Almost 30 minutes after French hip-hop choreographer Pierre Rigal’s “Standards” was scheduled to begin on Sunday, audience members continued to pour into the Rialto Center for the Arts. The box office, it seemed, was caught unprepared, and Rialto Director Leslie Gordon confirmed this when she apologized for the delay and announced that the show was sold out.
Not that I was complaining. Seeing so many people turn out for a dance concert, albeit a single-performance run, was heartening in a city that brings in far too few non-local dance companies. The swell of enthusiasm may have been bolstered by curiosity: how does French hip-hop measure up to the home-grown Atlanta variety? Rigal’s take on the popular dance form seemed focused on content, and the program note read more like that of a contemporary dance concert: “Through the physical vocabulary of hip-hop,” the artists hoped to “raise paradoxes” and address abstract concepts such as “codes of behavior” and “imaginary territories in which poetics absorb politics.”
But hip-hop, as Rigal’s Compagnie Dernière Minute presented it, is a language too limited to effectively speak about the complexities of national identity and “human assimilation.” All I could glean from the work’s intention is that perhaps Americans — at least those who might write off the French as “mean” or assume they all wear berets — would be surprised to learn of hip-hop’s universal appeal. For most of us, this is not really groundbreaking news, so we are left with familiar references and the difficult task of figuring out what breaking, tutting, popping and locking have to do with French nationalism.
“Standards,” though its intentions were epic, was fraught with limitation. Perhaps in a nod toward hip-hop authenticity, the “dance floor” was much smaller than the stage, just three strips of Marley that constituted a sort of performance area. In a crowded club, this area would be created by the audience as it pushed back to give an impromptu performer space to move. Here, in a theater with most spectators far away from the action, the smaller space just seemed to restrict Rigal’s eight dancers. Even when they used the delineated space as a mini-stage, the movement was repetitive and oddly uncommitted. Over and over, one dancer ran to the center and performed a series of top rock steps, spins, waves or freezes; then he or she slid off the Marley to watch the next dancer from the sideline. But the bravado, the energetic swagger and you-can’t-handle-my-greatness attitude, was missing, and all we were left with was a series of solos that went on so long that even the dancers seemed to get bored.
To its credit, the first half of “Standards” introduced each dancer and provided the viewer with a window into eight distinct movement styles. This sense of “what you do” is important to hip-hop culture, and the dancers’ “specialties” — break, pop, new style, house — were listed in each of their biographies. At times, Rigal used this hallmark of hip-hop dance to create characters the audience could get to know over time. But the dancers moved too tentatively into these roles, and soon the idea was abandoned in favor of a strange diversion into more abstract, content-driven moments.
In a apparent attempt to bridge cultures, low hanging lights displayed the tricolors of the French flag on the floor as the dancers leaned back and mouthed the words to a distorted recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech upside down. The words were clearly not important, as no one seemed to have memorized them; it was almost as if the choreographer hoped the presence of the speech alone would carry the moment into profundity. Unfortunately, a lack of seamless transitions permeated the entire evening, and as a result, the section felt unsupported and empty.
One of the best moments came by surprise after the dancers finally pulled up the Marley tape and broke open the space restrictions. Up until that point (and for most of the evening), the movement was too contained and safe. Great hip-hop dance, even the controlled gestures and tiny, quick steps, is thrillingly explosive, and Rigal’s dancers hadn’t yet delivered those dynamics. Then, one by one, they placed one end of their tape on freestyle hip-hopper Steve Kamseu’s head and the other end to the floor around him, creating a sort of cage. Kamseu commenced a jerky solo of popping and locking that conveyed both power and restriction. For me, the moment felt too short when so many others had felt too long.
Rigal showed, with Kamseu’s solo and later an evocative duet with master head stander Camille Regneault, that hip-hop dance can say more than just “look at how awesome I am.” But sadly, those stirring moments were overshadowed by predictability. Hip-hop, in its many translations and possibilities, can say much more.