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From Streets To Stage, Two Dance Worlds See Harmonization And Chaos


Here's a mashup for you - turf dancing and ballet. The former is a kind of dance born on the streets of Oakland, Calif. It's usually performed freestyle to hip-hop or rap music. And ballet - well, it's ballet. But now one choreographer is bringing the two together for a performance next weekend.

As April Dembosky from member station KQED explains, the creative process has been more difficult than anybody thought.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Four-car San Francisco-Millbrae train now boarding, platform 2.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Commuters on this morning train are hunched over in an iPhone-induced stupor.

ARTHUR GARDNER: (Clapping) Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

DEMBOSKY: Arthur Gardner, aka Dopey Fresh, starts gliding down the aisle, flicking his ankles in a new kind of moonwalk.

GARDNER: And we have this wonderful dance show for you guys.

DEMBOSKY: His friend Intricate takes over. His feet planted, he contorts his arms into impossible twists called bone breaks.


DEMBOSKY: Then comes Krow. He pulls his right foot behind his neck and grabs the handlebars overhead...


DEMBOSKY: ...And flips.

GARDNER: And please do not try this at home.

DEMBOSKY: Commuters are seeing typical turf dancing, but My-Linh Le sees echoes of classical ballet. She sees grace in the way the turfers float across the floor, precision in the way they fold their arms.

MY-LINH LE: So if dancers from the conservatory world of ballet could somehow have so much movement-wise in common with these other guys who have never really (laughter) stepped foot in a conservatory or a studio then I think that says a lot about our human nature.

DEMBOSKY: She started talking to the turfers about taking them off the train and putting them on stage with ballet dancers.


DEMBOSKY: But Le soon confronted her first obstacle. She had a hard time getting the turfers to show up for rehearsals. She couldn't pay them. During the hours they would spend rehearsing, they could be making money on the train.

GARDNER: We're just good kids with good hearts and doing this all for love of dance.

But they say the best nation is...

ALGERION BRYANT: A donation, ladies and gentlemen.

DEMBOSKY: Most days, the guys take home between $100 and $200 each. That's a lot for turfer Hector Ascencio to give up.

HECTOR ASCENCIO: I work at Jamba Juice. Yeah, I go to community college, and you know, it's kind of a struggle right now. I'm not even going to lie, you know. A lot of turfers, a lot of dancers out here come from the struggle.

DEMBOSKY: So choreographer My-Linh Le started a crowdfunding campaign and ended up raising $10,000. Now she pays each dancer 40 bucks at the end of every rehearsal.

LE: All right, ready.


FEDERATION: (Rapping) With Rick Rock beats, yeah, fella, I'll rock ya.

DEMBOSKY: But the money wasn't the only hurdle. Once the ballerinas and turfers got into the studio together, their two very different worlds collided.

TATIANA BARBER: You know, even in the first rehearsal, it was, like, very eye-opening.

DEMBOSKY: Ballet dancer Tatiana Barber says she was thrown off by how the turfers just launched into a freestyle warm-up.

BARBER: In ballet class, you know, you have a strict technique, start with plies into tendus.

BRYANT: The language.

DEMBOSKY: That's turf dancer Algerion Bryant, aka Krow.

BRYANT: You have the ones with rules and boundaries, and you have the one without rules and boundaries. See somebody color inside the lines. You have this person that did the same thing, but they color outside the lines.

DEMBOSKY: Rehearsals got chaotic, so My-Linh Le had to split them up for a while. Ballet dancers met on Mondays, turfers on Saturdays. She wasn't ready to give up her vision of a stage collaboration. But Le says when she threw the choreography out the window and just had the dancers improv together...

LE: It left everyone in shock. They just had moments where they suddenly thought the same thing, did the same thing, like, at the same time. And it was crazy because you know that that could only happen when two people are so in tune with each other and listening so hard that they could be thinking the same thing.

DEMBOSKY: By the time they finish, the dancers will have a 17-minute piece, a mix of solos and ensemble dances, both improv-ed (ph) and choreographed.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Baby, you understand me now...

DEMBOSKY: In one section, Le wants to explore the concept of misunderstanding. She sat in a circle with the dancers at a recent rehearsal to explain.

LE: I wanted to use "The Ugly Duckling," which I think a lot of people misinterpret as, like, a story about transformation, which is kind of funny because the ugly duckling didn't, like, suddenly transform into a swan. He was actually always a swan. So it was actually a story about misperception.

DEMBOSKY: My-Linh Le says it's the same with turfing. The street dance has always been as artful as ballet. By putting it on stage, turfing doesn't change, but Le hopes that the audience's perception of it will.


SIMONE: (Singing) Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.

DEMBOSKY: For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.
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