If you've over 18, you may not have heard of Soulja Boy and his song "Crank Dat Soulja Boy." Kathy Casey, artistic director of Montréal Danse, hadn't either. It was her sons, aged 11 and 15, who turned her on to the catchy hip-hop tune. The song—and its accompanying choreography—has become something of a phenomenon among teenagers online, with kids filming themselves doing the bouncy moves and then sharing the results on YouTube. Intent on creating a dance work that would appeal to teenagers as much as to dance aficionados, Casey and choreographer Martin Bélanger decided to embed the song's trademark moves into the company's latest contemporary dance work, Somewhat Like You (Un peu come toi), which they'll perform at Dalhousie's Dunn Theatre Thursday (a schools-only performance) through Saturday. "I can't wait to see if the kids in Halifax are paying attention," Casey laughs from Montreal.
Originally created for a youth audience, Somewhat Like You straddles the line between dance and theatre, embracing both high and low culture with a mix of choreographed and improvised movement, hip-hop music, humour and spontaneous storytelling, with dancers recounting real-life anecdotes from the stage and engaging directly with the audience. "We'd never done a youth piece before, especially one for teenagers," says Casey, 49, who has been with the company for the last 11 years. Well aware that contemporary dance can be a tough sell for a young audience, Casey says she wanted to present something that would engage and stimulate, while still addressing young people in a language they would be able to relate to. The piece is often presented to school groups and Casey says she's well aware it may be the first time many in the audience get a chance to see contemporary dance. "We wanted to say, "Look, dance isn't something incomprehensible, it's an art form that's open to anyone.'" Then she pauses and states a blunt reality, "But you'd better strike gold, or they may not come back."
The approximately 45-minute piece (its length varies from show to show, depending on what happens on stage), which is performed by the 21-year old company's six professional dancers, took about eight months to put together, during which time it was workshopped in front of a wide range of young audiences. "Kids are so deadly honest," says Casey. But, all in all, she describes the youthful response as "so much more intense than we expected."
"They sing along the whole way through," she says, describing the piece's music that ranges from James Brown and Stevie Wonder to Justin Timberlake, "and we have them get up and move."
Intent on breaking boundaries between audience and performer, Casey says the dancers engage with the crowd by hanging out in the theatre before the show begins, talking, playing music and throwing a hacky-sack around, a process she describes as "warming up together." Though Casey says the most prevalent action on stage is dance, she has heard the piece described as theatre, though it has no text or narrative build-up. Incorporating a wide range of pedestrian movements, the choreography flows seamlessly from highly technical components danced with cellphones and water bottles, into casual, improvised portions that feel more like rehearsal segments than formal performance.
"We started out trying to be teenagers," says Casey, "but we learned that was the wrong approach. We needed to be adults talking to whoever is in the audience." Casey says it was important for the piece to "stay away from the message thing. We're trying to make contact," she says, "and they get enough stuff from people telling them what not to do. Instead, we want them to watch what a show can do—to see that it can be fun, while also bringing in contemporary ideas about performance-making."
Casey admits that the company has never blatantly referenced pop culture this way in its choreography before, but that the experience has been great fun.
"We watched music videos and stole moves," she says. "How much are we being taken over by youth culture?" asks Casey, "Well, it's pretty darn prevalent." Then she laughs, "We're just trying to pay attention with our spies in the teenaged world."
Look out, Soulja Boy.
Somewhat Like You (Un peu come toi), December 7 to 8 at the Sir James Dunn Theatre, 6101 University, 8pm, $12-$20, 420-0003.