Passion, avarice, jealousy, seduction, betrayal—and no small amount of braggadocio—not only provide much of the content in hip-hop and rap music; from Swan Lake to Carmen, they've also been the wellspring of many of the world's classical ballets.
At present, this point seems largely lost on choreographer Zalman Raffael, whose A Street Symphony opens the current performances of the Carolina Ballet. This staging of songs by hip-hop, rap and R&B singers displays an abundance of classical technique. It also reflects next to nothing of the characters in those works, or the worlds they originated in. When I last saw choreography so fundamentally disconnected from the music in the same room, Merce Cunningham was presenting dance as chance operations alongside the soundscapes of John Cage.
Raffael's program notes tell us he was "forced to acquire an appreciation" for hip-hop and rap as a New York dance student after being teased by peers whose tastes he didn't share. Judging by his subsequent description of these genres as "audibly contradictory to such a classical art form," Raffael doesn't seem to have warmed up much to the new material. The evidence is on stage.
After a striking initial silhouette, the choreography accompanying Juelz Santana's "Clockwork" rarely rises above clockwork itself with its austere, sterile displays of classical steps and form. The doubts and desires testing the women we hear in Mya's "Best of Me" and Monica's "So Gone" are largely absent in Raffael's visions. In the former, Jan Burkhard's thimbleful of swagger meets a chaste Yevgeny Shlapko—and a choreographic refusal to read Jay-Z's sexually frank petition mid-song. In the latter, Margaret Severin-Hansen reflects only the cool of a woman threatening her lover's infidelity with a pistol and a razor. Lindsay Purrington gave a detailed, exquisite exploration of kinesphere, but her pas de deux with Adam Crawford Chavis divulged little of the emotional content in Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River."
The absence of African-American dancers in this work will no doubt trouble some; the company presently includes two in its 31-member corps. For me, casting needn't always be racially correct, as long as the performers realistically reflect their characters' realities, which was rarely the case here.
Modern-day vocal artists express the same passions heroes and villains have for centuries. Choreographers willing to fully acknowledge this are likely to find more rewards than Raffael did in A Street Symphony.
Christopher Stowell's 2009 version of The Rite of Spring follows the same gambit choreographer Shen Wei used in his 2002 interpretation at the American Dance Festival. Both choreographers eschew the narrative in Nijinsky's original dance; both also base their versions on Stravinsky's original score for two pianists. Its effect in this live performance by pianists Tad Hardin and arranger Anatoly Larkin remains striking, akin to stripping the time-yellowed varnish from a beloved piece of woodwork to behold its bare bones, unadorned.
In this largely abstract collaboration with set and lighting designer Michael Mazzola, Stowell repeatedly divides a corps of 24 with three moving scrims that separate—and sometimes squeeze—the center of the performance area from the sides and back. With all other drapes removed from the stage, dancers are visible as they enter from the back, slowly walking along exposed vertical lighting fixtures mounted on both sides behind the proscenium.
In its early sections, the uncredited costume design—red trunks and bare chests for the men and what seems to be red swimwear for the women—all but suggests an Esther Williams routine without the water. Margaret Severin-Hansen and Gabor Kapin lead these passages, their exchanges (both standing and on Kapin's bended knee) suggesting the woman's resistance to the man's attempts at limiting her mobility. A group of dancers, similarly costumed but in black, invade the central area from the sides, and Stowell documents the conflict between the groups. Panels shift, revealing a starkly lit Alicia Fabry and Yevgeny Shlapko in the margins upstage; they inhabit a striking, angular pas de deux before being joined—and possibly menaced—by an arcing line of corps members.
Severin-Hansen and Kapin re-emerge and crisply explore separate and shared areas downstage, while a human pyre writhes at its center. Ultimately both are subsumed into the roiling mass, before a dramatic leap closes the work.
Though Stowell's work defies any single interpretation, it alludes, from first to last, to conflict: between individual men and women, among groups, and between individuals and the groups they are connected to. Its rebus of desire and conflicting affiliations, sharply executed here, is calculated to give dancers a challenge before the final curtain and audience members a workout of their own, after.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hip-hop en pointe."