DANC­ING WITH AN­GELS

TIM DOU­GLAS VIS­ITS A DANCE ACAD­EMY SAV­ING LIVES IN LA’S MUR­DER­OUS GANG­LAND

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - BRIS­BANE FES­TI­VAL theaus­tralian.com.au/thearts

VICKY Lind­sey’s voice fal­ters mo­men­tar­ily as she ut­ters the dates — Novem­ber 9, 1995, and June 5, 1989 — when her son and his fa­ther were shot dead in Comp­ton, in the heart of Los An­ge­les’ South Cen­tral dis­trict. But she won’t cry. Not to­day. No, child. She didn’t cry at the fu­neral of her 19-year-old son Lionel White­side, gunned down just a stone’s throw from his fam­ily home and left to en­dure an ag­o­nis­ing death, suf­fo­cat­ing on his own blood in the pas­sen­ger seat of a friend’s car. Tears, she says, won’t bring back her baby boy.

Tears couldn’t help Lionel’s fa­ther, Big Lionel White­side, mur­dered in a drive-by shoot­ing, and they won’t re­turn her niece, her son’s un­cles and scores of friends’ chil­dren slain in gang-re­lated vi­o­lence.

Lind­sey’s fam­ily tree is a por­trait of tragedy not un­com­mon in this part of LA: branches trun­cated, roots poi­soned, by the multi­gen­er­a­tional street war­fare that be­gan in the 1970s with gangs the Bloods and the Crips bat­tling for con­trol of the lu­cra­tive street drug trade, a bat­tle that at one point was claim­ing 1200 lives a year.

‘‘ I ain’t gonna cry,’’ Lind­sey says, un­shed tears vis­i­bly pool­ing be­hind heav­ily made-up eyes. ‘‘ When I went to iden­tify my boy at the hos­pi­tal, he had a tear in his eye. I don’t know if he cried be­cause he suf­fered or he was fight­ing for his life. Maybe he felt be­trayed. But that will stay with me for­ever.’’ NOT far away, in an­other con­ver­sa­tion, death is also on the mind of 19-year-old Smurf, a se­nior-rank­ing mem­ber of LA’s In­gle­wood Fam­ily Gang. ‘‘ Death is cer­tain,’’ reads a cal­li­graphic tat­too on his bulging fore­arm. ‘‘ It’s just a mat­ter of when, right?’’ he says, flash­ing a sly simper that be­trays a pair of pinup boy dim­ples.

‘‘ Yo, don’t let that smile fool you,’’ warns Zoe, a 188cm tall, 120kg re­formed se­nior Crips en­forcer, bet­ter known in th­ese parts as the Col­lec­tor. ‘‘ This dawg will mess you up. He’s an ice-cold mother. He’ll kill you. Feel me? Just. Like. That.’’ He clicks two sausage-like fin­gers and shoots a cold stare across the ta­ble.

Smurf, dis­arm­ingly hand­some and wear­ing a neatly pressed blood-red shirt be­low a pair of di­a­mond ear­rings, leans back in a chair and stares out to the street. ‘‘ The first time I shot some­body, I felt happy. Some peo­ple say you feel sick, or you vomit. I didn’t feel none of that,’’ he says. ‘‘ I felt happy be­cause I did what I needed to do: shot the guy who killed my brother — my homie. I don’t know if he lived or died. But I felt good.’’

Smurf re­moves his base­ball cap and rubs the back of his corn­rowed head to re­veal a deep scar from a bul­let graze sus­tained in a street shoot­ing as a 14-year-old. By that time, he was al­ready an es­tab­lished mem­ber of the IG, a Bloods sub­set. His initiation — a street fight with three grown men — came at the ten­der age of 12, not long, he says, af­ter his fa­ther had been jailed for life for mur­der. ‘‘ We in the Jun­gle right here,’’ he says. ‘‘ Lions, tigers and bears. Once I step out­side, this gets real. I could get shot in the park­ing lot.’’ THE Jun­gle, in the Cren­shaw dis­trict of south LA, is one of Amer­ica’s most no­to­ri­ous pub­lic hous­ing ar­eas, known as the projects. Made fa­mous by the 2011 Den­zel Wash­ing­ton film Train­ing Day, the Jun­gle is a ram­shackle col­lec­tion of pub­lic high-rise hous­ing that winds around a labyrinth of one-way streets and dead ends, pop­u­lated by third and fourth­gen­er­a­tion gang mem­bers. ‘‘ Trust me, you don’t wanna get lost in there,’’ Smurf says.

At the Jun­gle’s outer lim­its, across a va­cant lot lit­tered with aban­doned cars and shop­ping trol­leys, and where dis­parate groups of black youths oc­ca­sion­ally loi­ter, stands an unas­sum­ing white build­ing un­touched by the gangspe­cific graf­fiti and wan­ton van­dal­ism that so char­ac­terises many of the build­ings in this area. It’s a place de­scribed by politi­cian and for­mer LA Po­lice chief Bernard Parks as a ‘‘ bea­con of hope in Cren­shaw’’: the Deb­bie Allen Dance Acad­emy.

In­side, Allen, star of the 1982 tele­vi­sion se­ries Fame, is wav­ing her arms fu­ri­ously as a stu­dio full of young dancers moves to the thrum of a mu­si­cal melange of swing and hiphop. ‘‘ Be some­one. Take me on a jour­ney. I want to know who you are,’’ she hollers. ‘‘ Yes, child. Nasty! Take me there.’’

Allen and her crew at DADA — the non­profit dance school she founded with her hus­band, NBA All Star Norm Nixon, in 2001 — are re­hears­ing Freeze Frame, a move­ment-based mu­si­cal work that will pre­miere at Bris­bane Fes­ti­val, which be­gins to­day. More than 20 per­form­ers from Allen’s Cren­shaw stu­dio are mak­ing the jour­ney from LA to the Queens­land cap­i­tal for one of the fes­ti­val’s head­line acts: a work Allen says gives a hu­man face to ‘‘ the sense­less killings we see on a daily ba­sis’’.

‘‘ It’s about re­veal­ing that mo­ment in time, be­fore a trig­ger is pulled; a chance for peo­ple to stop and re­cal­i­brate,’’ says Allen, who has

drawn on real-life sto­ries to cre­ate the work. ‘‘ I want to put a face to the statis­tics.’’

The statis­tics — par­tic­u­larly those per­tain­ing to this dis­ad­van­taged cor­ner of the city just 25km from the man­i­cured lawns of Bev­erly Hills — make for un­com­fort­able read­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the Los An­ge­les Times’s Homi­cide Re­port — the city’s jour­nal of record has a sec­tion de­voted to the daily mur­der count — 396 homi­cides have been recorded this year in LA, a city of 3.8 mil­lion. Of the 32 mur­ders last month, more than half were com­mit­ted in South LA; 80 per cent were gun-re­lated.

Allen’s dancers, many of whom grew up — and some of whom still live — in the low so­cioe­co­nomic projects around Comp­ton and Cren­shaw know well the his­tory of this place, its myr­iad cul­tural in­tri­ca­cies, its trou­bles, its tri­umphs. And each one — down to six-yearold Ali­jah Kai Hag­gins, one of the young stars of Freeze Frame — has a story to tell; a link, ten­u­ous or too-close-for-com­fort, to gang vi­o­lence. ‘‘ Do you need me to cry, Ms Allen?’’ she in­quires, eyes wide. ‘‘ I can think of some­thing to make my­self cry. It’s easy.’’

‘‘ No, baby,’’ Allen says, smil­ing. ‘‘ We don’t need you to cry. We need you to dance.’’ IT’S the first day of re­hearsals at DADA and the per­form­ers are track­ing the his­tory of AfricanAmer­i­can dance, from Africa to swing, jive,

rock ’ n’ roll, rap and hip-hop; a ri­otous colour of move­ment. Allen watches her vi­sion come to life from the front of the room. It’s a story about a young man who robs a liquor store and the af­ter­math of that act; even­tu­ally a choice is pre­sented to each char­ac­ter: join a gang, or dance. Tap dancers beat out rhythms on tiny fruit boxes as swing dancers twirl each other about the room. A pha­lanx of male dancers ad­vances in tribal unison, dodg­ing a pair of teenage hip-hop­pers who back­flip across the floor. A char­ac­ter dances on to the stage, pulls a gun, holds it to an­other’s head. ‘‘ I’VE been in­volved in mur­ders,’’ Smurf says. ‘‘ I’ve seen peo­ple killed in front of my face; blood all over my clothes.’’ He in­spects his shirt — its deep red screams Bloods af­fil­i­a­tion — as if check­ing for stains. ‘‘ My big thing was I would [shoot at] a crowd of dudes. If there was a crowd of like five of them, I would shoot at the crowd un­til I see some­body fall. As soon as that hap­pens, I stop and go. If that per­son just killed your home­boy, you don’t care. There’s no em­pa­thy.’’

Zoe nods. He spent 11 years in jail for his in­volve­ment in traf­fick­ing mil­i­tary au­to­matic firearms, with si­lencers, from South Amer­ica to the streets. He’s not so forth­com­ing about his in­volve­ment in crime, but the one-time Crips OG — orig­i­nal gang­ster; a street term for high­rank­ing se­nior gang mem­ber — is still well known as the Col­lec­tor. He worked in pay­roll, he says with a grin. The life­style, as Zoe calls it, is called gang­bang­ing here. It means, loosely, low-rank­ing gang mem­bers do­ing what­ever it takes to get money, drugs and sex in the name of a par­tic­u­lar group.

‘‘ For me, I started bang­ing hoods to get what I wanted,’’ says Smurf, who has been brought to­gether with Zoe for this meet­ing by Moon, a re­spected me­di­a­tor and vet­eran of the hood. ‘‘ I liked all the fancy stuff. I wanted the cars, the lux­u­ries. Ev­ery­one I saw were do­ing good from gang­bang­ing. So I started it too.’’

For Zoe, whose life as the Col­lec­tor forms an in­te­gral part of Allen’s pro­duc­tion, there was no con­scious choice. He grew up on Grape Street, Watts, in South Cen­tral, dur­ing the no­to­ri­ous colour wars of the 60s and 70s. He was there dur­ing the six-day Watts ri­ots of 1965 that re­sulted in 34 deaths and 3438 ar­rests. At four he saw his aunt stab his mother in the back with a bay­o­net knife. ‘‘ Then I went with my un­cle to go kill my aunty,’’ he says blankly. ‘‘ I didn’t never have no coun­sel. Just life lessons. So when I saw a mur­der for the first time, it wasn’t noth­ing for me see a dead body; it wasn’t noth­ing for me to hold a gun.’’

It’s high sum­mer in South Cen­tral and as the tem­per­a­ture rises by the day, so does the mur­der toll. Dur­ing the week of my visit alone, 10 peo­ple are mur­dered in the city, five of them killed in this area of LA. Al­ready this year, Comp­ton — a city of just 100,000 — has recorded 22 homi­cides, all gang-re­lated. It’s the same week Aus­tralian base­baller Chris Lane is shot dead in Ok­la­homa in what is re­ported as a gang initiation. His death goes un­re­ported in Cal­i­for­nia.

Ac­cord­ing to Zoe, we have en­tered what’s known on the streets as the Red Zone. ‘‘ Red Zone means it’s gang sea­son,’’ he says. Smurf ex­plains: ‘‘ School’s out. It’s hot. Peo­ple don’t got noth­ing pro­duc­tive to do, and more time to do some­thing bad. Guns are every­where.’’

The ap­par­ent dis­con­nect with death in this city is a no­tion that has al­ways trou­bled Allen. She moved to LA in 1982 to ap­pear in Fame, the Amer­i­can se­ries in which she starred as dancer Ly­dia Grant. But her celebrity — in­clud­ing three Em­mys and a star on the Hol­ly­wood Walk of Fame — was over­shad­owed by the de­spair she wit­nessed be­yond the Hol­ly­wood Hills.

That de­spair cul­mi­nated a decade later in the week-long ri­ots sparked by the Rod­ney King po­lice bru­tal­ity in­ci­dent, tur­moil that claimed 53 lives.

‘‘ I felt help­less at the loss of in­no­cent life from gangs, gun vi­o­lence, mis­taken iden­tity and drugs,’’ Allen says. ‘‘ So many beau­ti­ful peo­ple lost and trapped by their zip code. I thought it was im­por­tant to bring this story to the world with­out glo­ri­fy­ing it.’’

Freeze Frame has been five years in the mak­ing. It was an idea Allen and Bris­bane Fes­ti­val artis­tic di­rec­tor Noel Staunton, a man

‘‘ fas­ci­nated by life in South Cen­tral’’, dis­cussed back in 2007. ‘‘ I’d talked to Noel about do­ing some­thing like this af­ter read­ing about a mamma walk­ing her baby down the street. She was just walk­ing, when boom: her baby was shot dead,’’ Allen says. ‘‘ I needed to make this work. Then when Noel, a dear friend, be­came Bris­bane Fes­ti­val di­rec­tor, he called me and said let’s do it. The time’s right.’’ TOUGH love, is how Allen de­scribes it. Her di­rec­to­rial style over her sub­jects may seem strict; dic­ta­to­rial, even. She ad­mits to hav­ing slapped one dancer when he ‘‘ went off the

rails’’ a few years ago. She ex­presses dis­ap­point­ment at tar­di­ness, and takes breaks in re­hearsals reg­u­larly to talk about her dancers’ lives. In­deed, there are mo­ments that are less dance re­hearsal and more group ther­apy. Such fa­mil­ial frank­ness makes it easy to for­get the dancers sit­ting at Allen’s feet are some of the coun­try’s most tal­ented. There’s Dion Wat­son, a fa­mous hip-hop dancer who chore­ographs for the Black Eyed Peas, P. Diddy, Mariah Carey, Usher and El­ton John; Wil­liam Wing­field, run­ner-up on Amer­ica’s So You Think You Can Dance; Tay­lour Paige, star of US TV show Hit the Floor; tap stars B’Jon Carter Burnell and Cathie Nicholas, grand­daugh­ter of one of the fa­mous danc­ing Nicholas Broth­ers. Then there’s Allen’s and Nixon’s 29-year-old daugh­ter Vi­vian Nixon, a Broad­way star in her own right who stud­ied at the Kirov Ballet.

‘‘ It’s amaz­ing to have Vi­vian in this show, but re­ally, they are all my chil­dren out there,’’ Allen says. ‘‘ This is a fam­ily.’’

Allen wrote, chore­ographed and di­rects Freeze Frame, but the mu­sic has its own per­sonal con­nec­tions. Her old friend Ste­vie Won­der com­posed one of the tracks; her son Thump com­posed three un­der the di­rec­tion of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and Gram­mys mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Ricky Mi­nor. The work also fea­tures mu­sic by James In­gram, the dou­ble Grammy award win­ner and long-time Quincy Jones col­lab­o­ra­tor who was also in a for­mer life a gang in­ter­ven­tion­ist in South Cen­tral. ‘‘ The rea­son I’m here, that we’re all [on board] is sim­ple,’’ he says. ‘‘ Ev­ery­thing Deb­bie Allen does has a pur­pose.’’

Out­side Allen’s of­fice, a tiny room fes­tooned in signed in­ner soles, framed spats and a pic­ture of the dancer meet­ing Bill Clin­ton, Aus­tralian-born po­lice of­fi­cer Garry Hodg­son is watch­ing a gag­gle of tiny bal­leri­nas file into DADA’s sec­ond re­hearsal room. He looks anx­iously at his watch. He starts work in an hour. On see­ing him, his wife Bron­wyn Thomas-Hodg­son — an­other Fame alumna — comes streak­ing down the hall­way in a black leo­tard. ‘‘ I love you,’’ she says, kissing him softly. ‘‘ Be safe. Please. Come back to me.’’

Hodg­son, a for­mer mu­si­cal theatre dancer, is an LAPD gang en­force­ment cop. The past seven of his 25 years with the LAPD have been spent in the worst of the city’s gang­land ar­eas. He knows each group in­ti­mately: its his­tory, its mem­bers, its pre­scribed ar­eas, its ri­vals. It’s a danger­ous job. ‘‘ Ev­ery time my wife says good­bye, she says it as though it’s the last time,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s very tough on her. To be fair, she mar­ried a dancer, not a cop.’’

Hodg­son has watched the gang land­scape evolve in the past 20 years; there are es­ti­mated now to be hun­dreds of crim­i­nal groups com­pris­ing 300,000 gang mem­bers across the city, cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from His­panic, African-Amer­i­can, Asian and white skin­heads. ‘‘ It’s not as sim­ple as the old codes of colour — blue for Crips, red for Bloods,’’ Hodg­son says. ‘‘ There are in­junc­tion laws, which means if you’re from this gang, you’re not al­lowed to wear this colour in this part of the neigh­bour­hood. So we have gangs now that wear the but­toned shirt, skinny jeans, a base­ball cap. They look like reg­u­lar kids, but they’re run­ning guns, sling­ing dope, shoot­ing.’’

Hodg­son says the key to un­der­stand­ing gangs in LA is graf­fiti, a com­plex code of in­for­ma­tion Allen has in­cor­po­rated into Freeze Frame’s sets with the help of mu­ral­ist John Valadez. Some of the graf­fiti, such as can be seen in danger­ous Kore­atown where the dancers are be­ing pho­tographed in a va­cant lot, is elab­o­rately beau­ti­ful. Cars full of young men trawl by slowly as the crew — for­eign­ers in this part of town — pose in front of a 60m long mu­ral of colour and code: odes to fallen friends, de­pic­tions of bul­lets and blood, warn­ings to ri­vals. ‘‘ It will tell you who’s in which gang, which gangs they’re at war with,’’ Hodg­son says. ‘‘ You learn to read it.’’

With a homi­cide rate of 300-400 peo­ple a year, LA has a long way to go to counter its rep­u­ta­tion as one of Amer­ica’s dead­li­est cities. Yet the fig­ures are al­most one-third lower than the four con­sec­u­tive years of about 1000 mur­ders recorded dur­ing the early 90s. Few peo­ple un­der­stand the num­bers bet­ter than city coun­cil­lor Parks, and not just through his for­mer role as LA’s top cop. In 2000, his grand­daugh­ter Lori Gon­za­lez was gunned down at a fast food restau­rant the day be­fore her 21st birth­day. The site is a few blocks from Parks’s tiny elec­toral of­fice on Cren­shaw Boule­vard.

‘‘ We don’t drive La Brea Av­enue much th­ese days,’’ he says of Lori’s mur­der; she was caught in the cross­fire — her pas­sen­ger was a mem­ber of the shooter’s ri­val gang. ‘‘ Peo­ple thought my fam­ily lived in a bub­ble. They all thought my fam­ily was pro­tected and had se­cu­rity. They drive the same streets, go to the same stores. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly, it’s a com­mon story.’’

Back in Allen’s of­fice, the 63-year-old buries her face in her hands and bursts into tears. ‘‘ Aus­tralia can [ban guns]. Why can’t we do it?’’ she says. ‘‘ I don’t un­der­stand why any­one needs a gun. In­no­cent peo­ple are be­ing killed. It’s the story of life here. But it shouldn’t be.’’

Allen’s life is a story in it­self. And her own his­tory goes some way to ex­plain­ing the many whys here: why DADA is not-for-profit; why a vast pro­por­tion of its stu­dents are on schol­ar­ships; why Allen has set up in one of the tough­est neigh­bour­hoods in the US, a world away from her star on Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard.

Allen was born and reared in Hous­ton, and her early in­ter­est in dance was snuffed out by Texan seg­re­ga­tion laws that for­bade black women join­ing dance academies. Allen’s mother Vi­vian made the brave de­ci­sion to move her daugh­ters — nine-year-old Allen and her sis­ter, ac­tress Phyli­cia Rashad — to Mex­ico City. ‘‘ She packed us up on a Grey­hound bus and told us we were chil­dren of the uni­verse,’’ Allen says. ‘‘ I re­mem­ber we went to a store and sat at a lunch counter. No­body told us to leave. Mumma was right.’’

The fam­ily lived in Mex­ico for a year, dur­ing which time Allen danced with the Ballet Na­cional. ‘‘ When I think about the op­por­tu­ni­ties de­nied me as a child, I think about op­por­tu­ni­ties de­nied chil­dren who might be eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged to­day. It’s im­por­tant to me that if a kid has tal­ent, we use it. I’m al­ways shak­ing the tin can to make th­ese kids places. Give them a fu­ture.’’

One such kid with tal­ent was Wat­son, who plays the lead role in Freeze Frame. His fam­ily and friends have been sucked into gang life but Allen, he says, saved him. ‘‘ If I wasn’t danc­ing ... I could be one of those ones out there shoot­ing some­one over colour,’’ he says. ‘‘ Dance changed my life. It’s not about how easy it is to slip into [gang] life out here, it’s about how hard it is not to slip into it.’’

Wat­son now runs his own com­mu­nity pro­gram for dis­ad­van­taged youth in Comp­ton. He trav­els the world with some of its big­gest stars, but he al­ways comes home. ‘‘ This is my fam­ily,’’ he says. ‘‘ She’s our mother. When mom calls we come run­ning.’’ LIND­SEY hugs Skip Townsend, a re­spected gang in­ter­ven­tion­ist and long-time friend. ‘‘ Lionel, my boy, had a son,’’ she says qui­etly. ‘‘ Lionel Jr was born 12 days af­ter his daddy was shot dead in that car.’’ She hasn’t seen her grand­son in years — he will turn 18 in Novem­ber — and fears he may be in­volved in the gang scene. ‘‘ I hope he can pull him­self out and be­come some­one who helps peo­ple find the right path,’’ says Lind­sey, who now runs CryNoMore, a group for fam­i­lies af­fected by gang vi­o­lence. ‘‘ You gotta have hope. With­out hope, what else have you got?’’

Zoe has found his path. Af­ter decades run­ning gangs and guns across LA, the re­formed gang­ster is a mu­si­cian, fo­cused on se­cur­ing a safe fu­ture for his five chil­dren.

Smurf, too, is a fa­ther: he has a son. The baby-faced gang­ster says a nine-month stint in jail for bur­glary last year made him re­con­sider his life­style. But he’ll never leave the gang, his fam­ily. He smiles when asked about the fu­ture for his lit­tle boy. ‘‘ I can give him all the tools to en­sure he doesn’t get in­volved in the life­style, but truth is if he bangs just one hood, if he gets caught up in it one time, he’s there for life. There’s no get­ting out.’’ Smurf slips away into the night as the Freeze Frame dancers — gang­sters, har­lots, crim­i­nals for a day — float out of the stu­dio and head for home. To­mor­row they will do it all again.

Dusk en­velops Cren­shaw and as the Jun­gle comes alive, the lights stay on at the acad­emy. Allen works into the night imag­in­ing new ways to tell the sto­ries — good, bad and tragic — of this cor­ner of LA. She came to Hol­ly­wood to find fame but in South Cen­tral found pur­pose. A light in the dark­ness; queen of this jun­gle.

Freeze Frame plays at Bris­bane Fes­ti­val, Septem­ber 19-22. Tim Dou­glas trav­elled to LA courtesy of Bris­bane Fes­ti­val.

This page, Deb­bie Allen and daugh­ter Vi­vian Nixon, above; and gang mem­ber Smurf, be­low left; op­po­site page, the Freeze Frame cast, top; and cast mem­bers, from left, Dion Wat­son, Ala­man Di­ad­hiou, Nixon and Dempsey Tonks

Cast mem­bers of Freeze Frame in LA, top and above left; Deb­bie Allen’s son Nor­man Nixon Jr, aka Thump, above right

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