Since the founding of Washington, it has been tres facile to sense the French influence in the circles, grids and diagonals bequeathed by Pierre L’Enfant, and in recent years, it seems no office is more than steps away from a French (or French-named) place to buy a croissant.
You’d think Sylvain Cornevaux, cultural director of the Alliance Francaise, would consider his mission accomplished now that it’s so easy to pick up baguettes in our French-formatted city. He doesn’t.
“The bread, the architecture — these things are French, and these things are very nice, but they are also very old,” Cornevaux said. And so this month, in an effort to connect the District’s streets with the New France, he has organized a festival of French hip-hop dance.
Oui. French hip-hop dance. Does that sound oxymoronic? Au contraire, Cornevaux explains. Given the influx of immigrants from former French colonies and the general French fascination with urban American life, hip-hop culture caught on in France but quickly merged with higher-brow art. The result is choreography that’s now being exported back to the United States. And thus we have “Urban Corps: A Transatlantic Hip-Hop Festival,” which continues through Friday, May 25, at venues in Arlington County and the District.
“It is very interesting, because hip-hop was born in the U.S. but it has quickly developed in another way in France,” Cornevaux said. “Hip-hop was still an emerging artistic field in the beginning of the ’80s, but at the beginning of the ’90s, many hip-hop artists started working a lot with classical choreographers and with artistic directors of theaters. [Dancers] kept their hip-hop skills but transformed to show them in a contemporary manner. They incorporate hip-hop, mime and Capoeira,” a Brazilian blend of athletic dance and martial arts.
The Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting French language and culture, worked hard to obtain visas for 13 dancers affiliated with four French companies, and each troupe received funding from its home town or region to cover travel. The city of Nantes even paid to ship extensive sets for KLP Company’s show “Tour of Duty” to that Atlas Performing Arts Center.
“Tour of Duty” may sound like a show inspired by military battles or war video games, but according to press materials and the company’s Web site, it’s actually a narrative tracing the history of hip-hop in Brooklyn, beginning in 1960, and recounting years of gang wars and communities coming together.
Junious Brickhouse, founder of the District-based hip-hop collective Urban Artistry, is a bit skeptical about the storyline — Brooklyn? What about the South Bronx? — but suspects that the dancing will be on target. “I’ll be honest. I think there are some things that get lost in translation,” Brickhouse said, “but at the end of the day, I just want to get down with some nonverbal art.”
He’ll speak Monday on a panel organized by the Alliance and dance at Friday’s “Battle of the Dance Crews” at Artisphere. Brickhouse said he has been following the French scene since 1997, when he moved to Europe to take a military job. He was surprised to discover that even though “old-school” hip-hop was passé in the United States, break dancing was still popular in Paris.
“They were like: ‘We kept on dancing. We never stopped,’ ” Brickhouse recalls. “And what’s a testament to that is how good they are. They are really are amazing.”
Since 2002, Brickhouse has been taking dancers to Paris to compete in Juste Debout, a massive week-long competition held at a soccer stadium. Last year, two Urban Artistry dancers became the first Americans to win the “two-on-two” house dance category. Cornevaux had originally proposed that a competition be part of the Urban Corps festival; Brickhouse said no.
“I didn’t think the whole France versus D.C. thing was a good idea. We get enough of that here already,” he said, not wanting to drag dance down to the level of a Freedom Fries squabble. Instead, the troupes will perform together in a cypher, a dance circle, and take turns offering freestyle solos. This does more than bridge cultures, Brickhouse says, it puts two worlds of dancing onstage.
In the United States, freestyle hip-hop crews don’t always have dialogue with companies that perform set choreography in theaters. That’s not true in France, and one major factor, Brickhouse says, is public arts funding.
“Here in the States, we just had clubs, so that’s were we got down, but France has a minister of culture,” Brickhouse said, laughing. “They didn’t just do freestyle. They ended up doing theater performances and really awesome shows.”
France has 18 national choreography centers, half of which offer hip-hop classes and residencies, Cornevaux said. Several of the French artists coming to the District for Urban Corps have taken advantage of those centers, including Aurelien Kairo, a dancer who will be performing “N,” solo hip-hop show at Dance Place.
“N” is a solo hip-hop show about Friederich Nietzsche and the last few years of life that the Swiss-German philosopher spent confined to a wheelchair. Speaking by phone recently, with Cornevaux helping to translate, Kairo described the work as metaphorical, adding that hip-hop provides him with freedom of expression, just as Nietzche’s mind was able to float freely in the clouds when he spent time thinking and writing about dancing.
Hmm. You could say that hip-hop has come a long way from the days of Mr. Wiggles doing the Caterpillar, or you could say that sounds ridiculously pretentious. The goal of Urban Corps is to prove that the state of international hip-hop falls somewhere in the middle. As Cornevaux says, he’s holding a dance festival because there will be no words to get in the way of cultural dialogue.
Par-Alleles Company’s “The Three Wise Monkeys”: 6 p.m. Sunday, May 20 at Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Free. Inspired by three urban arts — hip-hop, Capoeira and acrobatics.
Conference: “Old Schools: The Birth of Hip-Hop Culture in the U.S. and France.” 6 p.m. May 21 at Busboys and Poets, Fifth and K streets NW. $5 donation. Panelists are Alain-Phillipe Durand, professor of U.S. and French hip-hop cultures at the University of Arizona, and Junious Brickhouse, director of Urban Artistry.
De Fakto Company’s “N”: 8 p.m. May 23 at Dance Place. $20. Kids $10. Choreographer Aurélien Kairo presents the dance fantasies of Nietzche, confined to a wheelchair at the end of his life.
KLP Company’s “Tour of Duty”: 8 p.m. May 24 at Atlas Performing Arts Center. $23. Friends in Brooklyn reminisce about the birth of hip-hop.
Hip-hop “battle”: 9 p.m. May 25 at Artisphere. $5. Urban Corps performers, Urban Artistry and DCypher Dance offer a cross-cultural take on dance-crew battles. Open dance floor afterward with DJ Baronhawk.
For reservations, visit francedc.org.