At quick glance, the dance lineup for this year’s Off Center Festival at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa might appear underwhelming. There’s the Barcelona-based performance group Agrupación Señor Serrano, which advertises “minimalist choreography” among its many attributes. And then, as the concluding act of the festival, there are three evenings of B-boy dancing called “Opposing Forces” from Seattle, not always a guaranteed concert premise. Ripped from a wild setting, B-boys scrambling onstage too often look like bugs pinned to a board for observation and dissection.
Peer closer, however, and “Opposing Forces” reveals to be the brainchild of choreographer Amy O’Neal, 37, a rare fount of artistic wildness who is just now making her SoCal debut. Like Rennie Harris, O’Neal is an uncompromising “high-art” choreographer whose essential movement base and rhythms arise from street dance.
A military brat born in Fort Worth, Texas, O’Neal says she’s still chasing the first thrill of club dancing, discovered at age 14 when friends led her to an Ankara disco while her dad was stationed in Turkey. Later, during high school in San Antonio, O’Neal watched concerts by Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham and Donald Byrd that fueled her equal commitment to contemporary choreography.
Lured to Seattle in 1999 to study at Cornish College of the Arts, O’Neal soon became a heralded teacher, dancer and choreographer in the city and beyond, praised for her hybrid technique and generosity in all three areas. (Mills College recently snapped her up for a guest teaching slot this fall.)
Speaking by phone last week from Seattle, where she is known affectionately by students and audiences alike as “Amy O,” O’Neal explains: “My strength as a dancer is that I have one foot very solidly planted in the contemporary performance world and one foot very solidly planted in hip-hop culture and street dance culture and my strength is that I embody both of those things in a unique manner. And I’m also able to sort of be a cultural and aesthetic interpreter and intermediary, in a way. And that’s where I feel the most myself: when I am both of those things. … That’s been my path for the past 15 years.”
O’Neal initially struggled with the idea of traditional concerts.
“Whenever I think of dance, it’s happening in a situation and not onstage,” she said in an early interview. “It’s somewhere … it’s on the street, it’s in a living room. The stage bores me.”
Working with musician Reggie Watts (newly named bandleader for “The Late Late Show With James Corden”), O’Neal created video pieces set on rooftops and roadways and offices, and only eventually moved to proscenium concerts. Such a solid Seattle treasure, O’Neal didn’t even get pushback when – in a kind of Dave Eggers move – she titled a 2012 solo piece “The Most Innovative, Daring and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade.” The show, a mordant look at dance and gender, featured artful deconstructions of twerking, pole dancing and other provocative moves.
O’Neal explained her decision to step back from performance in “Opposing Forces,” which features an all-male cast of B-boy dancers from different crews in Seattle. “The men who are in it are incredible dancers,” she explained. “People will see the way I structure things, the way I order things, but choreographically they are not doing my movements. We created movement together and I’ve structured the way they move and pushed them to move differently.”
Premiered in October in a black box theater in Seattle, “Opposing Forces” will be similarly presented at Segerstrom in the smaller Judy Morr Theater. Lit darkly, like a club or a parking lot, the stage for “Opposing Forces” features unusual geometric markings on the floor, like some strange new athletic court. The audience enters to find a party in swing. (O’Neal arranges to have local dance crews come freestyle with the dancers.)
Thus the work’s opening moment is the last round of battle, followed by solos for each dancer. By not using a pre-exising crew, “we’re all coming at this with the same level of vulnerability,” she explains. “Also it was important for me to have guys from different philosophical and aesthetic backgrounds in different hip-hop cultures to show how divergent it is. … I’ve tried to really take their strengths and push their strengths, but also find where I see they could grow. What other elements could they bring in to make that even stronger or to make it more vulnerable.”
The cast includes Brysen “JustBe” Angeles, from the Massive Monkeys (winners of the 2004 B-boy World Championship); Fever One of Rocksteady/DVS Crew, “one of the oldest breaking crews in the world, started in the Bronx with Crazy Legs in the 1970s”; O’Neal aYA; Alfredo “Free” Vergara Jr.; and MozesLateef from the Circle of Fire crew, known for house and Capoeira influences; and Michael O’Neal Jr. (no relation), who comes from Chapter1NE/The Beat Hippies Crew, a young dance student with hybrid interests. The music and sound is handled live by Seattle DJ WD4D, also known as Waylon Dungan.
Working together, O’Neal pressed the dancers to decouple their movements from rap music, to learn how to move to a sound score and find internal rhythms. “Focusing more on a physical idea and embodying that physical idea without the music telling you what to do,” she explains. “That is hard.”
Their concept of time also needed upending. “Understanding that we have an entire hour and you can’t just be constantly changing it up for an entire hour,” she adds. “That was new. … Suspending an idea for a longer amount of time was difficult for them. They’re always wanting to change things up really fast because in a battle situation you go out for a round and you only have 45 seconds to a minute to impress people.”
From years of teaching, she’s developed a repertoire of exercises specific to her movement style. “One of my processes — that I always do in my classes and rehearsal — is this one-legged dance,” she says. “We’ll time it out for a minute on each leg, then we’ll go for a little bit longer. I’ve worked up to where I can do a whole song on one leg. It’s moving, and playing with rhythm, and playing with your focus, playing with levels, and playing with shapes. Letting yourself almost throw off balance but the way you bring yourself back into balance is where the strengthening occurs.“
She’s also taught the dancers other kind of “maintenance stuff,” she says. “We talk about injuries, prevention, because they’re varying ages — the oldest guy is 44 and he’s got stuff he’s dealing with and the youngest is 22 and he’s got different things he’s dealing with.”
Never an actual B-girl herself, O’Neal actually did her first battle last year when she was working on this project. “It was really, really fun. I learned a lot. … I have a lot of respect – it’s really hard to go out and dance for 45 seconds and not get psyched out.”
The piece ends back in a battle, with dancers going in and out of the circle. “I really want the audience to see them differently at the end,” O’Neal says. “I want them to know they’re beautiful people with kids and lives and integrity and intelligence and they’re just as rigorous as any ballerina.”
Where: Judy Morr Theater at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
How much: $25
[A version of this piece first ran in the Orange County Register.]