PARK AVENUE ARMORY | MARCH 25 – APRIL 4, 2015
The Seventh Regiment Armory has been a temple of service and splendor for much of its history. Completed in 1880 in the Gothic Revival style, the dramatic brick building served as base camp for a volunteer militia made of the sons of Gilded Age titans: Vanderbilt. Roosevelt. Livingston. Because of this pedigree, the regiment earned the nickname “Silk Stockings.” Today, the leviathan drill hall recalls the site’s military history, while stately side rooms nod to its simultaneous use as an elite social club. Since 2007, the Park Avenue Armory cultural institution has filled the space with extravagant, experimental theater.
Its latest production, FLEXN, which ran March 25 – April 4, attempts to give the glossy, large-scale treatment to a raw, intimate, grassroots form of dance. Born in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1990s, flexing came of age on street corners and in community battles, where a small stage was roped off by caution tape, like a boxing ring, and spectators shouted approval at competing flex dancers. Those in the ring pulled punches out of their trove of physical tricks: bone-breaking (extreme arm contortions), pauzin (stuttering body ticks), hat tricks (self-explanatory), and gliding (smooth, moonwalk-like footwork), among others.
The 2013 documentary “Flex is Kings,” which brought wide attention to this dance style, placed flexing in stark and specific geographic and socio-economic context as a form of creative expression for young black men in low-income communities. The production at the Park Avenue Armory does the opposite: it trades intimacy for spectacle, suffocating a show that may have made a stronger impact had it not been overly gilded, both in concept and design.
In the latter category, this takes the shape of a massive stage that fills half the hall and ultimately dwarfs the 20 young performers tasked with traversing it, behind which is a wall of neon lights fit for a rock concert. When you enter, you are handed a program book that rivals those found on Broadway; inside are compelling bios of the performers, and a usual glossary of terms. While the intention was no doubt to give FLEXN the same respect and resources afforded other Armory productions, the extravagance feels disingenuous to the identity of the dance, as if flexing had to be wrapped in excess to be palatable to an Upper East Side audience.
You could accuse FLEXN of cultural appropriation—a display of marginalized youth in the neighborhood of the one-percent—but that would be too easy, and unfair. The Armory perceptively appointed Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray, a flexing pioneer, and the avant-garde theater director Peter Sellars as FLEXN’s spearheads, facilitating a partnership that empowered the creators of the art form. They also frame the performance alongside timely political conversations, starting each night with a different panel discussion on a variety of relevant topics, such as “Profiling Stop & Frisk” and “College or Prison?” This is all well and good: we want our cultural institutions to challenge themselves and their audiences, take risks, champion local artists, and connect to real issues, even if it means opening themselves up to criticism. But a deep discussion, however urgent, cannot make up for what a performance lacks. If anything, all this scaffolding around FLEXN feels like an earnest attempt to educate, rather than entertain, which ultimately doesn’t actually respect the dance.
The show begins joyously, with a nod to Bruk Up (an early iteration of flexing from the dancehalls of Jamaica). The familial bond between the performers is immediately clear. All dancers are members of D.R.E.A.M. (Dance Rules Everything Around Me), a competition founded by Gray in 2011 as a launching pad for young flexors. And therein lies one of the primary issues: about half the cast isn’t quite ripe for a professional production. Viewers of “Flex is Kings” are introduced to the form through flex battle champs, men revered for their sharp, innovative moves. Several of the FLEXN dancers—such as Karnage (Quamaine Daniels), Sam I Am (Sam Estavien), Dre Don (Andre Redman) and Shellz (Shelby Felton)—manage to hint at the physical ingenuity of flexing, as well as its ability to reveal one’s deepest self. But much of the crew lacks the blade-like precision, burning focus, and vulnerability that makes flexing both mesmerizing and uncomfortable—and is required to command attention in the Armory’s overwhelming hall. When the veteran Gray performs—little cameos here and there—his intensity swallows his disciples.
The show unfolds as a series of vignettes, carved from the raw material of the dancers’ lives. Violence provides the narrative framework, with pieces such as “Cal at War” and “Karnage Angel is Shot and Comforts His Parents” conveying scenes of domestic abuse and shootings—fingers miming guns are a chillingly recurrent motif. It’s powerful, and occasionally quite moving.
Yet, however genuine the feelings and experiences that surely informed the creation of FLEXN, Sellars and Gray fail to create a compelling shape for them. A redundant structure emerges, and the dancers seem shoehorned into a theatrical pattern of anguished duets, chaotic group scenes, and mournful solos, repeated enough times to diminish their force. The directors seem more interested in giving everyone a turn in the spotlight than in crafting a tight show: in empowering the dancers, they drain energy from the overall experience. And in opting for scale, over-stylizing the presentation, and giving it too much room to breathe (both in terms of space and time), FLEXN doesn’t do flexing justice.