With their creation of Box of Hope that recently premiered at the Ford Theatres, Co-Founders and Co-Artistic Directors Jackie Lopez aka Miss Funk and Leigh Foaad aka Breeze-lee have definitely raised the art of Hip-hop dance to a new level. This performance was many wonderful things, but most of all it was an amazing evening of dance and theater. Many of us are used to seeing Hip-hop on music videos and the dance form is drastically misunderstood; sometimes being associated with gang violence. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Through the efforts and talents of Lopez, Foaad and others, it has definitely become a dance art form. In Los Angeles, Versa-Style Dance Company deserves much of the credit for shining a light on Hip-hop and its importance to the lives of so many.

The evening opened with two short works. Conscious Dream was choreographed by company members Alli Gray and Alex Almaraz and performed by young dancers from the East LA Performing Arts Magnet. It was an exciting showcase for the talent of these students and a tribute to the teaching taking place at that school. Future of Ours featured members of the Versa-Style Next Generation. Beautifully choreographed by company members Ernesto Galarza and Anthony Berry, Future of Ours presented a glimpse into the strong talent pool of dancers that have hopes of becoming members of the professional dance scene.

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

Box of Hope is an evening long work that examines the lives of people living in “underserved communities”.  It is about hope for change, hope of finding love, hope of reuniting families, hope for humanity and frankly, hope of feeling hope. Hip-hop is the vehicle that Lopez and Foaad use to create hope in the youth of Los Angeles’ inner-city communities, and aside from the work they do through their teaching, Box of Hope is their best effort yet! This work has brought Versa-Style Dance Company into the big leagues.

Box of Hope - Photo by George Simian
Box of Hope – Photo by George Simian

Boxes of different shapes, sizes, colors and patterns lay across the stage’s edge as the lights came up on Box of Hope. In Barrio Mundial, individual characters are introduced and their personal dance styles are displayed. Led by the beautiful Jackie Oka, the boxes are distributed to each person in Curious. We see the hopes on the faces of these people as they cautiously open each box, peer inside and express surprise, happiness and disappointment. The dancing is vigorous, intense and expressive as Hip-hop steps become gestures of conversation and expressions of emotions.

Box of Hope - Photo by George Simian
Box of Hope – Photo by George Simian

Box of Hope takes a somber turn in Powers That Be. Foaad proves that he can express his art through stillness as well as power dancing. In this section he uses subtlety of gestures and simplicity of motion to speak volumes as dancers stand swaying gently, peering into empty hands; hands that once held boxes filled with promises.

The energy picks up in They Don’t Hear Us with intense emotions shown through strong dancing and Foaad’s use of spatial relationships. A husband and wife struggle with their relationship in Breaking Point and the effects are heavy with friends and family. Here we see the wonderful performing talents of Lopez and Foaad. Both are good actors as well as amazing dancers, and both project a compelling stage presence. The first half comes to a close as a family torn apart. The lights dim as a mother and son embrace each other for love and support.

Box of Hope - Photo by George Simian
Box of Hope – Photo by George Simian

The second half opens with a dynamic and emotional duet for Harry Weston and Ernesto Galarza. Siblings protect and support each other as their estranged father tries to get back into their lives. There is a beautiful solo for Alli Gray that expresses loss, grief and a glimmer of hope.  We are treated to an energetic section performed by the entire male cast as they unite to protect each other and aid in the healing of emotional wounds. The women in the cast also have their turn at winning over our hearts. We are then treated to the incredible dancing talents of Leigh Foaad aka Breeze-Lee as he performs surrounded by the boxes filled with life’s potentials. It is clear why this man is a multiple award winner in Hip-hop competitions all over the country and abroad.

Box of Hope - Photo by George Simian
Box of Hope – Photo by George Simian

Family and friends come together as the husband and wife reunite in a wonderfully comedic duet for Lopez and Foaad, performed to an instrumental version of La Vie en Rose.  In a truly high and hopeful finale, the concert came to a conclusion with the entire cast dancing together.

The brilliant cast of Box of Hope included Jackie Lopez aka Miss Funk, Leigh Foaad aka Breeze-Lee, Harry Weston, Alli Gray, Jackie Oka, Ernesto Galarza, Brandon Juezan, Anthony Berry, Alex Almaraz, Cynthia Hernandez, Joey Velasquez, Gbari Gilliam and Sandy Vasquez. Lighting Design Daniel Tator deserves special mention, especially for his lighting in Allie Grey’s solo during Wombyn. Tator’s design not only enhanced the production of Box of Hope, it became part of the choreography by helping to make the Ford Theatre come alive.

Music credits for Box of Hope included The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder, Ibeyi, and Joy Williams. Thanks also went out to DJ PolyRhythm, DJ Pablo Fierro & DJ Rocco.

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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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