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Review: "Underground" Krump Digs Deep, Creates Profound Narrative Drama

Max de Leve |
September 7, 2012 | 6:58 p.m. PDT


Two krump dancers, each with left arm raised (photo courtesy of Dan Carino)
Two krump dancers, each with left arm raised (photo courtesy of Dan Carino)
In the depths of "The Underground: From the Streets to the Stage," just before intermission, Miss Prissy performed a variation that programmatically depicts her personal transition from the discipline of ballet to the freer, raw power of krump. She performed a passionately moving solo that stripped bare the pain of her early years while demonstrating the means by which she moved on, but it also encapsulated the larger thematic and artistic context of this unusual program.

How do you bring radical change, whether to a single dancer's style or to a dance style as a whole? Can you take an underground, improvisational art form and bring it to the stage without losing the intensity and authenticity that make it so striking in the first place? Prissy's piece – and "Underground" as a whole – addressed these questions, not by arguing for "krumpography's" legitimacy, but by showing just how powerful and affecting street dance can be, and how the backing of artistic institutions and resources can spur these artists to new heights.

The program was primarily narrative, telling the history of krump and of the dancers' relationships to it. Fictionalized short films of krump's origins, recast as a superhero story, provided overture and entr'actes throughout the production. The story of krump's beginnings continued throughout the first act: the founders descend into discord before going their own ways and picking up the pieces, highlighted by Lil' C's ground-pounding triumph, "Heavy Is the Crown." In the second act, the krumpers resolved the narrative conflict by focusing their aggression on battling "the music, not each other."  It culminated in a raucous finale that reproduced a historic session in the North Hollywood parking lot that played primordial soup to the 818 krumpers' idiom.

Interspersed between the narrative pieces were one-off variations and ensembles. Most were programmatic, notably Krucial's vibrant "Long Way Home." Krucial-as-superhero-krumper defied conventional expectations of femininity as weakness; instead, her dance articulated a vision of womanhood that drew from the same assertive, aggressive strength the male krumpers displayed, but recast as feminine traits in their own right.

Other pieces, like "Pyramids," which experimented with style, light and shadow, were more abstract and eschewed program entirely. Every number showed conspicuous attention to detail and carefully crafted choreography by Miss Prissy and Lil' C.

The dance itself was breathtaking. These handpicked dancers are all obvious talents in krump and, as the joyful hollering in the crowd proved, legends with fanbases in their own right. Even where the ensemble danced in unison, there was no attempt to regiment their individual styles into the kind of uniformity one would expect from a corps de ballet. Rather, diversity was the implicit expectation and a welcome relief. The variations in particular showcased unique styles, especially Storyboard's tour-de-force, "Indian Sunset."

A hybrid of L.A. krump and Brooklyn style, influenced by ballet and modern, Storyboard's "mutant" moves featured inhuman flexibility and a boneless, sliding approach to movement that was like the moonwalk extrapolated into an entire dance style. For the most part, though, these heroes krumped to show their power of super strength, adherents of the beating, primal energy of Los Angeles style.

Likewise, the theatrical elements were well-handled, accentuating the extravagance of the production. Noah Ulin, the 17-year-old lighting design prodigy, did not make the safe choice to let the dance do the work, but the daring, flashy approach he took added energy and urgency, rather than Las Vegas gaudiness, to the production. Costumes, as flamboyant as any superheroes', rounded out the show in a way that could never achieve quite the same eye-popping effect anywhere but the stage.

It is the handling of the thematic content, though, that most distinguished "Underground" from its lesser counterparts. The handling of narrative, structure and pacing were superb, and this is where the benefit of bringing the street to the stage reached its apogee.

Freestyle krump absolutely has story, whether as expression of internal emotion or as audience-focused message. What "Underground" managed to accomplish, though, was to create a larger dramatic arc that involved multiple dancers telling the same story. Only through choreography and rehearsal can dancers read from the same script, dance in unison, or tell more subtle and detailed stories than extemporaneous improvisation permits. If some of these scripts lacked reflection – Lil' C, for instance, seemed more focused on his insistence of primacy than critical of his own role in krump's divisions – the overall work was a thoughtful exploration of what krump is and, by proof-of-concept, what it can become.

In that glorious moment when Prissy whipped off her wig and tutu and transformed from a pained ballerina battling internal demons into the superheroine Queen of Krump who smashed those demons with impunity, she mirrored the way that she has declared herself free of krump purism and, through "Underground," has charted it a new direction. By incorporating the advantages of a staged production, with rehearsed choreography, lighting, props and costumes, she created a form of krump that would otherwise be impossible.

"Underground" did not seek to replace freestyle krump with narrative, staged work, nor did it become entangled in arguments about its own authenticity. Instead, this show, through heartfelt dance telling genuine stories, redefined and expanded what it means to be krump and to be street art. In so doing, "Underground" succeeded as an aesthetic statement and as a moving work of dance in its own right. As the deafening cheers in Bovard could attest, these dance royalty own the streets and stage alike. Le krump, c'est moi.


Reach Contributor Max de Leve here.



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