Decadance Vs. The Firebird--A Hip-Hop Ballet
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 15, 2004
One of the pleasures of FringeNYC is the opportunity it presents to chart the growth of emerging theatre makers. A few years ago, I saw Jennifer Weber and her Decadance company present one of their first pieces in the Fringe. This year, I’m happy to report that they’re back and the work is better than ever. This time she’s chosen to deconstruct one of the iconic dances of the twentieth century: The Firebird. Created by two of the century’s great artistic mavericks, Stravinsky and Fokine, it’s a work that confronts the conventions of classical ballet. How fitting that, at the beginning of this new century, Weber should use it as a springboard for her own confrontation with both dance history and the challenges of being a female hip-hop artist today.
The scenario comes from a Russian folktale, but the setting is decidedly the contemporary streets of New York: While out hunting one day (or in this case graffiti tagging), Iva (Tomoko Onozawa) is led by the Storyteller (Taeko Koji) to the glittering Firebird (Keely Wright). She traps the Firebird and gets her to teach some of her signature moves. In exchange for freedom, the Firebird gives her a magic bandanna that will protect her from harm. She meets an Evil Spirit (Angela Crain) and through her skills (and the help of the Firebird) defeats her and her crew.
Clearly this is not the most sophisticated plot ever devised, but Weber fills the simple story with incredibly sophisticated movement. Venturing beyond the lock-and-pop of the standard music video, Weber creates variety and delineates character by adding ballet, modern, and jazz moves into the mix. Witty touches abound: an intricately choreographed basketball game complete with referee making elaborate hand signals; the Firebird’s wings represented by the kind of Chinese fans club kids like to twirl on the dance floor; a fight where the music slows down every time a punch lands. She also finds in hip-hop hand gestures the perfect update for the pantomime of classical dance. But the most provocative touch is the lack of men on stage. Flipping the script on the usual ballet dynamic involving a handsome prince confronted by an exotic female other, Weber creates a world of tough, competitive women.
Her performers are uniformly terrific, but fittingly the evening belongs to its title character. Wright is a phenomenal dancer, able to smolder with street-level fierceness one moment and flame out into a gorgeous extended line the next. Long may she blaze.