Berkeley studio brings street dance, other urban art forms, indoors
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
What happens when you take an urban art form off the streets where it sprang to life and move it into the formality of a studio, classroom-like setting?
You either suck the juice out of it -- effectively killing it -- or you pump its dynamic architecture full of historical relevance, cultural import, stylistic integrity and springboard it to future artistic expression.
The new MVMNT Studio at Sacramento Street and Ashby Avenue in Berkeley is doing the latter, with a 21st century answer to "Whatever happened to break dancing?"
And leading the charge to "catch the ghost," (more on that later) is Seth Martinez, a 35-year-old home boy who's come home to his Bay Area roots.
Born in San Jose, raised in Hayward, and taught to dance on the streets of San Francisco at the tender age of 8, Martinez's finest childhood b-boying (street dancing) move was "the worm."
It's an unlikely beginning, but undulating along the floor on his belly kept him gang-free, taught him about the world and made him a celebrity. As a co-founder in the late 1990s of Seattle's Circle of Fire Crew dance company, Martinez earned international acclaim and rose to elder b-boy status.
Now he has entered a new era that has allowed him to open the Berkeley center this year. Expert instruction and glee-filled participation in urban art forms are his grown-man mantra.
House dancing, breaking (known to purists as "b-boying") and capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian blend of ritualized combat, dance, and philosophy) are taught by a hand-picked roster of practitioners in the 1,800-square-foot space.
Urban art decorates the walls and a backyard patio is under renovation to bring the street-created, inside-refined dances back to the outdoors.
"I look at this as my garage," Martinez said. "Roll up the door and dance."
Despite his young age, or maybe because of what he's packed into it, Martinez brings an old man's wisdom to his jacking, lofting, soft-popping, power-flexing moves.
"For me, dancing was an alternative to gang violence. It gave respect in the neighborhood. Gang members would say, 'Leave him alone, he's cool," without my having to fight to prove it," Martinez recalls.
Cody "CoFlo," a Fremont native who teaches house dance at MVMNT, hooked onto Martinez's dance company in 1997 and never let go.
"I found social communication in the cyphers," he said, just minutes before the House Dance Conference Oakland 2013 began on a Saturday earlier this month.
The origins of cyphers trace back to ethnic dance and are as integral to street dancing as "swing your pardner round-and-round" is to the Virginia reel. After a circle is cleared, pairs of dancers show individual moves in a kinetic conversation. The dialogue is a structured improvisation based on movement motifs common to each dance form, but establishing one's trademark style is the end game.
"Chasing the ghost," CoFlo insisted, is when the music, the movement and the moment find a sizzling, harmonic, once-only whole.
"The subconscious is the catalyst; the energy-building is 150 percent," he said.
Junious Brickhouse, executive director of Washington, D.C.'s international dance collective, Urban Artistry, described the moment differently.
"When you're the dopest dancer out on the floor, you know it, you own it," he said.
He's at MVMNT to select the Bay Area qualifier who'll be flown to D.C. to compete in the International Soul Society Festival's ABYSS cypher competition.
Watching a qualifying round of one-on-one exchanges in the Berkeley space, dancers cabriole and pirouette, isolating body parts so incredibly that you're sure the anatomy books have it wrong. These bodies must have 3,000 pivotal joints (think Gene Kelly/Lil Buck/Baryshnikov mash-up) and internal springs. Twelve finalists are selected who then cypher for another full hour. A collective vote among the 12 dancers identifies a winner.
With 40 competitors and over 100 people watching, the studio gets steamy, the atmosphere hot, the bodies hotter. But the energy? That's cool and concise, without rancor or resentment.
"I found a place to create my art," Martinez says, smiling at the pumping, diving, spinning, locked-in crowd. "It's a home for others to practice and learn while surrounded by their peers. This is the next generation of dance."