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La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Things are beginning to move

The urban dancers in ‘Rivoluzione e Nostalgia’

Eline Hadermann
Reading time
5 min.

Friday morning, a rehearsal for Rivoluzione e Nostalgia in La Monnaie’s Malibran Room. To the tones of the chorus ‘Viva Italia’ from Verdi’s La battaglia di Legano, nine young dancers appear one by one in front of a barricade. Freestyling, they immediately inject a shot of Brussels street culture into the scene. The crossover is as smooth as it is jarring, as opera and urban dance each breathe to their own rhythm. A report on a ‘clash of cultures’ that doesn’t have to be one.

Get krumped

In this Verdi diptych, the nine krumping, house, hip-hop, break and Afro dancers embody the revolutionary spirit of the protagonists. Their choreographies, developed by Michiel Vandevelde, were inspired by twenty-four hand gestures that are common at gatherings of activist groups today. Yet the dancers primarily let their own personal style speak, for it too is rooted in historical countermovements.

© Simon Van Rompay

Krumping, for example, originated in the wake of the Rodney King riots in 1992. Tommy Johnson, the spiritual father of this dance style, was looking for a way for the young people of South Central LA to vent lingering frustrations. He was asked to entertain a birthday party as a dancing clown, and the rest is history: his troupe of hip-hop clowns grew into the organized dance movement clowning, in which a mix of breakdance, jazz, hip-hop and tribal dance provide an outlet for young people grappling with life. ‘After a while, krumping split off from clowning’, explains Siham Ennajjary (22): ‘Krump movements are a bit more jerky, a bit faster, more energetic. The word “krump” stands for “Kingdom Radically Uplifted Mighty Praise”, a reference to the spiritual nature of this dance form. It is an energy, something that comes directly from your emotions, however deep and dark they may be.’

The revolutionary nature of urban dance styles lies precisely in that ultimate form of self-expression they allow, says hip-hop dancer and choreographer Justine Theizen (26): ‘Hip-hop is a style that comes from an oppressed minority group. When I came into contact with it, I realized that I felt much safer expressing my gender identity. It was suddenly “okay” for a girl to wear trainers and a baggy T-shirt and move vigorously. So the original protest character of hip-hop became intersectional: with my dance I represent the subgroup from which hip-hop emerged; at the same time, it embodies my struggle for queer representation in the Belgian dance scene. I am hip-hop in all its facets, and I try to get a message across with it.’

Clash of two worlds?

That message now resonates in an opera performance on revolutions and their viability. Only now, the urban dancers at La Monnaie are not working to loud beats, but to Giuseppe Verdi’s early opera music. Sparks are flying, says 19-year-old Leano Ali-Hamed: ‘Quite honestly, I didn’t really see it at first. How could these two cultures, so drastically different, fit together? Not only our worlds, but our styles too are so divergent. We are used to responding to music structured around beats. Verdi’s, however, is built up around rising intensity; everything fluctuates in it. Looking for rhythmic movements within that intensity sometimes feels strange.’ According to Afro kuduro dancer Lippeur Menda (24), the difference between the styles lies mainly in the lack of an audible architecture: ‘In opera, you don't hear a boom-clap like in the hip-hop I dance street shows to. Basically, for us it comes down to forgetting our dance codes for a while, so we can adapt to the ever-changing music.’

‘It’s never the same’, Justine agrees. ‘An opera singer will perform the same piece differently each time: sometimes the accompaniment will be a bit slower, sometimes the singer will add a touch of ornamentation. Finding structure in opera arias isn’t obvious, but it is a challenge worth taking on. I feel I am developing a new way of listening, one where I literally study the performer in order to follow the music. That is very instructive.’ The meeting between opera and hip-hop freestyling does yield some hilarious scenes, says breakdancer Rateb Syassi (27): ‘When we mirror a character and improvise on his or her singing, we sometimes burst out laughing – the contrast can just be very funny. Like in our dance battles, we then hype each other up so we don’t lose confidence and hold onto the “crazy” side of our styles. That brings us closer together as a group.’

At the same time, the direct and emotional nature of Verdi’s scores is fully in line with the dancers’ movement vocabulary. Hip-hop and krump dancer Victoria Pallen (20) says she was ‘blown away’ when she first heard the La Monnaie Chorus sing live: ‘You can’t listen to this music and not feel anything. We also need that deep-seated emotion to do what we need to do, which is to release highly personal feelings in dance movements.’
‘And have you listened closely to the lyrics?’, Rateb asks. ‘The singers are really telling a story. It is only when I understood the texts that the music really touched me.’

From Place de La Monnaie to Théâtre de La Monnaie

Not only the music, but also the machine behind the opera house was a real discovery for the dancers. Rateb: ‘There is a big, hierarchical structure behind the making of an opera performance. That is something unusual for independent dancers like us, but it is not necessarily a bad thing either: I think it can help us to professionalize our dance styles, which to this day aren’t really recognized by art institutions.’ And that is necessary, according to Siham: ‘Even in the commercial sector, krump is still looked down upon – it is often seen as too aggressive. That I can now perform that style on the stage of La Monnaie is an achievement. It’s like winning a fight for my community.’

URBAN DANCE IN THE PERFORMING ARTS

In 2020 Charlotte De Somviele spoke to Yassin Mrabtifi, Samir Bakhat and Abdelazziz Sarrokh, three pioneers of the urban dance scene in Flanders. Although both hugely popular and ubiquitous, urban dance styles still lack artistic recognition and structural support. ‘The opportunities we get shouldn’t be fake’, they say.
Read the article here.

But they will never renounce the freedom that is so important to their dance styles. In that respect, an opera company could also learn something from the directness with which urban dancers convey pure, unrestrained emotion, and from the way their freestyle work ethic produces instant creations. Siham: ‘Whereas in the traditional opera world it might be usual to fall back on a rather rigid role pattern, now the main focus was on how we as individuals could contribute to the production. We didn’t suddenly have to act differently, or perform a predetermined function. We were given the freedom to make suggestions; it felt more like an exchange; we weren’t just there as dancers or extras. That artistic recognition goes against a trend in the traditional performing arts where makers often only rely on contemporary dance to create hybrid performances or call on extras to fashion an image of cultural diversity.’

‘Of course a lot of urban dance styles and by extension other art forms are still waiting to be represented on stage. But the fact that we have now united our worlds on the basis of mutual trust provides great opportunities to build on, and move up into an (art) world that will become accessible to all’, concludes Lippeur. ‘I started my dance career as a street dancer in the streets of Brussels. One of my favourite places? Place de la Monnaie, where I would dance with my cap at my feet to collect a few coins. The huge theatre at my back embodied a world to which I had no access. I never imagined that a few years later I would be dancing not in front of, but on the stage of the Théâtre de La Monnaie and that audiences would come to see my art there. Things are beginning to move.’