Dr. Mary Fogarty and Sky Fairchild-Waller talk “Urban Dance”

With Tina Rasmussen at the helm, Toronto’s elite vessel of international contemporary performance just got a bit more international; critically acclaimed Compagnie Käfig’s Agwa/Correria brings French and Brazilian champions of urban dance together under the direction of hip hop prodigy Mourad Merzouki to Toronto from May 2-5, presented as a part of World Stage 2012.

In preparation for Compagnie Käfig’s arrival, and with the subject of urban dance on the tip of the zeitgeist’s tongue, we asked Dr. Mary Fogarty, Assistant Professor of ethnography and breaking technique in the Department of Dance at York University to sit down and chat.

SFW: “Urban Dance” – there are Hollywood features highlighting the subject, prime-time TV shows showcasing the best there is, and an ever growing interest in a dance form that happens almost everywhere, all of the time. What brought you to the field in general, and to this specialization in particular?

MF: When I began undertaking academic projects about breaking almost ten years ago, people wondered why I seemed obsessed with a fad dance style that they thought had died in 1985. There was a huge gap in knowledge between the general public and those that specialized in the dance style that I had been exposed to through my own practice as a dancer. In many ways, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right
 time, and knew that breaking was more than a trend; it was a culture. It was an art form. Some of the first crews I saw live were Intrikit, Bag of Trix, Boogie
 Brats, Supernaturalz, and Albino Zebrahs (although that wasn’t their name quite yet). The intricate and original footwork that dancers like Megas (“Vengeance”) of the Boogie Brats developed was some of the
 most interesting dancing I had ever seen. Megas called his style “Origami” – one day, I imagine, students in dance departments will study this movement.

“Urban Dance” is a strange category that seems to serve the same umbrella purpose that “breakdancing” did in the early 1980s. It often obscures, more than it defines, what is happening in dance right now, with so many diverse dance styles fitting under one label.

SFW: Even with urban dance’s ubiquity, or perhaps simply because of it, there seems to be a disproportionate framework of support—from the majority of arts councils and presenting bodies, to academic institutions, etc.—recognizing the relevance, importance, and legitimacy of this art form. What gives?

MF: B-boy crews from Toronto in the 1990s like Intrikit applied for arts funding but were denied and told that their dancing wasn’t an art form like ballet. That was an unfortunate moment for Canadian dance because at that time we had really innovative dancers who were getting recognized in the underground movement of hip hop culture worldwide.

Without support, in some ways, Canada has had to play catch-up to developments in other countries. In France, for example, a few key social workers and theatre directors helped support the transition of street dancers to theatrical stages, and right now they can boast some of the best hip hop dance companies across the globe. In the UK, Breakin’ Convention is the single largest hip hop theatre festival in the world, hosted at Sadler’s Wells in London, and UK crews have made the transition to theatrical performances and developed their stage shows to an exceptionally high degree. Both of those countries had key risk takers who saw something new and took a chance by supporting the form.

I’m of the belief that in order to recognize breaking as a legitimate art form, we have to educate the general public on the value of dancing battles (competitions) and cyphers (where dancers share with each other taking turns in a circle). Those avenues are key to the development of dancers’ skills, and without those forums, theatrical shows incorporating breaking won’t be at the same technical and innovative level. That would mean challenging what arts councils choose to support beyond the stage, so that our theatrical shows benefit from this broader scope.

SFW: How would you respond to the assertion that urban dance has been ‘ghettoized’?

MF: Broadly speaking, dance is an art form that has been ghettoized academically, artistically, and culturally, for a long time. Those that practice b-boying/b-girling, locking, popping, waacking, voguing, house and new style dance in Canada are in a good position in that they can often find commercial work, or work as teachers, without requiring 
the same accreditation as dancers of other styles. In many ways, these dance styles can facilitate the development of original movement vocabularies; many of these dancers would make excellent choreographers. There’s also a lot to be gained culturally as one’s crew can become a family that offers emotional support. But ultimately, to avoid ghettoizing categories, crews will need to transition from crew to cast, and this will require a recognized valuing of the support workers that make theatrical dance possible.

 SFW: Around the same time that Compagnie Käfig presents Agwa/Correria at World Stage 2012, you’ll also begin teaching a course at York University titled “North American Dance Cultures” wherein you’ll be teaching breaking technique. From what I understand, offering an undergraduate-level course that features this type of content is somewhat groundbreaking; how did you do it?!

MF: “North American Dance Cultures” is the name of a course that was previously designed by the Department of Dance at York University, and the summer course I’m offering is under that title but will be called “The Art of Breaking” in future years. I’m not highlighting the “Art” so much as directing students to the fact that this will be a studio class in the fundamentals of breaking. I offered a similar course in the UK, at the University of East London, for two years before I moved back to Canada, and that was a pioneering core curriculum course; to my knowledge, this was the first course of its kind where students battled for their final performance and were assessed on their musical competence (recognizing and naming instrumental break beats), originality (creating “sets”) and teamwork (in assigned crew competitions). I developed that course with my co-instructor, Kevin “DJ Renegade” Gopie, who is one of the most important international DJs for street dance competitions, and the coach of the national b-boy champs in the UK, the Soul Mavericks.

I met Kevin while I was completing my PhD on the history of b-boy/b-girl culture worldwide, and kept running into him at international events in Germany, France, and the UK. A lot of the experiences we share with students come from our privileged perspectives, having been fortunate to see the dance form practiced in many different countries over the years.

I am also fortunate to have joined York University’s Department of Dance which has some of the best dance educators in the country, and this summer course is only the beginning of their initiative to embrace and help nurture contemporary world dance styles. York has always emphasized their interest in the art of dance, challenging students to take risks and expand their understanding of dance beyond the studio. This course fits well with that legacy, and so I’ll be modifying the course I taught in the UK, challenging students to fuse styles, and infuse their own cultural heritage, even as they learn foundations. Canadian street dancers have always brought their own influences to breaking and other forms, and that’s what has made us stand out. Toronto b-boys are internationally known for developing original styles that evolved out of the other hip hop dances that they were doing locally. I want to honour that history.

SFW: For readers who may not have picked-up their tickets for Agwa/Correria just yet, what might you say as a viewer about the presentation of urban dance in a concert setting? What can we look forward to?

MF: I saw Compagnie Käfig in Toronto the last time they visited from France in 2004, and it’s exciting that they’re building cross-cultural exchanges through this collaboration with Brazilian dancers. This fusion will, no doubt, result in a show that is admired for it’s virtuoso, athletic, and stunning dance movements.

Agwa/Correria addresses one of the most important and politicized issues of our time: the supply of clean water internationally. I think the political message about the ownership of water is worthy of meditation, and sometimes, sitting in a dark theatre watching dance performances onstage can facilitate exactly the kind of contemplation we need.

Sky Fairchild-Waller is a Toronto-based performance and video artist whose work has been presented in Canada, the US, Italy, and Switzerland. He currently serves as the Artistic Director Intern for Performing Arts at Harbourfront Centre.