How do you take a form of street dance and bring it, for the first time, to the theatrical stage — and not just any stage, but a 160-foot-long one? That’s the question underpinning FLEXN, a new, commissioned production of flex dancing that opened Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory. It hasn’t been fully answered.
Flexing — or flexn, as it’s properly written — was born in Brooklyn in the 1990s, growing out of a Jamaican dance style called the bruk up, performed to dancehall music. A cable-access show called Flex N Brooklyn gave the style its name and showcased dancers working out and building on the basics of the form as they battled. Many more dancers were exposed to flex through the show; in the program for FLEXN, a number of the performers cite the importance of the show in their biographies.
The bruk up, as pioneered by a Jamaican dancer named George Adams (nicknamed Bruck Up), is an animated, almost cartoonish dance, and flex too revels in high energy and expression. It is a dance of extremes — one minute a performer is twisting his arms into such insane positions it looks like his bones are breaking (bone-breaking), the next he appears to be hovering as he moves across the floor gracefully (gliding). The third original style of flex, pauzin, mimics the effect of watching someone move on television and hitting pause, then play, pause, then play (to the untrained eye, it looks similar to hip-hop dancing’s popping).
The art and classical dance worlds have begun to take an interest in flex over the past couple of years, bringing the form and its ambassadors out of East New York — the Brooklyn neighborhood where it originated — to the Dumbo Arts Festival in 2012, to the Lost Lectures in 2014 (which Hyperallergic co-presented), and to BalletNext earlier this year. But the Park Avenue Armory is the biggest and grandest venue yet to offer its stage to flex, and this has created the biggest challenge.
FLEXN is a collaboration between flex pioneer Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray (the originator of pauzin), 21 of his D.R.E.A.M. (Dance Rules Everything Around Me) dancers, and theater director Peter Sellars. The latter was brought on by Armory Artistic Director Alex Poots, though it’s not entirely clear why — presumably to help Gray and the dancers craft a piece that wouldn’t get swallowed up by the cavernous Armory drill hall. Still, I can’t help but smell a whiff of wished-for credibility, as if pairing street dancers with a famous director would justify their presence in a “high art” establishment.
But OK, let’s be kind and assume Sellars was brought on simply because he’s “known for expanding artistic boundaries.” Cross-genre pollination does carry the potential for interesting outcomes. Unfortunately they mostly fail to materialize in FLEXN, which, rather than push the dance form to unexpected places, inserts it into a heavy-handed theatrical framework comprised of a series of familiar stories: that of a cheating girlfriend; of having to choose between drugs and dancing; of a fatal shooting and retaliation; of break-ins, arrests, court hearings, prison. The performers enact these scenes through a mixture of pantomime and improvised flex dance, accompanied by lighting cues. All the while, a mash-up of very familiar hip-hop, rap, and dance music blares from the speakers, orchestrated by Epic B (who also has three original songs in the show), and tubes in the maze-like light sculpture by Ben Zamora that lines the back wall of the space flash on and off.
It’s a giddiness-inducing setup, to see this dancing and hear this music shake up such a stern space. But from the very beginning the incredible intricacies of flex get lost in melodramatic theatrics. It’s not that these stories aren’t worth telling — they are — but flex is already, by its nature, a highly expressive form; pantomimed exchanges of shootouts aren’t uncommon in freestyle battles. The dance is an emotional release, and, in the best performers you can see anger, frustration, and other feelings transmuted into joyful artistic expression. Flex flits between the earthly and the ethereal, and to push it too much towards the former — to ground it so intensely in the literal context from which it comes and weigh it down with messages, as Sellars and Gray have done here — is to clip its wings.
Nor does the massive stage do the dancers many favors. The raised platform runs the length of the drill hall, which means if you’re sitting on one end and the action is happening on the other — or in the middle, or even just at the back of the stage, with other people moving in front — you’ll miss a lot of nuance. And flex, showy though it may be, is most impressive and charged when you can see it up close: bones twisting in their sockets, bugged-out eyes accompanying hard, quick muscle compressions, a performer who seems to skim the surface of the stage like it’s water, all while on his knees (get-low).
Still, the dancers of FLEXN are on the whole fantastic, and they do get chances to shine. Deidra “Dayntee” Braz bewitches in a series of solos with her flawlessly flowing limbs, while Shelby “Shellz” Felton bends in ways I never dreamt possible. Quamaine “Karnage” Daniels plays an angry teen who, in a scene referencing Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, gets shot in cold blood by a cop; in his dances both before and after the shooting he fuses a number of flex styles into an astonishing, angry transcendence. (He also wears a mouth grill and grins deliciously; I hope this isn’t the last time I see a grill at the Armory.)
Group scenes are generally the most successful, as the dancers drink in each others’ energy. A courtroom sequence captures the broken-record nature of a system that relentlessly locks up black and brown kids with a series of fluid gestures passed from one dancer to the next. The following segment moves to prison (where some of the performers have been in real life), with all the dancers onstage and isolated in cells represented by squares of light. As each one solos to the music of his or her choice, the others bounce and echo the soloist with small movements — a gesture that captures flex’s characteristic blend of individuality and solidarity.
For me, the most stunning moment of the show came at the very end: Sean “Brixx” Douglas, a tall, lanky dancer who seems to somehow sit gracefully into his movements, appeared atop a mezzanine at the end of the hall. As all the other dancers cheered him on from down below, Brixx glided and arched and spun effortlessly across the mini-stage, his limbs seeming to speak in the formation of fleeting shapes. There was a magic in that moment I’d been waiting for the entire show. Released from the weight of his past, Brixx was free to dance into his future.
FLEXN continues at Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 4.