Fall Guide: Ken Swift Gets the Upscale Treatment

Dance Theater Workshop presents Olive Dance Theatre's interpretation of an '80s street art

The first time that Ken Swift was quoted in The Village Voice, it was 1981, and he was 14 years old. The article was about breakdancing, the first anywhere on that subject, and in the course of explaining the sublimated aggression of block-party combat, Sally Banes mentioned that boys tended to grow out of it by age 16. Swift is now 44, and he's still spinning on his head.

Back in 1981, some people were already saying that breaking was played out. That proved false, of course. The media attention was about to swell—the movies and commercials and world tours. Swift rode that wave with the Rock Steady Crew, and after the fad subsided a few years later, he was among those who kept the art alive. Occasionally, this was in a theatrical context, as in the 1996 Off-Broadway hit Jam on the Groove. But mostly it was in the thriving subculture, at once underground and global, of battles and international b-boy summits. In that world, he maintained a reputation as the quintessential b-boy, praised by his peers as the truest to the roots but also the freshest, the most inventive—a dancer's dancer.

All of which goes to explain why when Jamie Merwin, the artistic director of Philadelphia's Olive Dance Theatre, learned of the NEA's American Masterpieces grant, she immediately thought of Swift. A flattered Swift accepted ("I'm thinking, American Masterpieces—it better be good"). The NEA eventually approved. But those were just the first hurdles. Normally, American Masterpieces grants for dance fund the reconstruction and touring of a neglected opus, some Graham or Ailey that's fallen out of circulation. By choosing Swift as her subject, Merwin could pursue a core mission of her company—to adapt the aesthetics of breaking, conceived in battle, to the more rarefied context of dance theater—but only by confronting a new challenge: how to "reconstruct" the masterpieces of an artist whose best work has consisted less of extended compositions than of ingredients he is always recombining in the heat of competition.

And how to do so without distressing the artist. "Kenny is very open and curious," Merwin says, "but he feels responsible for maintaining the tradition. He wouldn't want a breaker of his generation to watch the show and say, 'We didn't do that.' " As Swift and the Olive Dance Theatre began to collaborate on the reconstruction project in 2008, conflicts surfaced around Merwin's use of one of Swift's legendary routines, beautiful and concentrated and about 20 seconds long. To expand it, she pulled it apart, slowing it down and multiplying it across more bodies. When Swift saw the new version, he was surprised and a little concerned. "My perspective," Swift explains, "is you rock it and you get out."

The fruit of this tension is "Swift Solos," a thematically sectioned show that treats footage of Swift's solos over the years as source material. Sequences Swift built for himself have been further developed for and by an ensemble, then framed with visual and verbal information about chains of influence, plus a cameo by the master. The production arrives here on September 29, playing through October 2 at Dance Theater Workshop, presented by the Hip-Hop Theater Festival. "New York is the litmus test," says Merwin, who has scheduled a preview night for hip-hop elders. Nervous about how his peers will take it, Swift nevertheless feels confident that the show is ready. To attract non-theatergoing breakers as well as expose non-breaking theatergoers to the original format, Merwin has separately scheduled a traditional battle (at the Marta Valle School on Stanton, September 25). It's a good hedge against the production's experiments, which have the potential to be underwhelming and over-earnest.

The show most excites Swift where it re-creates the energy of his youth, the fun. "When you're 12," he says, "you're goofy, using your face. It has to be character first and physical ability second. Now, you sometimes can't see the dancer in all the technique." Because of that ever-ascending technical bar, the power moves and astonishing tricks, there are those—including, at first, some members of the Olive Dance Theatre—who view a middle-aged breaker as no longer relevant. But being on the other side of top physical shape has its compensations: "I'm a way better dancer now," says Swift. "So much more style. You get smooth. Your mind is loose. The technique melts into your system, and when the music moves you, something mechanical becomes funky."

That's how he looks, this battered American Masterpiece, less spectacular but more stunning in the subtle transitions, the fine-grained detail. The longevity of the artist bodes well for the longevity of the art. And as a new rash of breaking on television and in the movies raises fears of another fad-and-crash cycle, watching Swift makes one trust his predictions for b-boying: "It's never going to end."

'Swift Solos,' September 29–October 2, Dance Theater Workshop, dancetheaterworkshop.org

Fall Dance Picks

Jérôme Bel
September 18–19

A low-concept conceptualist, Bel is fond of breaking one convention with another. His Cédric Andrieux is simply an autobiographical monologue, with demonstrations, by the eponymous French dancer, all of 31. Tracing his path from his homeland to Merce Cunningham to the Lyon Opera Ballet, Andrieux shares backstage stories and excerpts from dances, the insider talk ideally illuminating the movement. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

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