Thursday, April 2, 2015

Here to set it off: "FLEXN" comes to Park Avenue

Klassic (Joseph Carella) with the cast of FLEXN at Park Avenue Armory
Now, try re-creating his pose.
Klassic counsels, "If you have the imagination,
[you] can do anything you want because the body is able to do it."
(photo: Stephanie Berger)

FLEXN co-directors Peter Sellars (l) and Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray
(photo: Stephanie Berger)

Flex is Brooklyn street, not Park Avenue street. Yet, thanks to FLEXN, you'll find the Brooklyn street dance form known as flex at the Park Avenue Armory behind a set of thick wooden doors that, when closed in front of you, don't exactly say, "Welcome!"

Pull those heavy doors, though, and you'll find a huge, dark space re-imagined for sensation and spectacle--STREB's action heroes "kissing the air" comes to mind--now given over to some of Brooklyn's most extraordinary young street dance performers. This ninety-minute production, a collaboration between choreographer Reggie (Regg Croc) Gray and director Peter Sellars, is a magnet intended to engage New Yorkers with issues like racism, policing and youth incarceration. The co-directors began work on FLEXN against the backdrop of #BlackLivesMatter, aware that the Armory commission could offer a platform not only to introduce flex to a broader audience but to raise awareness of the realities that drive the art.

Audiences are encouraged to come at least an hour early for pre-show panels on topics such as "Profiling Stop & Frisk" and "Judging the Juvenile Justice System," moderated by Sellars and Gray. As you wait for the panel, you can view photography by Richard Ross documenting the lives of teenagers in solitary confinement and a range of visual art by Akira Somma creatively tracing several years in the development of flex. The show's segments have been arranged to underscore the multiple challenges of city life for young people of color while highlighting these critical values--self-awareness, dedication and community.

FLEXN, from evidence of last night's show, mainly attracts a New York mix of the hip and the affluent only slightly more diverse in race than your typical concert dance crowd--in other words, largely a white audience--but spanning a wider range in age. Many appeared to have arrived only for the performance, although they are probably most in need of what FLEXN's Race and the City panels have to offer.

The dancers, I read somewhere, hoped audiences would feel free to voice their pleasure and support all through the show, the way it's done in flex culture. But, aside from a smattering of applause after segments or particular solos, the armory crowd watched in complete silence and stillness. I saw only a few people, at least in my immediate vicinity, acting on the show's invitation to take photos and videos for upload to Facebook and Twitter. But the evening ended with many standing in ovation, and friends turned to their companions with happy murmurs and exclamations of awe. As we all filed out past the massive, hall-spanning platform stage, the dancers sat along its edge, waiting to receive our individual greetings. That was a nice touch--and smart--giving us a chance to finally share whatever feelings we held back during the show itself.

At 14, Germany-born Android (Martina Heimann) almost abandoned
her training in conventional movement techniques, but her mother challenged her:
"Are you sure you want to live with the thought of not being a dancer?"
Today, she is a star of flex and FLEXN.
"I want flexn to be accepted as a full-blown art."
(photo: Stephanie Berger)
At center, Sam I Am (Sam Estavien)
One of FLEXN's most talented performers, Sam I Am writes,
"I feel like dance is my connection to the divine....
One of my goals is to raise the status quo of how dancers are respected."
(photo: Stephanie Berger)

Lookin at my watch its about that time
I done patiently waited
And I hate
That I'm so underrated
I hope you hear this song and know I'm singing from the heart
And I'm kinda faded
I wasn't created to be so underrated
-- Tank ("Underrated")
FLEXN uses solos, duets, ensemble pieces and a creative range of music (reggae, hip hop, R&B) to tell archetypal stories of complicated relationships, temptations and their consequences, violence and loss, the meaning of friendship and mentorship. Flex offers its young dancers not only a way to show clever and robust virtuosity--the flashy contortions called bone-breaking, the smooth knee glides, the minute, jerky isolations--but to define and speak for themselves.
I will no longer be defined by
What someone else believes that I am
Now that I have dropped the weight
I am light as a feather
It's time to elevate
-- India.Arie ("SoulBird Rise")
Performers to watch for include: Dayntee (Deidra Braz), marrying willowy, undulating flow to flex's more angular distortions of the body line. The masterful Banks (James Davis) who, as a teenager, took two bullets to the knee--which only made him more fervent about dancing. Sam I Am (Sam Estavien), deeply gifted, totally connected and coherent from head to toe. The theatrically expressive Android (Martina Lauture). And Karnage (Quamaine Daniels) with the abrasive solo he calls "Fuck the World."
But through all the bullshit I throw up a sign of hope…
-- Ace Hood ("Fuck Da World") 
FLEXN speaks of chaos, confusion and pain but also demonstrates two beautiful things: art as the key and community as absolute necessity.

Lighting sculpture/design: Ben Zamora
Sound design: Garth MacAleavey
Costume design: Gabriel Berry
Music: Epic B

Performers: Ace (Franklin Dawes), Android (Martina Lauture), Banks (James Davis), Brixx (Sean Douglas), Cal (Calvin Hunt), Deidra (Deidra Braz), Dre Don (Andre Redman), Droid (Rafael Burgos), Droopz (Jerrod Ulysse), Karnage (Quamaine Daniels), Klassic (Joseph Carella), Nicc Fatal (Nicholas Barbot), Nyte (Ayinde Hart), Pumpkin (Sabrina Rivera), Regg Roc (Reggie Gray), Sam I Am (Sam Estavien), Scorp (Dwight Waugh), Shellz (Shelby Felton), Slicc (Derick Murreld), Tyme (Glendon Charles), Vypa (Khio Duncan) and YG (Richard Hudson)

FLEXN continues through April 4 with Thursday-Saturday performances at 8pm and a Sunday matinee at 3pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Watch FLEXN-related YouTube videos here.

Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue (between 66th and 67th Streets), Manhattan

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