"Eight years into this experiment, we still have a hard time finding a category for this work," says choreographer Victor Quijada about the dance he's creating with Montreal's RUBBERBANDance Group.
"To say that it's a fusion of ballet and hip-hop is a little simplified," he continues. "I don't even think it's appropriate anymore."
You can see for yourself in the videos on the company's own YouTube channel. Quijada's choreography evokes edgy characters playing out situations and relationships in flux. What's most compelling, however, is the way he's done it: by fusing modern, ballet and street dance forms into a new vernacular, one whose influences range from improvisational theater and the writings of Milan Kundera to capoeira and yoga.
"It's a new movement form that allows us to play with gravity in a different way and allows us to use our bodies to attack the music and rhythmic meter a little bit differently," Quijada notes. In this hybrid form, he combines a classical compositional approach to making dance with a contemporary dance aesthetic. Coming from the hip-hop and b-boying of the streets? "The syncopation of meter and the different spatial structures that are not the norm in classical or contemporary dance, where gravity begins to be defied, in a way."
But Quijada immediately stresses that the street moves "are not being played for their sensationalistic properties. They're there for a dancer to express something more than just getting oohs and aahs and applause."
The distinction is important for a choreographer who came up through hip-hop culture on the streets of Los Angeles before later work with Twyla Tharp, the Feld Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal.
"My work is not hip-hop on stage," he observes during an interview in Montreal last week. "It's really a disservice to the work and to an audience to have them expect to see hip-hop on stage." Quijada's respect for that culture becomes apparent as we speak. So do the frustrations with a dance form that ultimately compelled him to look beyond it to find his true identity as an artist. (A complete version of the interview is on the Indy's arts blog, Artery, at www.indyweek.com/blogs/artery.)
In a 2004 video documentary, Quijada asked if hip-hop could be sensitive or communicative, "something beside 'I'm good and you're not; let's battle,' when for 20 years that was the only story." He's already found some of the answers to that question. In the atmospheric black-and-white film, Small Explosions That Are Yours to Keep, available online, a couple's gentle caresses at the beginning turn into a high-velocity nightmare as dancer Anne Plamondon's character struggles to extricate herself from an increasingly abusive relationship. The most telling scene comes when her character finds herself between two identically dressed men who are duplicating each other's moves. The men are spaced apart on stage but facing one another; the woman always remains within arm's reach of the man on the right. The effect is haunting. Plamondon's character appears to be struggling to get away from the male character behind her as both of them look into a mirror—one in which her image does not appear.
"We've gone beyond the spectacular parts of the movement and made it part of a vocabulary, to communicate more than just incredible athleticism," Quijada says. "But the vocabulary research, the invention of a new dance form—it's just a means to an end.
"Somewhere along the line as a young teen, I saw someone like Rudy Perez, with very simple movement, change something inside of me through performance," says Quijada, referring to a choreographer who was last seen at ADF in 2007. "I felt art change something inside of me, just by looking at canvases and by listening to music and reading. It changed me in my life. And that's a ripple I felt obligated to continue," Quijada says. "So all of this is just a means to that goal: creating work that is ..."
"Transformational?" I ask.
"If we're lucky," he replies.
"We care about people and we care about art. We also deeply care about nature. For humans, dance is an ancient art. But we also know that animals, trees and mountains dance as well. [...] As dance artists, we hope to present how precious each living body is, whether it is the body of a human being or a body of a different species."
The words are those of Eiko Otake Yamada, of the dance duo Eiko & Koma, upon winning the Samuel Scripps/ ADF Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2004. They also summarize a body of work dating back to the early 1970s, whose glacial, self-described "delicious movement," which has become the pair's signature, places the audience in an altered time zone where stories of the impact that the natural world has on humans—and vice versa—can slowly unfold. That career is now being celebrated in a three-year "retrospective project" of commissions, performances, museum exhibits and films as the pair approaches their 40th anniversary in modern dance.
It's tempting to say that time flies when you're moving slow. But two surprises await recent aficionados who will see their performances at the start of next week or view the screening of 36 Works, which covers their career from their arrival in America (and is also available at bit.ly/36works). One's the speed of their newest and earlier works. The other's their humor.
Critics in New York were divided on their new work, Raven, a "repurposing," according to New York Times critic Claudia LaRocco, of material from Land (1991) to new music by native American composer Robert Mirabal. But they praised the wit of White Dance, the couple's first New York work, from 1976. Extended excerpts from both are viewable at bit.ly/ekraven and bit.ly/whitek.