March 10, 2010
Stanford dance performance mixes it up, hip hop to classical
By Cynthia Haven
Synergy was blessed by luck: Aleta Hayes and "Double G" met by chance about a year and a half ago at IDEO, a Palo Alto-based design and innovation consultancy where he was speaking, and they clicked.
She was an eminent dancer and choreographer on the Stanford faculty; he was Los Angeles conductor and composer Geoff Gallegos, a founder of the 70-piece daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra.
They had something in common: "Aleta and I share a similar taste in mixing things up," said Double G. "That's the kind of music I like to play."
The enthusiasm was mutual. "I loved the way he was blending his classical background with hip hop. It was brilliant. I thought, 'Wow! Talk about blending worlds!' " said Hayes. "Of course, he has an extremely dynamic personality."
It was exactly the chance to dance that Hayes was looking for. The result of their collaboration, "Chocolate Heads Meets Beatflippers," will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, March 12, at Stanford's Pigott Theater. The performance is free and open to the public.
It marks the official launch of Hayes' group, Chocolate Heads, as well as the debut of the Beatflippers music ensemble that Double G founded during his current stay as visiting artist through the Institute for Diversity in the Arts.
Seeking diversity in talent
Hayes had been looking for ways to attract "diversity of talent without using the word 'race.' " She also had been looking for ways to fuse and juxtapose classical ballet with Jamaican vernacular dance, West African, Aztec, hip hop, jazz or contemporary concert dance. The March 12 show mixes about 10 different dance styles from all over the world.
For Hayes, the effort is part of an ongoing pedagogy to teach the intelligence of the body.
"Different forms have different things to teach us," said Hayes. Each dance has its own history, world and vocabulary of movement.
"It's endless," she said. "Every form is speaking. It's central. It's a way of knowing the world."
Hayes can't speak without using her hands, her feet; "live demos" are part of her conversation. She stands up and strikes a flamenco pose, pointing out that the bottom half of the body is African-influenced with hips and feet in liquid movement, but the top half is immobile, rigid, the expression arrogant. What's up with that? Centuries after the Spanish banished the Moors, they mingle again on the dance floor.
It's not the only time cultures have communicated through dance: Jitterbug, twist and hip hop are all examples of "Africans meeting Europeans." She pointed out that in African dance there's no touching, which was a novelty when it was introduced to postwar America.
"Attitudes, history, lineage they're all the ideas in a body. Mother, teacher, child, student, warrior and peacemaker: We're all carrying that around. If you think about it that way, we're always dancing," she said.
Eventually, Hayes got the diversity she was looking for with football players, engineers, designers, dancers and actors of Latino, Native American, Caribbean, African, Asian and, in one case, mixed Swedish and Japanese ancestry. But the mixing was not easy; as she pointed out, even at Stanford, dancers rarely dance more than one form.
Students comfortable with mixing genres
Double G, as a visiting artist, brought challenges of his own to his Stanford students. "One thing about the iTunes generation they can jump through genres," he said. However, they weren't used to working with live instruments. "This generation is mostly computer-driven and electronically generated."
His task was to teach them "how to interpret music from different traditions and still keep a cohesive voice."
He was starting from scratch. "The first day we were looking at each other we didn't even know each other's names. Pretty cool in two-and-a-half months, we got a band."
He was pleased with the quality of students he attracted, and although he is modest, there's evidence the admiration is mutual. "They keep showing up, so I guess that's good. Nobody's quit or told me what to do with myself. Usually attendance is a good sign there's always a way to get out of something," he said. "Each of them has demonstrated conviction."
However, he admitted his assignments had some distinct advantages over traditional classes: "When your homework is to make a mix CD, that's a good assignment."
Will the Beatflippers continue without him? "They have my blessing if they do," he said.
For the future, Hayes is already cooking with more plans: "Next year, we might be with a string quartet or a laptop orchestra.
"Each time Chocolate Heads could continue to evolve by remixing with different visual and musical elements," she said. "Maybe mix up something I haven't seen before.
"I would love for it to tour and have a philanthropic outreach," said Hayes, noting that some of her high-caliber dancers are developing ways to tackle global problems, such Jamaican student Kimberley McKinson, who is studying sustainable development.
In short, "the kids who are doing this are all going to change the world," said Hayes. "This is a breeding ground for people who are going to change the game, who are going to be thought leaders.
"Is there a way art can do more? You don't expect to ask a dancer about sustainable development. Can we create artist-scholars?"
"Chocolate Heads Meets Beatflippers" is sponsored by the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, the Committee on Black Performing Arts and the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts.