On May 19, 2017, a collective of Twin Cities dance artists who range in upbringing, generation, and relationship to dance genres took to the Cowles Center stage for the opening night performance of MIXTAPE. Their goal? To ask and answer the question, “What is Hip Hop?”
The cast was lead by a team of seven choreographer/performers – Jason (J-Sun) Noer, Al Taw’am (Iman and Khadijah Siferllah-Griffin), Magnolia Yang Sao Yia, Herb Johnson III, Ozzy Dris and Darrius Strong – who shared a common interest: “challenging the dominant narrative that has appropriated, commercialized, and corporatized ‘Hip Hop’ culture.” As outlined in the program notes, the leaders’ goals for this production were lofty and broad. They wanted to design a program that reflected the culture of mix-taping using musical transitions by Minneapolis producer and composer BIONIK to transition between different pieces OF MUSIC? and different styles of dance. They also wanted to create a dialogue around their central question (“What is Hip Hop?”) through juxtaposition of “a variety of dance styles that exist under the umbrella of Hip Hop, from Breaking to House to Rocking to Urban and Street.”
Photo by Bill Cottman
MIXTAPE did not have a main director or choreographer, but would have benefitted from having someone in at least one of these roles to make sure that the sections’ overall linking theme was clearly communicated. Though the various sections of this 90-minute production were placed and presented temporally close together (the transitions from piece to piece were swift and seamless) and the dancers were often spatially close, the aesthetic and historical contrast described in the event literature was not visible to my untrained eye. I did not have knowledge of the aesthetic-historical context of what I was watching. A post- or pre-show talk could have helped engage viewers like myself, who are less experienced with Hip Hop, while also serving the leaders’ articulated goal to create dialogue around the question “What is Hip Hop?”
Whether intended or not, MIXTAPE is an ode to optimism and a celebration of future generations. The cast featured many youth; their charisma and skill charmed the bustling, expressive audience in the house, adults and children alike. Jason (J-Sun) Noer is one of the most fit, agile, and grounded movers I have seen. It’s inspiring to watch him. Magnolia Yang Sao Yia delivered intricate gestures, statuesque poses, and theatrical drama in her solo We got sunrise, we got sunset. I appreciated the risk she took by covering her face with her own hair for so much of the dance, a choice easily could have gone full-throttle Cousin It.
The penultimate section of MIXTAPE – titled The Youthture (a portmantea title that blends “youth” and “future” but doesn’t live up to the sophistication of the dance to which it refers) – was exceptional. The only note I jotted down after seeing it was “Damn.” If you haven’t heard of Al Taw’am, do yourself a favor and look them up. These 18-year-old identical twin sisters Iman and Khadijah Siferllah-Griffin are the youngest winners of a Minnesota Sage Award and 2016 recipients of a National YoungArts Award. They move with fluidity and ferociousness and their choreography shone on the dozen brilliant dancers who performed in The Youthture.