Would the 21 dancers of Flexn, directed by Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray and Peter Sellars, object to their movement styles being described as break-dancing hiked to another level? Surely, what they're engaged in doing throughout their Park Avenue Armory show, which ends April 4, wouldn't have evolved had break-dancing preceded it.
Perhaps they wouldn't mind their approach to kinetics described as the apotheosis of dancing associated with the sort of hip-hop music that brashly incorporates obscenities and myriad inclusions of the epithet "nigger." The admirable element added to Flexn is that its representatives are dancing about what know. They're reflecting the rough street culture amid which they presumably grew up.
The hallmarks of Flexn (referring to Flex N Brooklyn, the 1990s cable access show that featured it) are fast and fancy footwork echoing Michael Jackson's moonwalking as joined with constant arm contortions. More often not, it's the arms, often extended backward and snaking around each other, that provide the most typical Flexn effects. A third signal part of Flexn is the adroit manipulation by an individual dancer of one or two baseball caps.
Perhaps an even more potent Flexn index is the determined aim to illustrate emotional states. The intention decidedly contrasts with break-dancing, which has always been a showcase for physical dexterity, for derring-do--more a challenge for participants, a can-you-top-this contest.
So how does this Flexn "world premiere" work out as presented in the Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall where the dancers perform on a long raised stage facing an audience seated in bleachers? But wait: I'm obliged to precede my remarks by quoting from a program stipulation: "The dancers are freestyling--improvising and creating their own moves in the moment of every performance, every night. No two performances of Flexn will ever be the same."
Therefore, what I'm commenting on could have little or nothing to do with what previous audiences have experienced or future audiences will encounter. Okay, a basic presentation of the style will, obviously, be the same.
The night I was there, I was most moved by a dance accompanying the Boyz II Man "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." The sequence focused on one man's reaction to an apparent death as part of an earlier action. On vivid display was palpable grief.
I was also affected by the penultimate number where 20 of the dancers were isolated in adjacent blocks of rectangular light by designer Ben Zamora. By turns and with one exception, each dancer jittered alone. The unmissable point was that the solitary confinement too frequently imposed on jailed young men and women is cruel and unusual punishment. It has its destructive effects. (Photographs from Richard Ross's "In Justice" series, showing men in solitary confinement, is displayed on a high screen at the south end of the Armory's first-floor corridor.)
It was in those two segments that the heights to which Flexn can reach were indeed reached --whereas too much else in the 90-minute program fell short of the mark. Many of the routines either began or included references to street fights -- young men pushing each other provocatively to see what the reactions would be. Occasionally, mimed guns claimed victims. Much of the time the reactions during these interludes were Flexn arms and hands play that eventually registered as merely repetitive.
Certainly, the Flexn dancers have sharpened their skills. Some of the arm- and hand-bending does look as if either no bones exist under the flesh or the bones there are broken or breaking. Yet, there is the suggestion that even more training might be beneficial. Despite the program note, there are several unison routines not unlike the sorts of thing that, for one, Michael Peters choreographed more fluidly for videos featuring Michael Jackson and others.
Incidentally, the Flexn members, who have formed an exemplary community, aren't the only ones who've shaped something new from break-dancing. Also getting attention nowadays is Jookin, where the footwork is highlighted and, as a possible point of interest, much more polished so far than the Flexn technique. On the other hand, with Jookin little is made of the arms, and again the purpose is fostering competition rather than probing emotions through dance.
For the record, the Flexn dancers respond to music by, among others (and overseen by Eric B): Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5, Eminem, Transcendence, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Delilah. They're Franklin Ace Dawes, Martina Android Heimann, James Banks Davis, Sean Brixx Douglas, Calvin Cal Hunt, Deidra Dayntee Braz, Andre Dre Don Redman, Rafael Droid Burgos, Jerrod Droopz Ulysse, Quamaine Karnage Daniels, Joseph Klassic Carella, Nicholas Nicc Fatal Barbot, Ayinde Nyte Hart, Sabrina Pumpkin Rivera, Sam Sam I Am Estavien, Dwight Scorp Waugh, Shelby Shellz Felton, Derick Slicc Murreld, Glendon Tyme Charles, Khio Vypa Duncan and Richard YG Hudson.
Flexn is preceded nightly by "Race and the City," a panel discussion on related issues moderated by Sellars. As far as I remember, this is a first for a Park Avenue Armory booking. As far as I recall, there were no panels accompanying Paul McCarthy's "WS" show mooting the distinction(s) between art and pornography. As far as I've heard, the Park Avenue Armory administration hasn't indicated that supplementary panels are now establishment policy.