Giving a stage this large over to flex dancers at the Park Avenue Armory feels like a radical act. The scale and context of the production of FLEXN can't be ignored. We're in a storied building of Manhattan wealth and privilege. Peter Sellars is directing (with collaborator Regg Roc). The stage fills the drill hall. But we are here for the dancers. Street dancers. And they are here on their own terms telling their own stories.
The stories being told are both simple and epic--domestic violence, dead end jobs, a woman torn between two men, gun violence, gangs, war, fatherhood, and prison. From the biographies in the program these dancers have seen a lot of pain in their lives and dancing has literally saved them. Regg Roc has taught many of them the language of flex.
They improv their way through each step of each performance. Often it is one or two dancers left to tell the story with R&B and hip-hop songs to guide the narrative. There are moments where the choreography can be too literal (a lyric about opening doors leads to miming opening doors). But overall when left to express life battles through stage battles it is anything but ordinary. Muscular anger, flexible defiance, rattling grief. Presenting a variety of styles and approaches to flex, some dancers move with robotic edges, others flow like liquid. Muscles pop. Arms seem to know no limits. They are exploding from all limbs with energy, power, and expression. And there's a tremendous sense of play.
The Walgreens check-out segment was particularly well-staged using the full cast to dramatize the soloist's experiences working in Canarsie. The vignettes lose some energy when the entire cast performs as prisoners. Each dancer is given a short solo in an imagined 6x9 cell. It started out strong but the momentum of the overall piece slows down as we wait for each dancer to perform in turn. Though the "man in the mirror" number was a stand-out amongst the prison scenes.
There were moments here I thought Steven Hoggett would die for. If he saw this cast of incredibly malleable bodies who move in ways he had not previously conceived of he might lose his mind. But like Hoggett's work a lot of this dance form is narrative and muscular. And yet there are moments of extreme delicateness as well. There are steps akin to pointe and watching these lithe men in sneakers move like ballerinas was unexpected.
It was pleasing to see FLEXN drew such a mixed crowd. Young and old. Black and white. Uptown and downtown. However, I could have done without the policy allowing photography during the show. It was massively distracting (particularly the dickhead whose camera had sound on and took a lot of video and photos) . It also led to a breakdown of other theater rules (people felt comfortable talking, kids getting up and walking over to talk to their parents, checking and sending text messages).
As impressive as these dancers are with their contortionate choreography and energetic bounce I think they deserved our utmost attention. Same as their ballet brethren. They are bringing the same kind of precision and emotion to the stage. Why not treat them like the artists they are.