One recent afternoon at On the Boards, b-boy MozesLateef slowly and mechanically moved his hands up and down in front of his body, palms out as if he were pressing against a wall. "Move your hands like you're inside of a box," a little girl's voice said over the sound system. "You know, like one of those..." "Mimes?" a woman's voice asked. "Yeah," the girl answered, "a mime."
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Instead of music, the recorded voice of Lateef's 9-year-old daughter Kyana guides him in one section of Opposing Forces, a collaboration between local choreographer Amy O'Neal and five professional b-boys (popularly known as breakdancers): Alfredo "Free" Vergara, Jr., Brysen "Just Be" Angeles, Fever One, Michael O'Neal, Jr. (no relation), and MozesLateef. The recorded conversation stemmed from rehearsal banter among the dancers about how they define b-boying; when O'Neal asked Lateef's daughters—who frequently attend the rehearsals—to participate in the conversation, Kyana's responses were so insightful that O'Neal switched on her phone and began recording. True to the collaborative b-boy spirit, Kyana's opinions were heard, heeded, and are now part of the show. The dancers move to her voice as if guided by an internal stream of music that occasionally matches up with Kyana's suggestions: holding an invisible box or leaning against an invisible wall, "like Michael Jackson does, you know?" The dancers are in an intensely private conversation between Kyana's disembodied voice and their own responses—watching it is eerily voyeuristic, like peering into a family's living-room window while they all dance to the radio.
The productive tension between individual spontaneity and the conversational, social elements of b-boying culture is a key element of Opposing Forces. Breakdancing performances—called "ciphers"—can be planned or impromptu, a battle for domination or a playful exchange, but they're always explosive communications between dancers and spectators that both echo and ignite powerful emotions. B-boy audiences aren't passive—they surround the performers, cheer and jeer, and sometimes step in to dance themselves. The rehearsal I attended was similar: While Lateef practiced a solo under O'Neal's watchful eye, the others playfully improvised around the stage, sometimes flowing with each other's steps and bouncing off one another's movements, anticipating and responding to directional changes and weight shifts. "Play with things that are awkward," O'Neal told Lateef, and his tall figure responded noticeably, changing from more predictable, lackadaisical gestures into a quick series of surprising postures—above the waist, he jerked robotically while his legs rolled smoothly like his joints were made of butter.
"There you go," O'Neal said. Lateef smiled, looking pleased.
B-boying is not new to Seattle, O'Neal is no stranger to hiphop, and On the Boards has seen some breakdancing in the recent past, including Philadelphia-born Rennie Harris and the Brazilian company Grupo de Rua. O'Neal is quick to point out that she didn't simply drop into the b-boy scene to recruit a few dancers but has worked with four of the five dancers for years. "I didn't just randomly find some dudes for this project out of charity," she wrote in an e-mail. "They are all successful and amazing in their own right."
That deep history is evident in the way they relate to each other. O'Neal met Vergara (from the Circle of Fire crew) through an open cipher at the War Room—he later performed in The Lowdown, O'Neal's 2011 piece at the Moore that was part dance show and part dance party. O'Neal and Brysen Angeles found each other during a workshop at the Massive Monkees dance studio. Fever One, a local b-boy legend who's been active in the community since 1982, met O'Neal through dance connections. And she's taught Mike O'Neal on and off for six years. Despite this record of professional collaboration, the first questions O'Neal gets about Opposing Forces tend to be about culture clash. "People assume that these dancers aren't my colleagues but thugs I'll have to control, like 'How are you going to handle those guys?'" she said, rolling her eyes. "I'm aware that this piece brings up a lot of people's own stuff."
O'Neal is used to strong reactions. Her 2012 piece, The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade, sparked intense public discussion about body image, race, and how we perceive our own butts. And her work has always smudged the line between populist and rarefied—incorporating references to zombies and ninjas, Velcro shoes that make zipping sounds like reverse tap dancing, and BMX biker-gangs—to force exploration of the hard questions. In this case: Why does hiphop culture still seem so distant from what we see on mainstream dance stages? Why did it take a white choreographer to bring some of Seattle's most legendary b-boys to one of those stages? And why is there still a perception that breakdancers are somehow less professional or disciplined than ballet or "typical" contemporary dancers? That they have to be "handled" rather than collaborated with?
Everything I saw in the rehearsal studio has its parallels in any world-class ballet company: One dancer repeating a phrase until it met the choreographer's specifications, the others quietly marking steps in the background, a couple of family members watching intently from the sidelines. During one break, Lateef—in black slacks and a pressed white dress shirt—was in a handstand against a wall, doing push-ups with his eyes closed. "Ahh, that feels good," he said, flipping over and righting himself before gliding across the floor to talk to his daughters.