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
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
Above, left and facing page, rehearse their incredible moves