Scratch and Burn really shouldn't work, but it does.
Teo Castellanos's gripping and immensely entertaining dance-theater work staged at the Byron Carlyle over the weekend is overwhelming. Its intentions are epic and its execution exhilarating yet disarmingly naive. The result is a sweet success.
Miami Light Project commissioned Scratch as part of its Miami Hip Hop Project. The show drums its way to the heart of cultural issues including an unassailable antiwar message, a nod to the funeral rites of South Africa's Amazulus, and a tribute to Afrika Bambaataa -- the "Grandfather of Hip-Hop." Castellanos said he combined "elements of ancient Zulu, Maori, and buto rituals" with "movements from hip-hop and urban street combat to create a powerful dance-theater work about our primal urge to battle for supremacy and domination."
Kickboxing maneuvers, predictably peppered with Brazilian martial art capoeira, drop to the beat of haunting neo-Buddhist chanting and killer percussion by Matthew M. Hill and Jan Sebon! (the exclamation point is part of the name), orchestrated by Brimstone 217's vibrantly original soundtrack. Forget there is nothing ancient about buto, a performance art born in Japan during the Sixties amid the chaos of postwar modernization. The main challenge in creating a lengthy hip-hop production lies in transforming what is generally a three-minute piece into a captivating show. But these are mere quibbles: Castellanos's new show works. And the acrobatic dancing by the attractive quintet of Rudi "Goblen" Cano, Michael "Xeno" Langebeck, Gary "Lethal" Otis, Kristoff Skalet, and Alfredo "Lego" Sotelo is as impressive as any produced here this season.
The daunting prologue is straight out of an old-fashioned Hollywood biblical movie hallmarked by tattered banners, burning incense, projected ersatz scriptures, and a booming voice echoing through loudspeakers: "Now a great heard of swine was there at the mountain feeding.... Unclean spirits entered into the swine." Yikes.
Nifty jungle sounds vocalized by the cast off-stage give way to a primal beat as the all-male dancers enter amid the haze of incense smoke. An air of mystery surrounds the stage in spite of the pantomiming during the human sacrifice and battle episodes that follow. A mixed mob scene ensues complete with deliberate stabbing brought to life by classroom-caliber contact improvisation. Just as the piece appears to be headed for trouble, a trio of hooded performers starts jumping and suddenly all is right with the world. From this moment, any portentous voice-over is drowned out by the rigorously enchanting and mesmerizing dancing.
Scratch improbably fuses fluid, dazzling break dancing with a hint of hip-hop's robotic moves. If at times this eclectic mélange fails -- instances of actual buto bringing to mind a J.Lo video replayed at tai-chi speed -- the overall impression is of a work lacking a little choreographic rigor, but one that possesses a vital energy coupled with an underlying spontaneity. One scene depicts a prize fight between two countries, during which civilization is reduced to its violent origins and the dancers to a primitive state. They grunt and gesture like monkeys, puzzling over a dead body, amid echoes of Stanley Kubrick's enigmatic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Choreographed by b-boy legend Ricardo "Speedy Legs" Fernandez, Scratch is an ambitious project and deserves just praise, although it does overreach. It's tremendously more successful than Rennie Harris's celebrated Puremovement (whose overrated version of Romeo and Juliet is sexist and boring). Scratch succeeds only in part, but better than most in transforming the limited language of popular street dance into a theatrical whole. With regard to the buto element -- seemingly more effective in the workshop stages than the finished dance -- a few points warrant attention. Although the term can be applied to anything that moves slowly, real buto still flourishes from Japan's own Sankai Juko to Norway's Cecilie Ore, whose 2001 antiwar opera A awaits an American premiere. Castellanos's Scratch is in their league and deserves our applause.
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