From the inner cities to international stages, the art of hip-hop has endured a nearly 50-year journey toward recognition, spreading its universal themes of expression and acceptance across cities the world over. Often touted as one of the most influential dance forms of a new generation, a smooth athletic style known as breakin’ burst onto the New York City scene in the 1970s, while a West Coast poppin’ and lockin’ flair picked up momentum in the early ’80s. From there, a hybrid form known as b-boying and b-girling quickly spread throughout France and Western Europe’s immigrant neighborhoods before spilling onto the streets of Japan and Korea. Through the evolution of pioneer educators and choreographers such as Philadelphia-born Rennie Harris (whose choreography made its Santa Barbara debut back in 2016) and Mourad Merzouki of Lyon, hip-hop also found a notable voice in blended collaboration, partnering up with companies, organizations, and artists of varying disciplines to bring a new flavor of urban dance to the formal stage.
Over the past few years, UCSB Arts & Lectures Executive Director Celesta Billeci has made particular note of street dance’s cultural significance, affording artists and dance companies such as Lil Buck, Kader Attou, and Herve Koubi equal billing among the classical ballet and contemporary companies already familiar to dance audiences. This season proves to be no different, as two French hip-hop companies make their Santa Barbara debut with an ever-evolving form of hip-hop quickly gaining notoriety across the globe.
Kicking off the 2018/19 dance series is Company Wang Ramirez, founded by Korean/German b-girl Honji Wang, and French-born b-boy Sébastien Ramirez. “Sébastien and I connected on the streets of immigrant neighborhoods,” recalled Wang. “Speaking through a community language of dance was very enriching for both of us.” Wang described the company’s style of dance as “an abstraction of hip-hop,” blended with martial arts and aerial dance to create highly stylized themes of flight and release in their award-winning dance works. “We’re quite open to all dance forms,” stressed Wang. “Every artist who wants to evolve and develop really should be.” On Saturday, October 13, Company Wang Ramirez will present a 70-minute uninterrupted piece titled Borderline that centers around a disconnect with community and society as a result of media saturation. Using voice-overs and a metal cube apparatus, six artists (including one rigger manipulating the dancers’ use of space) will explore a “sense of being in and out of the constructs of the system” both globally and in our living rooms. “The majority of people watch life through their T.V.’s,” remarked Wang. “We want the audience to connect to their own humanity.”
“In France, we have a dialogue with theater and contemporary dance companies that give us an outlook on different types of music and movement,” Mourad Merzouki offered, as a way of explaining his impressive success within the European dance world. In 1996, he founded Compagnie Käfig as a symbolic form of resistance to being categorized through a particular genre of dance (Käfig means “cage” in Arabic and German) and over the years, has made it his singular goal to inspire openness and respect among varying types of dance forms. As a result, he now sits on the support committee for choreographic art for the French Ministry of Culture.
On Tuesday, November 14, Compagnie Käfig will present one of their most ambitious projects to date: a multimedia movement and video piece titled Pixel that explores the blurred lines between the real and virtual world. “The challenge is making both worlds interact with each other,” he explained, “Striking a subtle balance between both techniques so that dance and abstract representations answer each other without one getting the upper hand.” When asked to describe the process of creating Pixel, his answer could easily apply to new audiences being exposed to this cultural genre: “Each artist has playfully immersed themselves into an unknown world, with a sharing mind, relying on the virtuosity and energy of hip-hop mixed with poetry and dreams to create a show at the crossroads of the arts.”
UCSB Arts and Lectures presents Company Wang Ramirez, which will perform Borderline on Saturday, October 13, and Mourad Merzouki Compagnie Käfig, which will perform Pixel on Wednesday, November 14. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.