Arthur Gardner, a.k.a. Dopey Fresh, spends many mornings trying to rouse BART commuters out of an iPhone-induced stupor.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!” he calls out to the crowd on board the San Francisco-bound train. “We got a wonderful dance show for you guys.”
Dopey, as his friends call him for short, flips on some music and starts gliding across the train. Another dancer, Intricate, takes over, contorting his arms into impossible twists. Then comes Krow. He folds his right foot behind his neck, grabs the handle bars overhead, and flips.
“Ohhhh, ouch,” says Dopey, making faces at the train passengers, who are now awake and smiling. “Please do not try this at home!”
When dancer and choreographer My-Linh Le saw these turf dancing moves on the train, she noticed echoes of ballet. Le has studied both dance forms, and she says the similarities between the street dance developed in Oakland and the well-established classical form amaze her — the gracefulness, the technicality.
Le started talking to the turfers from Bart about a collaboration. She wanted to take them off the train and put them on stage, with ballet dancers she recruited from the Alonzo King Lines School, the educational wing of one of the Bay Area’s most prominent classical dance organizations.
“If these dancers from the conservatory world of ballet could somehow have so much movement-wise in common with these other guys who have never really stepped foot in conservatory or a studio, then I think that says a lot about our human nature,” says Le.
Other street artists have explored the similarities with ballet. The Oakland street dance crew, the Turffeinz, paired up with the Oakland Ballet in 2014. Los Angeles-based street dancer Lil’ Buck created a widely-acclaimed interpretation of “The Dying Swan,” accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma on solo cello, which he eventually performed at the Vail International Dance Festival.
Le scored a spot for her group to perform in this year’s D.I.R.T. – Dance in Revolt(ing) Times festival, a two-week event dedicated to political dance, at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco.
But the creative process turned out to be more difficult than anyone anticipated.
Le’s first obstacle: she had a hard time getting the turfers to show up for rehearsal. Le didn’t have money to pay them. The turfers said that the hours they would spend rehearsing for free, they could be making money dancing on BART.
“We’re just good kids with good hearts, doing this for the love of dance,” Dopey tells his audiences on the train. “But they say the best nation is..?” “A do-nation!” the dancers answer back.
Most days, the turfers take home between $100 and $200 each. That’s a lot of money for these guys to turn down.
“I work at Jamba Juice and I go to community college at Laney,” says Hector Alexander Ascencio, a.k.a. Intricate. “It’s kind of a struggle right now, I’m not even gonna to lie. A lot of turfers, lot of dancers out here, come from the struggle. Bay Area’s known for a lot of struggling.”
Le tried looking for grants. But to her, the world of institutional fundraising seemed reserved for established choreographers in established dance forms. She saw big ballet companies getting money, but she says there wasn’t much for young artists trying to break into the dance scene.
“It’s like a club,” Le says. “To get admission to this club you have to prove yourself as an artist, and to prove yourself as an artist, you need money. It’s just oriented towards anybody who already has money or support.”
So Le started a crowdfunding campaign to get her project off the ground and managed to achieve her goal of $10,000. She used the funds primarily to pay for the dancers’ time.
But the money turned out to be just the first hurdle. Once the ballerinas and turfers got into the studio together, cultures clashed.
“Even the first rehearsal was very eye opening,” says ballet dancer Tatiana Barber, who was surprised by the turfers’ freestyle warm up. “In ballet class, you have strict technique. You start with plies and detendus,” she says, referencing the series of knee-bends and stretches ballet dancers do at the barre. “It’s always the same.”
When the ballet dancers and turfers tried to choreograph steps together, things quickly got complicated.
“Wooo! The language,” says turf dancer Algerion Bryant, a.k.a. Krow. “The way they set their stuff up and the way we set our stuff up is completely different.”
“For ballet, vocabulary is very structured and we have very set timing and beats and counting,” says ballerina Christine Beggs, “For turfers, they don’t really have set names for things. They really actually can’t articulate a lot of it very well, because it’s like a feeling or something, you just gotta feel it. I’m like, I look ridiculous.”
Krow compares the differences to painting.
“See somebody color inside the lines, you got this person did the same thing, but they color outside the lines,” Krow says. “You have the one with rules and boundaries and the one without rules and boundaries.”
Rehearsals became chaotic as a result of the creative differences. So Le had to split the two camps up for a while. The ballet dancers met on Mondays, and the turfers on Saturdays.
But Le says when she threw the choreography out the window and just had the dancers improv together, the results were magical.
“It left everyone in shock,” Le says. “They just had moments where they suddenly thought the same thing and did the same thing at the same time. And it was crazy because you know that could only happen when two people are so in tune with each other and listening so hard that they could be thinking the same thing.”
By the time the festival comes around, the dancers will have a 17-minute piece — a mix of solos and ensemble dances, both improvised and choreographed, set to music from The Federation, Nina Simone, and spoken word from Kendrick Lamar.
In one section, Le wants to explore the concept of misunderstanding. She sat in a circle with the dancers at a recent rehearsal to explain.
“I wanted to use the Ugly Duckling, which I think a lot of people misinterpret as a story about transformation,” Le says. “It’s kinda funny because the Duckling didn’t suddenly transform into a swan, he was actually always a swan. So it was actually a story about misperception.”
It’s the same with turfing, Le says. Street dance has always been as artful as ballet.
“By putting turfing in a theater or on a stage where the audience has to sit there and really look at it, turfing doesn’t change,” Le says. “What happens instead is the audience’s perception changes.”
The dancers perform Jan. 30 and 31 as part of the D.I.R.T. Festival at the Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco.
UPDATE: Watch a video about this collaboration by KQED’s Kelly Whalen, including clips from the sold-out performance.