Hip-hop informs the visually stunning dance theatre of the France-based sensation Wang Ramirez, along with ballet, martial arts, and a sense of identity and culture.
The French dance sensations use aerial wires to defy gravity and explore society’s Borderlines
France-based dance sensations Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez take the idea of fusion much farther than just mixing styles like hip-hop, ballet, and martial arts on-stage. They live it and breathe it every day, with Wang hailing from Germany with Koreanimmigrant parents, and Ramirez from France, with Spanish parents.
Which language do the couple speak at their home in Perpignan, the small southern town where their red-hot company Wang Ramirez is based? “Fringlish!” the upbeat Ramirez answers, laughing.
Identity and culture are always a part of the pair’s visually stunning approach, as audiences will see when Dancehouse presents their work Borderline here.
And Wang, who’s sharing the line with her partner in life and work from a tour stop in New York City, says those concerns trace back to hiphop—the scene where they first met and that still drives their work today.
“Hip-hop is all about ‘Who am I?’ ” Wang says. “So it was always a natural thing for us to question ourselves.”
The two say they met at a Berlin training centre for hip-hop and were immediately attracted to each other’s styles.
“I’d only been doing it for three years, but he was already at the highest level, and it was quite impressive,” says Wang of Ramirez, a B-boy who was once a finalist in the Red Bull BC One world competition, one of the pinnacles of the form.
“And I was impressed to see a girl being so comfortable with the floor work, and her aesthetic lines were inspiring—i could feel something fresh about that,” he adds.
Together, they started to create something new, work that was and still is best described as dance theatre—not that they were familiar with how that term is used in the contemporary scene.
“We started doing something without knowing what it was; it was just a platform with which to express ourselves,” Wang explains.
“When you don’t have boundaries, you are very free to explore things,” her partner adds. “I think if I had known about dance theatre, it would be a very different creative process. There’s kind of a freedom we had when we started.”
Borderline was created with the same kind of outsider eye, when a stunt rigger told Ramirez his way of moving would look cool using aerial wires. Ramirez loved the way it felt, and that sent him on a year and a half of training, after which he brought his ideas and the wires to Wang and their dancers.
He became fascinated with the way he could take his hip-hop–based moves, so grounded in floor work, away from the pull of gravity, playing with winches.
“It allowed us to craft beautiful pictures. It creates poetry,” he explains. “From the beginning, we didn’t want to make magic tricks. We wanted to show the wires.”
Similarly, they didn’t want to hide the rigger, and started to toy with his role on-stage as he hoisted the performers up and down and sent them tumbling through the air. And voilà, they stumbled upon a profound metaphor for society, in which higher forces have the power to divide us and bring us together; think children imprisoned at border jails in the U.S. or barbed wire blocking out refugees in Europe.
“He was manipulating us and deciding if we go up or down,” says Wang. “So we decided to just go with it. He’s the powerful hand.”
Embellished with the music of French electro-percussion artist lacrymoboy and a cagelike cube, suspended like the dancers, Borderline became an abstract exploration of immigration and diasporic identity. And like so much of Wang and Ramirez’s work, it comes from personal experience as the children of immigrants.
“I always felt with my friends there were borders and boundaries. People always protected something, their culture, their language,” Wang recalls, intimating that not speaking German was a huge barrier for her parents when they immigrated from Korea. “It was the way we grew up, to keep different cultures clean and clear and proper, and now today it is just more extreme. Our parents are working-class,” she continues, referring to Ramirez’s parents as well, “so they immigrated because of the work situation, not really out of freedom of choice. They wanted to make sure their kids have a safe surrounding; it was ‘I need to feed my kids and work from morning to evening to do that.’ ”
“We are always aware [of these issues] because we were born with these borders around us,” Ramirez stresses.
For the past few years, Wang Ramirez has devoted itself to breaking down those borders. It’s crisscrossing the world on tour and it’s in demand as a collaborator on projects in Europe and America—most famously, in 2016, as the handpicked choreographic team for Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour. And it feels like the adrenaline rush of that megagig has not worn off just yet for this still-young company.
“The scale of it and the production—everything is huge,” Wang remembers.
“Everything is faster and bigger,” Ramirez agrees.
They loved working with the Queen of Pop, but they still feel most at home training and working with wires and whatever else inspires them in their Perpignan studio. “It made us realize we like to take our time,” Wang says. “To live like this I would have a heart attack. We really appreciate what we have.”
In Borderlines, presented here by Dancehouse, dynamic duo Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez meld martial arts, B-boying, ballet, and aerial work to create a visually striking piece that draws on their own experiences.