"I've never been just one dancer," says Amy O'Neal, the choreographer of Opposing Forces. O'Neal is classically trained in dance, with a BFA from Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts, and she first saw contemporary styles of dance while living abroad as teenager. O'Neal was introduced to breaking (the correct term for break dancing, FYI) at a club in Turkey. After that experience, O'Neal embodied more than one kind of dancer, breaking into the running man at clubs while taking ballet at school.
"After college, they became more integrated," O'Neal says of her dance styles. And that's how we've ended up here, with Opposing Forces, an hour-long show choreographed by O'Neal, featuring five male dancers.
The show started with an evening length solo by O'Neal, one she says she used to explore her past and present. "I was thinking about feminism, and what it means to claim that," she says. "I wanted to involve men in the conversation."
So she did. Reaching out to dancers she'd previously worked with, and even taught — O'Neal's resume includes teaching spots at several Seattle dance studios — she found five guys who were willing to take on the challenge. And what was that challenge, exactly? As O'Neal says, "It's the concept of looking at feminine energy through breaking, which is inherently masculine."
O'Neal is quick to point out that her work with the dancers — B-Boy Bobby Drake, Fever One, Mozes Lateef, Free, and Michael O'Neal, Jr. — didn't suffer from any perceived gender divide between choreographer and dancers. That doesn't mean there weren't obstacles, though.
"The cultural context of breaking is still totally different than the stage world," says O'Neal. She and the guys threw themselves head first into the project, unsure of where they may end up. "We all knew we were gonna grow a lot," says O'Neal.
From clips we've seen, Opposing Forces appears to fully embrace its title. The project's description says, "B-Boys uncover binary perceptions of gender using a diverse range of dance contexts." The word binary is key, distinctly setting up two, well, opposing forces. The dance explores ideas of gender, yes, but it also looks into race and class, two topics inherently woven into the act of breaking, and into the identity of B-Boys, men associated with hip-hop culture.
"We didn't get it until we performed it," says O'Neal. Anyone can watch this process; there's a documentary, produced by Kyle Seago, that goes behind the scenes of Opposing Forces. In it, O'Neal shows the men how she wants them to dance "more soft," a.k.a. more smooth and sensual, something that the guys say street dancers would get made fun of for attempting. You can see the dancers collapse in laughter as they try different moves, having fun with their newfound vulnerability.
"It's very vulnerable for them. There's a physicality that B-Boys don't do," says O'Neal. She's referring to the moments where the dancers touch, or nearly embrace, something that never happens while breaking on the street. This process, which O'Neal simply describes as a learning curve, pays off for the men. "They have a deep ownership," says O'Neal.
"It was definitely a journey," she continues. "It was fascinating and meaningful figuring that out." O'Neal wants audiences to leave wanting more. Or, rather, questioning more. "I want it to challenge you to think about stuff," she says.
The performance has already challenged audiences on the West Coast — to great success. "The hip-hop community loves it," says O'Neal. She talks about venues that don't normally feature hip-hop works and audiences comprised of both the hip-hop community and the more general theater and arts crowd. This merging of worlds — of opposing forces, if you will — is a facet of the performance that transcends the stage.
And B-Boys, those guys on the street who are too masculine to reach out and touch another dancer, those guys love it too. "They see themselves in the work," says O'Neal.
While Opposing Forces addresses questions of femininity, O'Neal thinks it just as equally explores masculinity, especially its boundaries and limitations. "I thought, 'How can I create a safe space for men to talk?'" she says. "Even though men take up most of the space [in society], there's not enough space for them to be vulnerable."
The performance, which ranges from fun moments of almost boy band-like group choreography, to darker moments of solo dancers standing among others lying on the ground, is both of the stage and the street. It has to be, for the B-Boys to be who they are, and to become what the show asks of them.
O'Neal says that she chose to use male dancers, rather than B-Girls, because B-Girls are already addressing the question of femininity just by dancing. As for the men? O'Neal says, "We're never gonna change the conversation if they're not involved in it."
Amy O'Neal will teach a Master Class: Street Dance Styles with Amy O'Neal on Sat. June 11 from 12-1:30 p.m. Register at spoletousa.org.