Watching German hip-hop dancer Niels “Storm” Robitzky spin on his head, legs straight up in the air, is like seeing A-Rod hit a home run. You know he’s doing it, but your brain is in high freak mode: Is this for real?
How does anyone do that?
An energizer B-boy with elastic limbs, Storm tears up the stage with physics-defying moves, all while battling and bonding with his own video image on an upstage screen, in a duet that’s both full-on spectacular and surprisingly, well, reflective.
Storm’s Solo for Two is half of the headline evening at the fifth annual New York Hip-Hop Theater Festival (HHTF), running through June 18 at various venues (for more information, visit hiphoptheaterfest.org). Storm shares the bill with the virtuosic Benji Reid, a body popper from the U.K., who contorts, mimes, and percusses his way from the rhythms of bebop to the gestures of hip-hop, fronted by a DJ and three-piece band in 13 Mics.
Haven’t heard of either of them? Neither had Danny Hoch, the festival’s founder. And that’s much of the point. Hoch, who’s got a mantel full of awards for his solo shows Some People and Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, was considered by many to be his own alternative genre—combining the subject matter and urban aesthetic of hip-hop with more traditionally theatrical modes of storytelling.
But Hoch knew better, and started the Hip-Hop Theater Festival in 2000 as “a way of acknowledging that it wasn’t just myself, but that so many of my peers were making hip-hop-generation theater. I wanted to assemble all these artists and audiences under one roof and proclaim ourselves a movement.”
This movement has legs. In five short years, Hoch, artistic director Kamilah Forbes, and executive director Clyde Valentin have created a national network for hip-hop artists and fans. HHTF now runs in four cities—San Francisco, D.C., New York, and most recently Chicago. And there’s no arguing with their track record for talent spotting, having introduced audiences to Sarah Jones (Surface Transit), Will Power (Flow), and Universes (Slanguage). All this and ticket prices are still $20 and under.
New York’s 2005 festival mixes politics and dance party, neighborhood rhyme and global consciousness. Slam poet Jerry Quickly presents excerpts from his Live From the Front Lines: Petrol and Protein. Inspired by his experiences in Baghdad at the outbreak of the current war, this fiercely personal piece explores what it means to be African American here—and in the world at large. HHTF’s “Witness to War” evening concludes with beatboxer Yuri Lane bringing the sounds and souls of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in From Tel Aviv to Ramallah.
Closer to home, there are raps on identities marginalized and mixed from Angela Kairiotis, a Greek American poet from New Jersey, and Miami’s Teo Castillano (NE 2nd Avenue). Those who like their dramaturgy straight up can catch stagings of plays by emerging talents Javon Johnson (Breathe) and Chadwick Boseman (Deep Azure), the latter curated by HHTF as part of its efforts to develop new work as well as showcase it.
HHTF’s diverse programming bolsters its argument that hip-hop theater is nobody’s stepchild. “When hip-hop first emerged, certain elders said, ‘This is a fad,’ ” says Valentin. “I remember thinking: ‘But this is my truth.’ We’re gonna grow with this thing. It’s very different than the product-driven mentality of the hip-hop record industry. We’re after something else.” Hoch concurs: “There’s an entire generation of new stories. Theater is looking for an infusion of new forms—well, this is it.”
They may be reinventing theater and “the four elements,” but when it comes to producing, HHTF is definitely old-school. When I asked Valentin what he finds most satisfying about the festival, he doesn’t hesitate. “Seeing a full house,” he laughs. “How’s that for universality?”