a 'wow' move here,' or 'Move across the floor here.' But I would never say, 'Do this exactly like this.' I'm saying, 'Don't miss a mark, but still do it like yourself.' To do it any other way would rob the audience of a real understanding about the culture."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor