If you have not seen what is happening with hip-hop dance in Los Angeles, you owe it to yourself to seek it out. The past weekend Versa-Style Dance Company celebrated its 13th Anniversary at the East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy with a three-day festival. It featured “legends and pioneers of hip-hop culture, top-flight street dancers, and young, aspiring hip-hop dancers from Los Angeles”. The festival provided workshops taught by a panel of judges that included Caleaf Sellers and Henry “Link” McMillian from New York City, and two high caliber freestyle dancers Monstapop and Lady C from Montreal. The festival concluded with a high energy showcase concert with commanding choreography and stunning performers. Topping off the concert was an astonishing performance by the beautiful Versa-Style Dance Company dancers headed by co-Founders Jackie Lopez aka Miss Funk & Leigh Foaad aka Breeze-lee.

Versa-Style 13th Anniversary Celebration Performers – Photo: John Nyboer.

Hosted by the vivacious Joey “Mr. Show Stopper”,t here were 12 works in the two act concert. Unfortunately, the list that I obtained did not include all the dancers’ names. All of them should be proud of the performance that they gave. The first piece on the program was a group of four women performing Kuungana, choreographed by Gbari “GQ” Gilliam. In Swahili, Kuungana means connect and this was demonstrated throughout the dance through gestures, attached lines, break dancing duets and visible emotional qualities. These women performed with great clarity and energy, and the choreography was laced with sudden stops and the commanding turn of a head.

Remembering was choreographed by Shantel “TZ” Ureña to honor the women who came before her, especially women of color. The movement was sensual, but strong and performed to a score with a jazz-like feel to it. There were wonderful physical movement waves that involved an arm or a hip, but also all combined all the dancers who stood close together utilizing a form of hip-hop called popping. These were not like the waves seen at sport events; they were waves of memories, tradition and struggle.

“Boog Harris” in One Hundred Percent – Photo: John Nyboer.

“Boog” Harris choreographed and performed his solo entitled One Hundred Percent, and he indeed gave it his all. There were the high energy moves associated with popping and robotic hip-hop styles, but Harris also expressed a sense of vulnerability and sadness in his work. These qualities came through via Harris’ slow movements and the changes in his body language and facial expressions during his poignant moments of stillness.

“Rascal” Randi Freitas and Allauné Blegbo choreographed and performed an intense and dynamic duet titled Wolfpack. Two alpha females meet, confront and finally decide that their challenge ended in a draw. Indeed, both these women projected a commanding state presence, as well as being vibrant performers. They incorporated a variety of hip-hop styles including break dancing to execute amazing turns, falls and complex and entangling duets.

I’ll Stay was one of the most touching and beautiful love duets that I have seen in quite some time. Choreographed and performed by Canadian based artists Lady C and Monstapop, this work was filled with popping moves presented in a manner that I have never seen. The couple began sitting in back to back chairs. Monstapop, who is very tall, stood and moved in place before Lady C was magically brought into his bosom. The duet took us through different stages and emotions of their relationship and they told it to us through subtle movements as well as larger and sharper gestures. The two never broke out into showman-like, high powered dancing, but remained true to the story. This was a duet that I would enjoy seeing repeatedly. Spoiler alert, as the title suggests, I’ll Stay has a happy and heartwarming ending.

Monstapop and Lady C in I’ll Stay – Photo: John Nyboer.

Popping John opened the second half of the show with a solo that took my breath away. Dedicated to his wife of 20 years, Popping John visualized the classical music score by isolating different areas of his body in time with the music and occasionally accenting each note of a musical phrase. This incredible dancer can pop dance faster that the eye can follow. There were times when his entire body moved like a smooth, fast, oscillating machine, causing gasps and cheers from the audience. While Popping John was inspiring us with his dancing technique, his solo also expressed a deep affection for the woman he loves. What an priceless and beautiful gift!

Poppin’ John – Photo: LA Dance Chronicle

Quatuor was co-choreographed and performed by Laurien Decibel, Ayano Jinnouchi, “Rascal” Randi Freitas, and Allauné Blegbo. The term Quatuor means quartet and generally refers to music. It began without music but was driven by a strong rhythmic beat set up by hand claps and foot stomps. Just prior to the music beginning, each woman had a brief solo that allowed her to move outside the set rhythm while staying true to its underlining beat. Quatuor was enhanced by strong energy shifts with sections of entertaining, straight forward rocking out dancing! Decibel, Jinnouchi, Freitas and Blegbo clearly demonstrated why they have the respect of the hip-hop community.

Alex Ayon was the creator of Something to Give, a work that exudes unity and pride of the LGBTQ community. In his program notes, Ayon writes “Shadows imprinted on your life will welcome light when you discover your own strength.” During his wonderfully performed solo, Ayon displays courage and pride with who he is, and that he has only gained strength from his life’s journey. The work is beautifully made and performed by dancers who are at different levels of their technical training, but all of whom expressed a love of dancing.

Versa-Style Dance Company – Photo: John Nyboer.

Lisa Engelken and Kaylin Richards are based in Denver, Colorado and together they choreographed and performed Find Within. Although this was not the strongest work on the program choreographically, the two women stood their ground via their performance. A fusion of hip-hop, jazz and contemporary dance, the two women moved through a series of duets and solos that expressed their search for commonality. One moment that stood out was Kaylin Richards’ solo performed downstage in full overhead light; the stage in darkness behind her.

Lurk, choreographed by Micah “Just Jamz” Abbrey was wonderfully danced, but choreographically it never took off. This felt like the beginning of a longer work. The characters were introduced, but we never saw the entire story. A man, or beast, performed by Abbrey, lurked about but never really threatened. I was confused when the four women walked off stage as I thought that surely there was more to be told.

One of the highlights of the evening occurred with the duet Street Waltz performed by Buddha Stretch and Uko Snowbunny. Wearing 1920s zoot suit and flapper dress, the two legends of hip-hop wove together a romantic dance filled with references to the 1920s dance craze, the Charleston. They did so with subtle footwork, and abstract Charleston dance movements. They charmed us through gentle popping moves that expressed their affection toward each other and a short-lived spat with a loving reunion. This duet showed the younger choreographers in the audience what true style, elegance and sophistication is all about. Buddha Stretch and Uko Snowbunny proved that it is not always the tricks or technical feats that are used to create fine dance art.

Versa-Style Dance Company – Photo: LA Dance Chronicle

The program finished with an amazingly strong performance by Versa-Style Dance Company, performing one of their signature works entitled LEGACY (2010), combining it with In the City from their latest dance-theatre production, Box of Hope. As I have previously written, Lopez and Foaad have created a wonderful repertoire of work and highly talented dance artists. The choreography was beyond strong. It delivered both incredible performances and a power message of what dance, community and mentorship can accomplish. I marveled at how a solo, a duet and a trio could be onstage at the same time, moving to the same music, but performing at different speeds and rhythms. These performers, led by veterans Lopez and Foaad, did far more than just execute stunning break dancing, popping and other forms of hip-hop; they also acted, speaking volumes to us through their movement. This culminated in the final solo by Lopez who used tight, angry movements and facial expressions that resolved into beautiful gestures of hope and, like the song they were dancing to, Sunshine.

Leigh “Breeze-Lee” Foaad – Photo: John Nyboer.

I have always enjoyed watching Versa-Style Dance Company and this performance was proof of why. Lopez and Foaad do more than just dance, teach and perform, however. Through their close connection to their community, their junior company Next Generation, and working in the schools of east Los Angeles, they continue to raise the hopes, visibility and self-esteem of the “minority” youth via their dedication and selfless contributions.

Lopez said it so eloquently at the end of the festival. “We want to always serve as a platform of hope and a platform of what’s possible. We are here to give voice to the forgotten and we are here for those who feel hopeless. My life changed when I found Dance and when Dance found me.” She pointed to the youth in the audience and with tears streaming down her face, said that Versa-Style was there for them and that they needed to be even stronger during these current times. She was referring, of course, to this present administration’s policies on the minority communities, the Dreamers and immigration. With such strong role models behind them, these young people will have a better chance of fulfilling their dreams and the vision of Jackie Lopez, Leigh Foaad and everyone involved in Versa-Style Dance Company.

Props to Lighting Designer Roberto Rivera for making everyone look great and for his excellent timing, and to
Technical Director Daniel Guzman from a seamlessly run show. Great job everyone!

For more information on Versa-Style Dance Company, Next Generation and their outreach programs, click here.

Feature photo by John Nyboer.