On Tuesday, November 10th, Carey Ysais and Paulette Azizian put together their bi-annual homage to hip-hop dance in New York (which is often regarded as more raw and authentic than its Los Angeles doppelganger). Since 1998, Carnival: The Choreographer’s Ball has featured the works of veteran and up-and-coming choreographers presented to an underground of aficionados and friends on the tiny stage of the opium den-inspired Hiro Ballroom. The juxtaposition of established and emerging choreographers led to some stark contrasts in artistic commitments—some made choices and others just put together a lazy mélange of movement.
Buddha Stretch, the choreographer behind Will Smith’s “Men in Black,” and Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” music videos, composed a smooth swing-inspired piece. Clad in zoot suits and flapper costumes, Stretch’s dancers brought us back to a time when dance was funky. Henry David Thoreau once said, “Simplify, simplify,” and though he was referring to living a non-complicated life, Stretch seems to have translated that into his choreographic choices. While most of the genre is whizzing with quick, ambitious and unnecessary steps, Stretch kept us locked in with uncluttered and meaningful movement.
There are those that can pack in a lot and use it to their advantage, creating a whirlwind of excitement and punch. Another seasoned professional, Tweetie, managed to work the audience into the loudest applause of the night with a piece that dallied in party dance, popping, and miming, all with rambunctious flair. Her style seductively challenges the familiar and makes it modern. As the host of MTV’s Dances from Tha Hood and the one responsible for teaching Oprah Winfrey some slick moves, she is by and far hip-hop’s darling.
This is a title earned, and many young choreographers are so focused on being counted among hip-hop’s heroes that they rashly put together dumbed-down dance and barely-there story lines.
While the O.D.D. Couple certainly aimed at an ambitious work, it was ultimately slothful in its composition. Beginning with what seemed like an ode to Marilyn Manson, Neil Schwartz donned a velvet top hat and lab goggles and called the audience to attention with writhing fingers and an ambivalent stare. This singular moment was completely detached from the rest of the work, making what followed a confusing display. Dancers transitioned across the stage in such a chaotic way that any attempts to showcase choreography were squelched by dancers vying for space. Failing to acknowledge the minuscule stage is no excuse for a vision without any structure.
Part of what makes Carnival so thrilling is the shared dancers performing within different contexts and styles. While dancing in the O.D.D. Couple work, Jason Santana was proficient but lack-luster, yet under the direction of choreographer Victor Sho, he dazzled in smooth elegance. Coming out in a svelte black suit, Santana danced a lyrical hip-hop duet with such ease and conviction that the audience seemed to forget his partner existed. Thematically, Sho’s piece was one of the strongest of the evening. He was faithful to his story about rouge agents and Arabs, parading dancers masked in silver face paint and keffiyehs. The piece, if nothing else, was entertaining in its frivolity.
Another adventure in narrative was Shyrelle Kalilikane’s hip-hop version of Alice in Wonderland. Using the through line of Alice’s journey once she’s fallen in the rabbit hole, Shyrelle’s choreographic influences were easily pinpointed and explained why the piece seemed disproportionally segmented. You see much of hip-hop choreographer Steven Williams’s silky buoyancy and Japanese poppers U-min's super-human commitment to slow movement in this particular piece.
In a section unfolding Alice’s encounter with the smoking caterpillar, dancers swiveled their hips and billowed their arms in a style fusing belly dancing and hip-hop. This seems purely feminine and titillating—and perhaps a peek at Shyrelle’s genuine style.
The Grande Dame of choreographic consistency and focus is Sheryl Murakami. Easily the most glamorous female in hip-hop’s kingdom, she traditionally fuses funk with femme fatale theatrics. This year’s piece was a nod to Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender.” Her dancers are always sexy, strong, and yes, a little scary, but what might seem gimmicky in prose is actually magnificent in performance.
There are also those that use Carnival as a platform for experimentation; knowing friends and colleagues (and very few critics) surround them. Kelly Peters, having not brought a work to this stage since his triumphant collaboration with Bam Bam Valentine and Angel Feliciano in November 2007, validated his moniker as the Master of Musicality. Mixing Jimi Hendrix with Lupe Fiasco, and costumes more fitted for St. Marks than Fordham Road, Peters had the most daring piece of the evening. He entered the realm of punk-hop spectacle with a vengeance.
There were whispers from the audience that Peters’ work would have fared better with more experienced dancers, but I’d venture to say that criticism means little to Peters. He knew what he was doing, and in that tested the very essence of what Carnival is about: a hotbed for the revolutionaries of hip-hop.
Joey Lico is the publisher of online culture magazine, Pro Diligo, and a freelance writer and dancer living in New York.