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Dance Conversation: Dancing In The Streets Meets Cie Par Terre

Simon Dove, Director of Dancing in the Streets based in the Bronx, talks with Anne Nguyen, Director of Cie par Terre based in Paris, about Graphic Cyphers, the new work, jointly commissioned by Dancing in the Streets and Crossing the Line Festival 2016, developed and performed in the South Bronx, and then in Times Square in September.

Simon: Anne, as a b-girl from Paris, you have had some early experience of hip-hop in NYC, can you tell us what those first experiences were, and how they may have impacted your ideas and relationship to hip-hop?

Anne : I started breakdancing when I was studying in Montreal at MC Gill University. My crew Redmask and I often came to NYC for battles. The first one that I remember was Rock Steady Anniversary in 2000. It was a huge event, with lots of cyphers. I met and got to talk with legendary figures of hip-hop dance, like Mr Wiggles. It was also one of the first times that I entered the cyphers… The level was really high, with dancers from all over the US and Europe, and it was really hard to get inside! I remember NYC as the center of a big network of hip-hop dancers, all eager to share and show their skills. I came back several times for other dance battles, jams or practices in NYC, and met dancers like Ken Swift or Rokafella and Kwikstep…

Simon: Despite it’s global success, hip-hop dance remains marginalized by the mainstream arts context in the U.S. with only a handful of arts organizations actively engaging with hip-hop forms and artists. The situation is very different in France, and other European countries. Can you give us a sense of how your work is supported and disseminated in France and beyond?

Anne: Coming to NYC to create Graphic Cyphers and present my piece Autarcie (….) made me realize how much things are different for hip-hop dance in the US and in France. Of course, in France, we have a lot more public funding for the arts in general. In France, hip-hop dance has been performed in the theaters since the 1980s. At the time, some contemporary choreographers took an interest in hip-hop dance and integrated it into their shows. Some presenters commissioned work from hip-hop groups, giving birth to several dance companies, many of which don’t exist anymore, but all that had the effect of motivating many hip-hop dancers or groups to create works for the theater. In the beginning, a lot of it was either very performance-oriented (like street shows on stage), socially-oriented (with social or culturally specific themes or intentions) or mixed with other dance styles (like contemporary dance or circus). Today, with time, hip-hop dance has gained a lot of legitimacy and there are many hip-hop dancers who feel confident in creating more personal work for the stage. That’s really what I’m trying to do and encourage. In my shows, dance is the purpose. I am not distinguishing between the technical excellence of body language and the intention conveyed by the dancer. As far as I am concerned, it all begins with the essence of the gesture, the posture of the body, its position in space and its relationship to the ‘other’. And hip-hop is a genuine breeding ground for postures, principles and energies packed with meaning. I take my inspiration from many influences (mechanical principles, martial arts, physics laws, couple dancing, etc...) throughout my choreographic research, but in my shows the bodies of the dancers remain firmly rooted in their own characteristic energy. I place my dancers in choreographic frameworks that enable them to push beyond the automated gestures and limits associated with the formal "traditional" contexts of hip-hop – such as that of the cypher, shows or battles, as well as those linked specifically to their musical traditions.

Since I created my dance company par Terre in 2005, I created 9 dance pieces for the theater, 5 of them are still touring, and I’m now working on a new one for 2017. My work has been presented all over France, Europe and beyond (in Africa, Asia, South America and the US). The female quartet Autarcie (….), which was in NYC at Crossing the Line Festival 2016, has been presented more than 80 times since its creation in 2013.

Simon: When we first spoke, over a year ago about the idea of you working in NYC and creating a new work specifically for the streets, what motivated your interest, given that you have spent the last few years creating a body of work that places hip-hop on the stage, in venues, in a very controlled and theatrical context?

Anne: Through my choreographic work, I question the role of the public and the link between individuals. I am keen on creating new interactions between the audience and the dance. That’s why I recently started to use other media, like in my last work Dance of the city warriors, which is not a show but an immersive, participatory course of interactive installations centered on hip-hop dance, utilizing live video capture and editing, interactive video processes, mapping and virtual reality. Experiencing the installations allows the audience to develop a more personal understanding of hip-hop dance, which I see as a contemporary and universal art.

When you asked me to create a new work specifically for the streets in NYC, I was really excited because it challenged me to reflect on the essence of street performance, and on the image that people have of hip-hop dance related to the public space. 

Simon: Can you describe how it felt for you to create and show your work in the South Bronx?

Anne: The South Bronx is where hip-hop originated. Imagine that: hip-hop came to France through the media, developed there as a dance form, and created its own unique place in the theaters in France. Even though I started breakdancing in Canada, I mostly trained and battled in France, with crews such as Phase T, Créteil Style or Def Dogz, so I have a strong “French touch” in my dance.  For instance, Créteil-based dancers are famous for inventing the fluid style of footwork, which is one of my specialties as a b-girl. With this opportunity to create a work in NYC with NYC-based hip-hop dancers, it was an opportunity for me to see what could come out of the meeting of styles (many of the young dancers in NYC practice flexing or litefeet, which are recent styles of dance related to hip-hop dance, specific to NYC), but also to bring a new vision of hip-hop dance to where it originated, the South Bronx. I am grateful that I could share with those young dancers my vision of dance and of art in general, and my methods as a choreographer. A lot of them came to see Autarcie (….) and were totally amazed that it was possible to do all that with hip-hop dance. I really hope that they will be inspired to create their own work for the theater or to think of street performance in a different way. I really hope presenters, funders and the media in the U.S. will take more and more interest in hip-hop dance as a contemporary art form.

Simon: Can you briefly explain the intention and form of this new commission - Graphic Cyphers which you made with 20 street dancers from NYC?

Anne: When I reflected on what vision I wanted to give to hip-hop dance in a street environment, the cypher came to my mind immediately -this fundamental, driving element in hip-hop dance, where dancers enter one after the other to dance, challenge, and exchange with each other. I tried to see this cypher from an outside point of view, from the point of view of someone who is not a dancer and only sees fragments of movements from behind the dancers surrounding the cypher, as if the dance happening inside was something personal, a kind of insider ritual. I decided to switch roles and to allow the public to find him/herself alternately inside and outside the cyphers. The audience can thus observe the dancers’ freestyle and choreographed movements from different angles and is encouraged to reinvent its own role as the focus of the performance switches. The concept worked really well when we presented it in NYC. It was amazing to see the variety of reactions from the public. Those reactions are what I was interested in, and in all the locations that we performed in, they were different: very participative at the Roberto Clemente Plaza in the Bronx, a bit formal at the Bronx Museum (an inside space) and very surprising in Times Square where some were happy to dance and take pictures of themselves from within the cyphers, while others didn’t stop walking or kept their ground firmly, trying to film with their phones, even though the dancers were trying to make the performance space shift… It was very rich and intense. At the end of Graphic Cyphers, the dancers end up by surrounding a whole crowd of people and dancing around them, then they sit and applaud the people inside the cypher, some of whom are still dancing… It’s a very powerful moment.

Simon: What for you were the significant moments of working in NYC?

Anne: Meeting the 20 dancers on the first day of the rehearsals was amazing. They all have very different backgrounds and personalities, a powerful will to dance and perform and a strong desire to give their best for the project. Seeing them help each other during the rehearsals or after, hearing some of them motivate the group. Taking a little time with each of them to understand their personal style of dance and give them feedback, feeling their trust and generosity, seeing how some of them caught up really well with my advice. Seeing how excited they were before the very first performance, and how happy they were afterwards. Seeing them arrive one by one in Times Square before the performance, all dressed-up for the event. Watching affinities be created between them. Hearing them trying not to comment or cheer during Autarcie (….) in the theater, and not succeeding in keeping silent (which made me laugh a lot). I was so happy that they got to see the show and that it made them react so much.


To know more about Anne Nguyen and her company, please read here her conversation with the dancer Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim.