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Two of LA’s most prominent Hip-Hop dance companies opened the third Aratani World Series this weekend at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center’s Aratani Theatre. The theater was filled with a diverse group of people of all ages to see Versa-Style Dance Company and Culture Shock Los Angeles perform works that spoke to love, healing, family and community. In purpose and action, this was a beautiful evening of diversity. It was dance theater presented through one of America’s most recent and original art forms, Hip-hop.

Culture Shock Los Angeles – Photo: STEEZY CO

Culture Shock Los Angeles opened the evening with 4 All People: A Tale of 4 Brothers, a story conceived by Anthony Lee with narration written by Jessie Ma. It is an ambitious undertaking with film, narration, live and recorded music, and strong performances by a large cast of dancers. To help her protect the planet and its people, Mother Earth, performed beautifully by Diana Schoenfield, gives birth to four sons: Brother Fire (Ken Matsutsuru), Brother Air (Beau Fournier), Brother Water (Noah Henderson), and Earth (David Lee). There is a struggle between good and evil and the future is uncertain.

Culture Shock – Photo: Ja Ja Tecson

Mother Earth performs a lovely solo before her sons and their realms are introduced through a variety of hip-hop styles. The narration is performed passionately and clearly by Tamlyn Tomita and the styles of dance includes popping, break dancing, waacking and locking. Each brother is introduced via his own personal dance style; and Mother Earth’s opposing enemy (the Serpent of Sin) relates his tale through narration and Rap. Powerful drumming is provided by UCLA KYODO TAIKO and a there is a wide range of recorded popular music. Matsutsuru, Fournier, Henderson and Lee each gave strong performances and Jon Asperin was very believable as the Serpent of Sin.

4 All People: A Tale of 4 Brothers is well constructed by a host of company and artistic directors, and the performances are strong. The choreography is good, but not consistent. The set involves imaginative uses of simple wooden benches and platforms to create revolving doors, pathways and platforms. With such a large cast, many of whom were onstage at the same time, the production came off very smoothly. The Aratani stage is oddly shaped and Culture Shock Los Angeles used it well. The cast is too numerous for me to mention here, but I have included a link to their names.

Box of Hope – Versa-Style Dance Company – Photo: George Simian

Versa-Style Dance Company is an amazing group of dance artists. BOX OF HOPE premiered in September of 2016 at the John Anson Ford Theatres and it is a beautifully conceived work based on the Greek myth about Pandora’s box. The box is an artifact in Greek mythology, taken from the myth of Pandora’s creation in Hesiod’s Works and Days. The myth tells of Pandora opening the box and inadvertently releasing death and evil into the world. Co-Directors Jackie “Miss Funk” Lopez and Leigh “Breeze-Lee” Foaad’s version is more about dealing with the complexities of family and community. Inside the boxes are the hopes, dreams, temptations, pride and love.

I reviewed the Ford Theatre performance of BOX OF HOPE and I was pleased to see how it has grown stronger and how much the performers have matured in their roles. At the Aratani Theatre, the company did not have to compete with the many distractions at the Ford Theatre; the mountains, the vast sky and the airplanes flying overhead. Here, the focus was centered on the company and the story telling. Jackie Oka still shines in the role of the one who discovers the box and shares its contents, as does Alli Gray in here lyrical solo dressed in white. Lopez and Foaad prove throughout why they are leaders in their field of hip-hop dance, choreography and teaching.

Box of Hope – Photo by George Simian

This is a beautifully choreographed, produced and performed dance theater production. The care shown to detail and communication through movement is extraordinary and I could watch Foaad perform all night. He is a master of his craft, both in his performance and with his choreography. His final solo in BOX OF HOPE was breathtaking. Lopez, if I may be so bold, is the Mother of Los Angeles Hip-Hop. She is a wonderful actress as well as an amazing dancer and choreographer. She and Foaad have united to create a unique vocabulary within an ever-expanding art form.

BOX OF HOPE is not just a hip-hop community treasure. It is a Los Angeles dance community treasure and it should be seen by dance enthusiasts of all genres. The extremely talented dance artist in Versa-Style Dance Company include Lopez, Foaad, Alli Gray, Harry Weston, Ernest Galarza, Jackie Oka, Cynthia Hernandez, Gbari Gilliam, Brandon Juezan, Alex Almaraz and Joey Valasquez.

Both Culture Shock Los Angeles and Versa-Style Dance Company deserve praise for what they bring to their communities, as well as to the art of dance. Each company is actively teaching in colleges, universities, dance centers and high schools throughout LA to educate the youth about dance, art, life, self-worth and love. Those young people who study and work with these groups are indeed fortunate.

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Jeff Slayton
Jeff Slayton has had a long and influential career as a dancer, choreographer, and educator. Born in Virginia in 1945, Slayton began dancing as a child in order to correct his condition of hip dysplasia. He enjoyed a performance career in New York dancing for Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others. In 1978 he moved to Long Beach, CA. where began teaching at California State University, Long Beach as a part time faculty member. He became a full time faculty member in 1986 and continued to teach at CSULB until 1999. Jeff Slayton was one of the faculty members that helped design the Dance Center at CSULB as well as develop and implement the BFA, MFA and MA degree programs. While in Long Beach, he formed his own company, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, that operated from 1978 to 1983. He continues to stage works in the Southern California area. He is also the author of two books, "The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber" and "Dancing Toward Sanity". For more information on Jeff Slayton please go to www.jeffslayton.org.

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