Circle Up

An unconventional residency emphasizes both community and individuality

By Suzannah Friscia

On a recent Monday afternoon, the gym at Ingersoll Community Center is a study in controlled chaos. Standing in a loosely-defined circle around the basketball court, about 20 dancers have gathered for rehearsal. Soon, one moves through the rapid, subtle isolations of animation, an invisible current coursing through each joint and muscle. Another glides fluidly across the floor, adding a slow turn. Sometimes, dancers yell to each other as they try to remember where they’re supposed to stand, or whose turn it is to move into the center of the court. A few who have been practicing hat tricks start shooting baskets with the hat instead. Music with a heavy beat plays from a set of speakers next to a laptop computer, where a man crouches quietly, watching.

That man is the Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula. A world-renowned contemporary artist, who has performed in African, European, and North American capitals, Linyekula is working in an unlikely collaboration with street dancers — members of It’s Showtime, NYC! (IST), an organization that provides local subway dancers with professional opportunities that aren’t criminalized by the city (where dancing in subway cars is illegal). In a two-week residency called Festival of Dreams (part of the French Institute Alliance Fraçaise’s annual Crossing the Line Festival), Linyekula and the dancers will create a piece and perform it in Brooklyn and the South Bronx.

“Without changing what they do, but by just applying some of the things that I was telling them, they seem to be discovering their own dance again.” Linyekula says. “It’s about raising awareness of your own body and how it behaves in space.” The distinct personalities and styles of the dancers are apparent when they move, as is their technical skill, but Linyekula pushes them to project and to think differently about their connection with the space and people around them. “Oftentimes when I see them dance, their awareness of space doesn’t go beyond a square meter round their body,” he says. The challenge is to bring their many perspectives together into a cohesive whole.

Just as Linyekula inhabits the world of contemporary concert dance, the IST artists come from dance worlds of their own. For Joseph “Klassic” Carella, a flex dancer who started working with IST earlier this year, flexing is “not just a hobby — it’s actually a lifestyle, or a culture.” Combining elements like pausing, gliding, connecting, bone breaking, hat tricks and get-low, it has its roots in reggae and a Jamaican dancehall style called bruk-up. Dance battles are common, each artist infusing his own emotion and individuality into the movement in attempts to one-up each other. Klassic, who’s performed at the Park Avenue Armory and on TV shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” notes that in a typical flex performance he’d be telling his story through movement in just a couple minutes — maybe slightly longer if performing with a partner. But with Linyekula, “It becomes one whole collective story,” he says. “My story kind of shifts into everybody else’s.”

“It challenged you to look outside of yourself,” says another dancer, Marlon “Qweschun” Jones, of Linyekula’s process. You could say that Qweschun, who describes himself as an all-style freestyler, is typically looking within: he combines elements of techniques like waving, popping, tutting and bone breaking to create his own unique approach. “The difference is the amount of control somebody has within the movement, that allows them to shape it more intricately,” he says. He demonstrates as he explains, twisting his arms into wing-like shapes behind his back for bone breaking, and carving the air with the intricate hand patterns of tutting. Working with Linyekula, he was pushed to incorporate what he saw and felt in the space around him into his own dance.

It’s Showtime NYC! dancers performing in Brooklyn. photo: Chloé Mossessian.

The same emphasis on storytelling and collaboration that he stresses when working with the IST dancers is evident in Linyekula’s own work, which incorporates multiple idioms and techniques. A recent performance of his In Search of Dinozard (also part of the Crossing the Line Festival) combined dance with poetry, operatic singing, Jimi Hendrix, and a Skype call with a friend who’s in exile in Sweden. In one moment, two dancers intertwined in a sort of slow-motion embrace, leaning against one another in support. Later, one dancer carefully lowered another to the ground, bearing his weight. In Linyekula’s solo, a climactic moment toward the end of the piece, he moved with both precision and abandon, hips swiveling, feet turning inward and back out in quick succession, arms almost beckoning.

Linyekula’s approach with the IST dancers isn’t about teaching them his own style of movement, or having them learn predetermined choreography. “I try to make work really around people’s personalities. Some talk of site-specific work, and I like talking of mine as people-specific,” he says. “The point is to work with who they are, what they have technically, but then to make them think differently about what they’re doing.” The work started from the idea of collaboration and community, and a loose structure grew from there, creating a sort of frame for the dancers to fill in. Or as Qweschun puts it, “They gave us a skeleton and told us to fill the body, the soul, the mind, the muscles.”

A few days after the Ingersoll rehearsal, in the ballroom at Brooklyn’s BRIC arts and media center — a dark, black-box space — the dancers seem to have found a new focus. Standing in circular configuration like they had done at the earlier rehearsal, they take turns winding in and out of the center, as if pulled by some magnetic force, then transferring that force to another member of the group. Each time two dancers pass each other, even when they never physically touch, there is a sense of conversation, and energy exchanged. Later, the whole group comes together in a sculpture-like configuration — arms creating loops for other arms to weave through, dancers piling one on top of another in carefully-balanced layers, others crouching on the ground to fill in gaps. Almost as soon as a full shape is constructed, someone moves and it begins to change into a new one, never static for long. “The notion of solidarity and support is essential in what they do, but I think also in the world we live in today,” says Linyekula.

At the outdoor performance in Brooklyn, on September 24, that sense of community feels stronger than ever. This time, when the dancers form a circle, the energy seems to pull everyone in the vicinity closer. “We are one unit,” says Klassic, standing in the center, as the dancers begin to clap. “We are together, we can build. And with building, anything is possible.” The dancers stand and continue clapping, slowly joined by most of the audience members. The sound grows louder and soon includes drums, the beat gradually becoming faster and more urgent. Two dancers with quick footwork move almost in unison, waving their arms toward the sky before springing into twin handstands and lingering upside-down for a split second. Another spins wildly in the center, hair and limbs flying, dropping to the ground as a group slowly converges around him. As the dancers move in and out of the circle, kicking the sand at their feet into a whirlwind, they cheer and shout words of encouragement to each other.

The show is a success, but for Linyekula, it’s the process that matters. “It’s not about the performances. To me that’s just one stage,” he says. “If we start shifting our own perception of our practice and our strengths, we can reinvent ourselves.”