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Rock Steady Revelations

Miles Marshall Lewis

How far from traditional Bronx breaking can one go before hiphop dance is no longer quite hiphop dance?

Whenever exiting the Ciné Cité multiplex of the Forum des Halles mall in central Paris, my wife and I regularly run into young hiphop dancers practicing in front of Starbucks. The teenagers perfecting headspin and windmill moves to classic breakbeats usually grab our attention; tourists snap photos and search in vain for a collection cup. At my first sighting, the kids in baggy Ünkut T-shirts piqued my curiosity about French B-boying (commonly known as breakdancing). On the frenzied night of the World Cup showdown between France and Italy — with the entire city throwing football parties or sitting in cafés cheering the ill-fated match — I finally took in a hiphop dance spectacle, Pas de Quartier, a week after the much more impressive Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater made its yearly summertime arrival.

The cosmopolitan New York City nightlife, made famous by six seasons of Sex and the City, involves its share of art gallery openings, Broadway play premieres, record release parties, trendy clubs, concerts and dance performances. Since taking leave of New York, I've tried to transpose this lifestyle to the City of Light with varying degrees of success. The latest season of Alvin Ailey always premieres every December at midtown Manhattan's City Center, one of the events I've missed the most since leaving the US. But they do tour here every year, and in July the famed African-American dance company headlined Paris's second annual Les Étés de la Danse de Paris summer festival.

An eclectic, aristocratic crowd of 2,000 — hipsters mixed with oldsters — turned out for the inaugural night of Les Étés de la Danse de Paris, a charity gala (open bar, hundred euro tickets) for the international humanitarian organization Care. Due to a recent heatwave, organizers scheduled the outdoor performance for 10 o'clock, when the searing July sun normally sets in France. As accustomed as I am to the modern 2,750-seat City Center, the Marais venue couldn't be topped: a stage built amid the regal foliage of the Jardins des Archives Nationales, surrounded by classical façades of 18th century columns and arches.

Taking in the Soirée d'Inauguration wasn't the first time I've been obliged to view an American spectacle through French eyes. At City Center, for example, I'd generally just sit back and enjoy the latest works of choreographers Ronald K. Brown and stalwart Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison, oblivious to how the surrounding audience might perceive the mise en scène. But at the Hôtels de Rohan-Soubise gardens, the dancers' presentation came off as a much more obvious, intentional staging of aspects of African-American life for a foreign audience completely removed from the black experience.

"For Bird — With Love" featured approximately a dozen black men and women dressed in the bebop style of '40s jazz hepcats dancing to the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie. Watching this 22-year-old Alvin Ailey original, I couldn't take for granted the way I regularly might that black Americans invented this music form appreciated the world over. I felt the same pride about gospel and the uniqueness of the black Christian church during the extravagant finale "Revelations" with spirituals like "Wade in the Water" and "Fix Me, Jesus" illustrated through the colorful parasols, Easter Sunday hats, bright dress, and animated movements of the Ailey dancers.

Diminutive Dwana Adiaha Smallwood took impressive twirls to Duke Ellington in the sexy opening ballet "Night Creature" (another original, circa 1974, choreographed by the company's late founder Ailey). A definite highlight of the night followed a 15-minute intermission: floating dancer Clifton Brown appeared to defy gravity, apparently flying with the help of strobe lights in his excellently timed, mid-air solo turn "Caught." Of the 10 pieces performed, "Caught" received and deserved the most applause.

Two bubbly young ladies, black and Asian, seated nearby in the fourth row, made enough of an impression to be remembered the next weekend; they proved to be B-girls Lil Kiss and Lynna of the Nexx Level crew. On the Sundays of Alvin Ailey's month-long run, Les Étés de la Danse de Paris featured Pas de Quartier, a hiphop dance program combining locally renowned breaking crews Nexx Level, Legiteam Obstruction, Kandyz and Danse. A sold-out crowd sat in attendance 9 July even as the World Cup final raged on, the French spilling out of bars and cafés all over Paris loudly cheering on les Bleus.

Pas de Quartier began with the sounds of passing subway (not métro) trains, as graffiti artists Zenoy and Acre bombed an onstage backdrop with Arabic-looking tags. Appreciating artwork of any kind is almost always a matter of the finished product; watching painters produce it for nearly 15 minutes became tedious. They exited to light applause, making way for director Éric Checco's tightly stylized show. The dancers appeared, enacting young Senegalese soldiers in battle over the classical soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream. Another vignette followed, three braided and hightop-faded B-boys executing dance moves more raw than clean, PEACE TO THE CHILDREN OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (in English and French) crawled across the backdrop at the end. The next tableau featured a policeman ticketing passersby just for being immigrants; the cop eventually got a solo turn uprocking.

The hiphop show lacked Alvin Ailey's intermission, and it could've used one. Phenomenal beatbox Ray-J recreated percussion from Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and Earth, Wind & Fire's "Let's Groove". A baroque set piece involving a harpsichordist, two violas, and an ironically urban-outfitted countertenor performed as the crews executed breaking moves. It brought to mind the upcoming 29th anniversary of the legendary Rock Steady Crew three weeks hence. Those pioneers likely wouldn't classify much of the far-ranging Pas de Quartier (especially this live baroque) hiphop dance. Next up was an old-fashioned breaking battle between two crews, with Rakim and Leaders of the New School tunes playing as projections of Afrika Bambaataa and Run-DMC flashed overhead. Mathias, host of France's MTV Dance Crew devoted to hiphop dance, came off particularly strong, as did occasional video choreographer Lil Kiss.

By nightfall, I got the taste of French B-boying I craved. But I left the Marais (surrounded by inebriated French dejected over Italy's football victory) with a new unanswered question: how far from traditional Bronx breaking can one go before hiphop dance is no longer quite hiphop dance?

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