I arrived at East Los Angeles Performing Arts Magnet early. As I walked up to the auditorium, I was taken back to my high school days as I observed groups of people gathered together at various lunch tables waiting for the show to begin. You remember high school at lunch time, with each clique claiming and manning their regular table. However, instead of ASB students, geeks, athletes, hot people, artists, and outcasts, everyone in this lunch area was a cool kid.
As the start of the showcase drew closer, they let us into the auditorium. The atmosphere was welcoming and jovial, like a summer cookout. Everyone interacted with one another like they were friends catching up after the summer away from the neighborhood, reconnecting and introducing their old friends to their new ones. Hip-hop played over the speakers and in every nook of the auditorium, pairs were in deep conversation. Hugs were abundant. No one was a stranger. The vibe was community, as it should be. Hip-Hop and Streetdance culture has always been about community vibing together over a common love.
The event was Versa-Style’s 17th Anniversary Hip-Hop Dance Festival. Versa-Style Dance Company is based in Los Angeles and headed by founders and husband and wife team, Jackie Lopez, aka Miss Funk and Leigh Foaad, aka Breeze-lee. The showcase, which sought to “[introduce] a street dance theater…experience to the community,” culminated a 4-day event which featured free workshops and battles with local and international teachers and dancers.
The show opened with Beast Camp. As they started to perform, it was immediately clear that streetdance had come a very long way from its origins on street corners and living room floors. The sextet set the tone for the night with a wonderful display of Krumping set for the theater stage. In the second piece, an empty pool of light slowly comes up as melodic music fills the room. Artist K’niin emerges onto the stage in a slow, crouched walking progression and unleashes a gorgeously arresting blend of Popping and continuous, serpentine movement. As his piece progresses, he effortlessly hits, moves with, and dances across guitar strums and the singer’s soothing voice.
(SJZ)Zuce made me struggle to sit still as this female trio brought forth unadulterated funk and groove. Honoring Locking creator, Don “Campbellock” Campbell, and other women in the Locking community, these ladies showed off their Locking prowess to a Justin Timberlake medley. It was too much fun!
Liza Zayas spoke to the interconnection of black and brown people with her powerful poem, “Descendants of Genocidal Colonization.” Robo-Zilla was a vision—tall and commanding with beautiful dreads cascading down his torso. He made me think of the Griot, who stewards and passes on village knowledge, as his movement declared “This is a God dream,” along with the singer. His performance was spiritual, like the prophet sent to warn God’s people. His majestic presence made us all feel like we had been to church.
Beks presented a work about black women and vulnerability, love and balance. The quintet featured dancers of varying sizes and ages, each dancing their hearts out about the various things they encounter in black skin. The piece comes to a heartwarming end with them all gathering together in a final embrace. It was a stunning final image–melanated beauties surrounded in bright yellow light, smiling and hugging one another in solidarity and triumph.
Megabots was a mega-crew of young dancers who traveled to Los Angeles from Canada. As their massive ensemble filled the stage, they thrilled the audience with their precision hits, clever choreography, unexpected formation changes, and creative plays with and against the mechanical score
The second half of the showcase opened with an incredibly sexy House performance by the quartet, To Be Continued. Their piece, “Thicker than Water” is “an ode to the club and the space in between that pulls everyone’s spirit to ignite and become lost in the reverberant atmosphere.” The work is set in gray light and features kaleidoscopic duets, fast feet, off balance quick changes, and so much more. The pulsating music and gray light had me imagining I was in the club with my Shirley Temple in a Margarita glass feeling grown.
Hailing from Tucson, AZ, The Drop Fam brought West Coast Love to the stage with their aptly titled work, “In the House.” As the almost 30-person cast filled the stage with their smiles and grooves, it brought me back to the house party days, where the DJ would play that one song that made everyone crowd into the dance space. We would be packed in like sardines, hot and sweaty with not much room to move. But it would feel amazing as we all danced and shouted the lyrics together.
Randi “Rascal” Freitas’ work, “Entangled,” featured gorgeous floor and partner work. Accompanied by remixes of Robert Glasper’s melodious tune, “Better Than I Imagined,” the trio quartet inventively exhibited the torment of being unable to walk away from a relationship that has run its course.
From the costume to the movement, Pandora Marie’s “Panther Woman” was an imaginative fusion of Popping and Native movements. Marie was inspired to use a Chicasaw tale of the battle warrior, “Panther Woman,” to preserve the Chicasaw culture and story through her performance.
The showcase finished with an arresting performance by Versa-Style Dance Company. Versa-Style performed two works, “Extinction” and “Spirit of the Bones.” The experience was intense and vulnerable, from beginning to end. As “Extinction” opens, the air is agitated. The music is quietly edgy. The dancers move about the stage in slow motion repetitively donning distorted faces. Then the beat drops, and the dancers go off. Their chests are beating against the air. As they dance through incredible sequences, repeated motifs emerge. One motif is the distorted face, screaming into an abyss so deep and dense, it seems to snatch the sound from the depths of their throats before anyone gets to hear them. In the other motif, dancers clutch their neck, as if being choked by their surroundings. Throughout “Extinction,” bodies collapse to the floor and find themselves standing again. Arms beat against the air. They convulse violently in torment, their eyes intense. They are silent. Their right fist is clenched raised, always on the defense. I feel every single moment of it. As I watch, I understand. I don’t need program notes for this piece. My insides speak this language. They recognize the feelings the dancers’ movements embody. I feel it every time I see injustice committed and unchecked. I feel it every time I have to explain my community’s frustration and anger, yet again. On that stage, it feels like I’m watching what my blood and cells must be doing when I encounter that paralyzing feeling of rage and impotence.
A spoken word piece bridges the two works. As the poet’s words come forth, it feels like prophetic operation; like when tongues go forth in a church service and someone follows by exhorting the congregation with an interpretation of what was just declared in the heavenly language.
As the poet finishes, the cast returns to the stage. Familiar motifs return, but their spirit is different. In “Spirit of the Bones,” the right hand is now open where it was once clenched. In this second piece, the dancers’ movements take on a triumphant tone. Their steps are open and free. Their arms carve and partner with the air instead of beating against it. Their head is lifted; not as if gasping for air, but as if experiencing catharsis. They move like they’ve found a reason to fight, like they’ve had the terrifying conversation and finally got the chance to lay their truth bare on the table. The dancers’ limbs move about in freedom. No weight. No burden. Quick feet skate and skip across the floor. As the piece closes, the cast gathers and, in unison, beat the air once again with their chests. Sweat is flying everywhere. They have found a way to triumph in the chaos.
I had goosebumps throughout this entire showcase. I was completely taken in by the way every dancer moved as if their life depended on it. Every artist danced as if they had something they needed to say. How can you not be overcome by that kind of investment? I saw lifestyle meet art and art express life. It was raw, vulnerable, immediate, and visceral. The most beautiful thing about these artists is that they were beyond categorization. You could make no assumptions about these artists. They wore dickies. They were covered in tattoos. They weren’t the “right” size. They had the wrong look. And they were perfect. Exquisite. Educated. Creative. Captivating. And I loved every minute of it.
To learn more about Versa-Style Dance Company, please visit their website.
Written by Marlita Hill for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Versa-Style Dance Company – Photo by Talia Sugarmann