Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez want to change how you think about hip-hop dance. "It's not just about executing and entertaining through movements," says Wang. "It can actually express a lot more than that."
Wang and Ramirez's dance duet, Monchichi, is hip-hop at its core, but it also incorporates elements of ballet, martial arts, and contemporary dance. Beyond that, there is a narrative aspect to it, delving into their personal relationship and cultural differences, of which there are many.
Wang was born and raised in Germany by Korean parents. She began studying ballet at age 5 but quit when she was 16, only to rediscover dance years later in Berlin's hip-hop underground. "Being accepted no matter where you come from was what drove me into the [hip-hop] scene," says Wang. "It's a crazy, open energy that everybody brings in. It's really just about being you and training hard and proving that by training hard you can be the best."
Ramirez is a Frenchman of Spanish descent. He became obsessed with hip-hop dance at age 13. "It was a place where I found my voice and my way of getting respected," says Ramirez. "It is a culture that belongs to different social classes." After years and years of training, he became a proficient B-boy (break dancer), winning hip-hop championships and serving as judge at numerous international competitions.
Wang and Ramirez met in a training room in Berlin, and it wasn't long before a collaborative working relationship flourished. "I was very interested in working with Honji because she had a different aesthetic," says Ramirez. "I was inspired by her movements and working together just came naturally so we decided to do a little choreography together."
They have since created their own dance company — Company Wang Ramirez — and have created multiple works conceptually and artistically reaching new heights of success. "We'd been doing a lot in the underground scene, battles and competitions and developing our dance vocabulary," says Ramirez. "But after many years of doing that, you are searching as a person to express yourself and to pass on energy and emotions and ideas to others."
The piece they're performing at Spoleto, Monchichi, was actually created in 2011. When they began the project, there was no concrete concept. But as they discussed what they wanted to express, the project evolved into a sort of exploration of their relationship. "It got very personal because we were thinking more about, 'What are you to me?' and, 'What is our relationship?'" says Wang. "We talked about our parents and where we come from and the cultural differences and things that may be difficult [to talk about] but at the same time were a source of inspiration."
Besides expressing through dance, there are theatrical aspects to the production, including spoken word segments. "I think it is very good to add layers or tools to express whatever you want to express and to take our own voice on stage," says Ramirez. "Obviously we're not trained in theater, but I think it adds a personal attachment with the interpretive dances and yet another way of explaining our situations and stories."
Since its creation in 2011, Monchichi has evolved, along with its dancers. "It has evolved a lot," says Wang. "We have choreography that is fixed but we always keep moments that are improvised to be able to play and be able to surprise each other. In 2011 when we were creating this, we had such different perspectives on certain things so we had to change and develop [the performance]."
Ramirez concurs. "We are always learning by doing. So every time we do the piece, we figure out new things that we want to change and I think it's a never ending story."
There is no intended message for the audience to walk away with. Wang and Ramirez just hope it serves as a source of inspiration and reflection. "This piece is very simple," says Wang. "It's very human and very accessible. It's easy to get attached emotionally because we are just being ourselves on stage. So hopefully it's a little journey that [the audience] can see themselves in."
The duo is offering a master class for intermediate to advanced dancers on Thurs. May 25 at 6 p.m.