A French film crew nearly took me out after Ballerina Who Loves a B-Boy -- a title that surely says it all â- lunging to get a microphone in front of my friend Chaney. Because he's black and it isn't much of a stretch to guess "dancer" by looking at him, the post-show interviewers were hoping to get some sort of soundbite worthy material about the international, mainstream appropriation of Black American culture. From the way they phrased their questions, it was clear they dearly hopedfor anger or indignation. But without looking up from the text message he was sending, Chaney explained quite unemotionally that the Korean dancers in the show displayed a high level of technical excellence in break dancing, but they lacked an understanding of all other aspects of the New York underground scene they re-imagined here.
He's right: there is absolutely nothing about this show that is historically or culturally accurate in any way. This is pure off Broadway theatre: a show imported from Seoul, Korea, about a New York ballerina who falls in love with one of the B-Boys dancing on the street outside her studio. According to the set, this takes place on Fifth Ave by Washington Square Park in a world where B-Boys below 14th Street wear L.A. Lakers and Chicago Bulls Jerseys.
Rather than a true attempt at New York, we're the show projects us into Somewhere Urban, USA, and it's worth a quick mind sketch to remember how we got here: Black and Katino youth street culture from the 80s is exported to Korea on MTV, where dance moves are learned and perfected by a new generation in Seoul. With "attitude" appropriated and fashion attempted, it's then all wrapped up neat and tidy and sent back to a New York stage, nicely sanitized for the whole family to enjoy. Gotta love that globalization.
To be honest, going into this performance I knew it was going to be, at
best, a good show the way You Got Served is a good movie: bad acting,
basic plot, corny humor, and whatever other tactics it takes to get
from hip-hop dance number to dance number, with a dance-off or two
thrown in if you're lucky. The show was built as an exhibition for the
Korean national champions of B-Boying: the Extreme Crew, who should
be fired as the namers of anything, ever. Granted, Extreme Crew
probably sounds cool and exotic in Korea, where there isn't much
English spoken (though I refuse to excuse the show's title), and they
are pretty extreme: 20 second one handed handstands, kicks, tricks,
spins, headstands, this crazy one handed wrist stand where the dancer
hopped on his wrist from front to back, back bends and stacked balances
with multiple dancers.
What I didn't expect beforehand was how utterly pathetic every single female dancer was going to be. They might as well have been wearing baby-Ts that read "filler." Creator/director Choi Hee-ill couldn't have made worse choices for B-girls if he went to the beginning hip-hop dance class at Broadway Dance Center and chose at random. The ballet numbers were a non-issue. Clearly the ballerinas had been trained, or had at least been taking classes for a few years, but there was nothing really happening beyond the basics. In fact, even when the Extreme Crew attempted moves outside of break dancing and tricks, for example a mediocre pop-locking number or an interpretive dream sequence, it didn't work.
Even though Ballerina Who Loves a B-Boy is pretty bad, occasionally to the point where it becomes embarrassing to watch, there is something about lightly scripted Korean hip-hop dance theatre that works instantly as a mood elevator. I've never felt myself so quickly and totally induced into a happy, hypnotized state, as during the opening number of this show when the exceptionally talented acrobatic dancers came out and executed the impossible. My advice, however, is to skip the trek to Hell's Kitchen and check out some clips on YouTube instead. A dedicated French fan (perhaps our interviewer?) posted a pretty comprehensive montage. Just make sure you watch it on mute.
Ballerina Who Loves A B-Boy is now playing at 37 Arts
Closes December 21