Flex danc­ing leaps off the streets and on to the stage

Street smart and so­cially aware, flex danc­ing is both art move­ment and cul­tural mo­ment, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Matthew West­wood

As­lim young man who goes by the name Brixx moves like a swan with bro­ken wings. His feet glide across the floor in a seam­less flow of move­ment, grace­ful and ef­fort­less. He goes up on his toes — at the bal­let you’d call it en pointe — but in­stead of pointe shoes the dancer is wear­ing Nike Air Force 1s, sneak­ers of daz­zling white­ness that un­der­score the fancy foot­work. He turns, swivels and glides on his toes in al­ter­nat­ing phrases of fast and slow.

He raises his arms high like wings — the grace­ful black swan about to take flight — and then crosses his arms be­hind his head in a knotty pos­ture that looks like it could dis­lo­cate his shoul­ders. It’s a strange, thrilling mix­ture of ath­letic move­ment, the­atrics and con­tor­tion: the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of a style of street dance called flex.

Later on, Brixx — real name Sean Dou­glas — ex­plains that flex is all about cre­at­ing such con­tra­dic­tory il­lu­sions, the im­pos­si­bly smooth glid­ing ef­fects cou­pled with “bone-break­ing” shoul­der pops and twisted limbs.

“That’s ex­actly how I want it to de­liver,” Brixx says. “Depend­ing how the mu­sic is, and how I’m feel­ing at the mo­ment, is the way I’m go­ing to shift my body a cer­tain way, or make it turn out to be some­thing that’s new. You know, just de­feat­ing the ob­vi­ous.”

Flex­ing orig­i­nated in Ja­maica and took root among African-Amer­i­can neigh­bour­hoods in Brook­lyn, New York. It has been show­cased on TV dance con­tests, in mu­sic videos and in a doc­u­men­tary. The style is also start­ing to gain a foothold in fes­ti­vals and per­form­ing arts pro­grams. Ear­lier this year, flex dancer Jay Donn made a piece called Some­thing Sam­pled with New York con­tem­po­rary dance com­pany Bal­let Next. Another dancer called Sto­ry­board has per­formed along­side a coun­tertenor singing Vi­valdi and Han­del.

Another show called FlexN with a cast of 20 flex dancers — di­rected by renowned the­atremaker Peter Sel­lars and chore­ographed by flex pi­o­neer Reg­gie Gray — opened in March at New York’s Park Av­enue Ar­mory. Bris­bane Fes­ti­val artis­tic di­rec­tor David Berthold was so im­pressed when he saw the show that he booked it for his first fes­ti­val pro­gram this month.

FlexN is more than a sam­pler of a cool new dance style and sub­cul­ture, although the spec­tac­u­lar vir­tu­os­ity of the dancers would be rea­son enough to see it. Flex per­for­mances can be ab­stract dis­plays of tech­nique, but the dancers also use the form to de­pict char­ac­ters and to tell sto­ries. In FlexN, the in­di­vid­ual dance se­quences come to­gether to tell a story about a shock­ingly per­sis­tent prob­lem in the US and other coun­tries: racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, black deaths at the hands of po­lice, and the high rates of in­car­cer­a­tion of black peo­ple.

The show was in re­hearsals last year when such in­ci­dents were dom­i­nat­ing the news. At Staten Is­land in July a black man, Eric Garner, died af­ter be­ing held in a choke-hold by a po­lice of­fi­cer. Weeks later, teenager Michael Brown was fa­tally shot by a po­lice­man in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, spark­ing ri­ots in the city.

“All this sub­ject mat­ter came into the piece be­cause it came into our lives,” Sel­lars says. “The show is made from things (the dancers) have ex­pe­ri­enced. It’s not a Hol­ly­wood screen­writer’s im­age of what goes on, it’s ex­pe­ri­en­tial, and you can’t miss the au­thor­ity that these folks bring to the con­tent … They are speak­ing on their terms, and their terms are not with the mi­cro­phone, it’s with their bod­ies.” Re­view has caught up with the flex dancers at the Manch­ester In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val, in Eng­land, where Gray, Sel­lars and 10 of the orig­i­nal FlexN cast are col­lab­o­rat­ing with lo­cal dancers and shar­ing their moves. The show opens on a sticky midsummer night at the for­mer Granada tele­vi­sion stu­dios, and the lights and ki­netic energy on stage gen­er­ate a lot of heat.

There is a se­ries of solo turns. Franklin “Ace” Dawes per­forms as­ton­ish­ing tricks with his base­ball cap, spin­ning it on his fin­gers and be­hind his back, mak­ing it ap­pear to move as if on an in­vis­i­ble wire. Glen­don “Tyme” Charles does the bone-break­ing busi­ness with his arms, seem­ing to turn his shoul­ders in­side out. (“This guy’s a pret­zel,” Gray calls out.) Dei­dra “Dayn­tee” Braz gives a de­fi­antly pow­er­ful dance per­for­mance to Bey­once’s I Was Here.

But the strong­est dance se­quences are the en­sem­bles. In one, the dancers form the set­ting of a court­room and its var­i­ous play­ers, from judge and jury to ac­cused. In another group piece, one of the dancers is at­tached at the an­kle by three oth­ers he drags be­hind him — the weight of his fore­bears. The lyric to the song Be Free by J. Cole makes the mean­ing clear: “All we want to do is take the chains off.”

The Manch­ester sea­son of FlexN is dif­fer­ent from the New York show that is com­ing to Bris­bane. But the “chains” se­quence is so pow­er­ful

FlexN dancers

Above, left and fac­ing page, re­hearse their in­cred­i­ble moves

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