Two years ago, Amy O’Neal mounted her solo show The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See this Decade, a thrilling and pointed exploration of feminism, sexuality and power in pop culture. Since then, the dancer/choreographer has collaborated on music videos with the likes of Vox Mod and Reggie Watts amid a slew of short performances and commissions.
This October, O’Neal premieres a new evening-length work: Opposing Forces, a meditation on femininity featuring a powerhouse set of five male b-boys, ranging in age from 21 to 44: Fever One of Rock Steady/DVS Crew, Mozeslateef and Alfredo “Free” Vergara, Jr. of Circle of Fire/SoulShifters Crew, Michael O’Neal of Chapter1NE/the Beat Hippies Crew and Brysen “justBe” Angeles, Jr. of Massive Monkees/SoulShifters Crew. For the first time ever, O’Neal is choreographing a full-length piece in which she does not dance.
The performance digs into competition, pack mentality and freedom. It includes an homage to the boy bands of O’Neal’s childhood (“I was obsessed with New Kids on the Block and Bell Biv Devoe,” she says), a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” performed by rapper Katie Kate and a breakdance battle. The soundtrack is new music composed by beatmaker WD40, a resident at Tuedays’ Stop Biting at Lo-Fi, where b-boys go to dance in Seattle these days; listen carefully and you’ll recognize samples from Usher, TLC and Aaliyah. One section uses an audio recording of Mozeslateef’s 8-year-old daughter directing him while he dances a solo.
Though O’Neal and most of the dancers knew each other previously, everyone involved is breaking new ground. “One of the reasons I was drawn to the project was that it would broaden my horizons, get me to think outside the box,” says Fever One, a highly decorated dancer whose b-boy career began in 1982. “I’ve been moving in the same ways for 30 years; now I’m challenging myself to move in ways that are totally different. But it all feels natural, it has its harmony.”
Bringing hip-hop culture into On the Boards is bound to blow some minds. “I’m looking forward to seeing somebody be moved,” Lateef says. “Beause I’m being moved. I’m being pulled in different directions, seeing what I’m capable of.”
Where did the idea for Opposing Forces come from?
Amy O’Neal: I’ve been talking about doing an all-guy piece for a while, but I didn’t know why or who. Last year I started thinking about the value systems of contemporary dance versus battling versus the commercial world. I started having conversations around money and gender and race, what people value and what they find important, the aesthetic values.
Then when I started going to the Beacon [the Massive Monkees studio and teaching center in the International District], Brysen [Angeles], who’s in the Massive Monkees crew, and I got into a bunch of conversations—and all of those things started to come together.
In some ways, this piece is a big culmination of my whole life as a choreographer, even though I’m not dancing in it. It combines all of my areas of expertise: hip-hop, contemporary performance, gender studies, race studies. It’s also part of a much larger conversation that’s going on in the United States about restructuring the system and creating more opportunity for people.
What about this show is new for you?
I’ve been able to work with hip-hop dancers and not contemporary dancers who don’t necessarily dance hip-hop. I’m working with people who have skills I’ve admired and studied. Some of these guys have been my Seattle dance heroes for a long time. I stalked them at the War Room for years.
What are the skills you admire?
Spinning on your head, for one! All those crazy things I never got the training to learn. I don’t know how to do floor work and they don’t know how to do pirouettes. They’re definitely teaching me stuff. When I was growing up, you couldn’t learn hip-hop in studios, so my educational access to it was television. Having the Beacon here is like, Holy shit! These guys bring in all these legends I get to learn from.
What do you know now that you didn’t then?
I’m aware of my place in the world and of their place in the world and how that can come together in a way that’s authentic. It’s the relationships. These people are in my life now. Before, I wasn’t really around them, except for like going out dancing at night—and I was really shy. It’s intimidating going out and trying to get into the cypher with, like, 95 percent dudes. It took me growing up and becoming more confident in my skills. As a white lady who feels very connected to this form of expression but who can’t claim it in the same way that other people can, I had to learn that difference and learn how to talk about it.
How is this show cracking open femininity?
When you bring up the subject of working with b-boys around perceptions of femininity in hip-hop culture, that’s a huge Pandora’s box. Because ultimately it ends up being a piece about men, because that’s who’s on stage.
Why is breakdancing so compelling?
It’s athletic, it’s strong, it’s vulnerable, it’s free. You don’t have to go to school to learn it. You don’t have to get inside a gate.
It’s like folk music.
It is the American folk form. It’s passed on.
What has the process been like?
There’s so much love in the room. There’ve been some really heated, awesome conversations. There’s this beautiful balance of experience and innocence. I leave everyday so refreshed and inspired.
On the Boards
Pictured Above: Opposing Forces dancers, from left to right: Mozeslateef, Michael O’Neal, Alfredo “Free” Vergara, Jr., Fever One and Brysen “justBe” Angeles, Jr.Photo by Steve Korn.