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Street moves inspire Broadway dancing

Hip hop replaces tutus in the latest choreography

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It’s half-time at the first game of the NBA Finals. The pulsing electronic beat of house music fills Chicago’s United Center, and a dozen performers hit the floor. Suddenly, the B-ball fans aren’t cheering the balletic swoop of Michael Jordan or the prowl of Dennis Rodman — they’re jamming to choreographer Elaine McLaurin’s The Murk Groove. ”When the dancers started, the fans were restless,” says McLaurin, 31, of Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance. ”But all of a sudden, the crowd was hooked.”

Who wouldn’t be? The sizzling dance piece showed off the kind of bump and grind usually seen in clubs instead of sports arenas, forcing fans off their seats and onto their feet. All across the country, there’s a potent movement in movement, a street-smart vibe influencing some of the hottest dancers and choreographers making dance today. From Broadway’s Big and Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk — and its Tony-winning choreographer, Savion Glover — to the national tour of Stomp (which stole this year’s Oscar telecast) to countless summer dance festivals, the new take on dance is an edgier, in-your-face deal, with moves taken off the street, out of the clubs, and straight into the once-rarefied milieu of the dance stage.

San Francisco-based choreographer Robert Moses personifies the wave: His company, Robert Moses’ Kin (performing this August in San Francisco), daringly explores the lives and struggles of the black community. Moses, 33, a former dancer for American Ballet Theater and Twyla Tharp, now creates an irresistible fusion of jazz and hip-hop dance, along with aspects of traditional African movement. Street dance ”has always been a part of what I’ve done,” says Moses.

Likewise, Susan Stroman, the Tony-nominated choreographer of Big, has felt the far reach of hip-hop in her choreography. In the current Broadway hit, Stroman has accomplished the wondrous feat of making kids look like kids and not professional dancers, with the performers reveling in the dynamic, energetic movement of childhood.

”The days when high art was something that sat alone upon a shelf are gone,” affirms Joe Goode, artistic director of San Francisco’s dance-theater corps the Joe Goode Performance Group. ”Today, everyone references pop culture.”

That morphing of street vibes and high art may be, in part, related to the short attention-span conditioning of a generation reared on the information superhighway. But this connection has always existed on some level. ”It started with Twyla Tharp, when she choreographed Deuce Coupe in 1973 and used the Beach Boys’ music and graffiti artists on stage,” says Laurie Uprichard, executive director of New York’s Danspace Project. ”There was an attempt to give value and validation to popular music and popular dance.”

Despite this ever-more frequent collision, Hubbard Street’s founder and artistic director, Lou Conte, is quick to note that the hip-hop moves in Murk Groove are not representative of the group’s eclectic repertoire. ”[Hip-hop] is a faddish kind of dance,” says Conte. ”It’s not going to be a classic and stay with us forever.”