The Hybrid Lab: Conversations in Merging Dance Cultures

I curated an evening of performance and conversation in Los Angeles called The Hybrid Lab: Conversations in Merging Dance Cultures. The performance happened on Friday September 27th at The Vortex near the arts district in DTLA. The night was part of a week long series of events produced by Los Angeles Performance Practices called “Word of Mouth”. The series took the place of the LAX Festival that they normally produce every year in early Fall. I invited artists who center hip hop and house dance in their practices and creations, but also have other forms of dance training and experience in their body. Tom Tsai showed a new breaking/contemporary solo work that addresses the complex relationship between Taiwan and China. Stephen and Aisha showed a structured freestyle duet to music by Chance The Rapper and invited us to deal with their form of being unapologetically black. Alex Almaraz and Jesse Smith from SyntheSoul, a newly formed house dance crew, both have contemporary dance and other forms of training, and are merging their dance experiences into a unique vibe that honors house dance culture. I showed a piece that I developed with Ardyn Flynt and Satori Folkes-Stone during their senior year at USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance where I am on faculty. The piece is called “A Trio” and is an homage to house dance and merges complex choreographic patterns and concepts with freestyle artistry to celebrate the sacred feminine.

After the show, d. Sabela Grimes and I co-facilitated a conversation with the audience. Everyone who came to the show stayed and were fully engaged with us and continued to hang to have one on one conversations. This gave me confirmation that spaces to bring these kinds of artists together to have conversations about what it means to be both humanly and artistically multi cultural, are very much needed. Like most humans, I feel the most at peace when I can embody my full experience and I am passionate about creating space for others to do the same. A space where hip hop and street dance practices can be in dialogue with other forms in a mindful, experimental, and compassionate way that is not just about entertainment is most definitely needed in a city like Los Angeles and this night felt like it is the beginning of something that I hope can grow.

One of the many reasons that I moved to Los Angeles after 20 years of living and working as a dance artist in Seattle, is to be around multiple dance cultures that are diverse in origin, identity, and values. We have the commercial industry in conversation with the concert dance world. We have the experimental performance world in conversation with the street dance world. We have the contemporary dance community and house community sampling from everything else. We have various forms of dance fusion popping up all over social media, on tv shows, in the theaters, and in music videos. The norm it seems in 2019 is fusion. Merging ideas and forms is the nature of evolution, always has been, and there is no way that will stop, nor should it. However, as artist citizens, how can we be more mindful in an effort to not erase the people and cultures that we are sampling from in the name of innovation?

As an artist who self identifies as hybrid, I wanted to bring people together to share work and to engage the audience around these ideas. I identify as part hip hop, part house, and part contemporary dance, but there are so many forms and ideas and aesthetics that go into each of those cultures. I am a white cis woman who feels the most at home in my skin when I can embody my multidimesional experience as a human artist, but where are the lines between authentic cultural experience and cultural identity theft?

In 2012, I made an evening length solo called “The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade” where I explored the sampling nature of creativity, the difference between having power over others and being empowered, and dissected my influences while starting to interrogate my relationship to black culture as a white American woman. I looked at the ass as a cultural phenomenon in dance and in our society. I poked fun at the generic words we use to sell art. I asked “Are we damned for selling ourselves in a culture where we are expected to?” I paid homage to all the people in my life who have made me who I am, both who I have had direct contact in my life, and those whose art has inspired me. During the process of that work, I purposefully did not read any books about structural racism or feminism because I wanted to see what I could learn simply by googling questions I had. I presented my findings in the performance as a structured lecture demonstration. Each section of the piece was labeled as an exhibit, ie Exhibit A: The Sample, Exhibit B: The Imitator, Exhibit C: The Booty Dance, Exhibit D: The Mash Up, Exhibit E: The Chair Dance, Exhibit F: The Remix, Exhibit G: The Homage. Through this process, I learned how much disinformation there is on the internet, how little the general public knows or cares to know about feminism or structural racism, and how most artists truly do, for the most part, have good intentions when it comes to being creative, there is just a deep lack of education about cultural exchange and respect.

What I am discovering in my 20 years of being a professional dance artist and from making the choice to fully participate in hip hop and street dance culture after years of creating contemporary dance work inspired by hip hop, is that it is possible to create true cultural exchange and empathy when we allow ourselves to step out of our comfort zone and learn to see people for who they are and how they are different from us. To get to this place takes work and a willingness to look at yourself and see past your own cultural lens. When we acknowledge our different experiences as humans, it is a much more organic path to trusting where we are the same. I feel deeply humbled and honored that I get to do this work through dance and know there is still so much more work to do.

Amy O'Neal