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Review: LES BALLET AFRIK Brings Ball Culture to Chelsea

Review: LES BALLET AFRIK Brings Ball Culture to Chelsea

As part of a week-long festival at the Joyce Theater celebrating new artists, the company offers audiences a crash course in ballroom culture that is stylish, fun and smart.

Opening night of any show is an invitation for more. The expectations are always high. Les Ballet Afrik's "New York is Burning" not only met those expectations, but exceeded them.

Les Ballet Afrik, directed by Ousemane "Omari" Wiles, opened The Joyce Theater Foundation's seventh American Dance Platform festival. The festival features bourgeoning choreographic voices from across the country hand-picked by Evidence founder Ronald K. Brown. Festival performers include Les Ballet Afrik, as well as B. Moore Dance and waheedworks. Each company performs twice at The Joyce Theater from January 10-15.

Les Ballet Afrik, which will have its second performance Friday, January 13th at 7:30 p.m. is a multi-cultural dance company whose mission is to bridge the gap between the progressive LGBTQ community and the traditions of the Diaspora, with the hope to bring awareness to the Black and Latino experience within the ballroom scene. "New York is Burning" draws its inspiration from the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning and its depiction of the ballroom scene as a powerful force against homophobia, racism and the ravages of HIV/AIDS.

For the uninitiated, the ballroom, or ball, scene is an underground LGBTQ subculture originating in New York City that mixes performance, dance, lip-syncing, and modeling in its events. Even though ball culture has recently gained mainstream attention in shows like Pose, it can still be an exclusive inclusive space; designed to serve the community it uplifts and protects. Les Ballet Afrik is one of the few artists to take ball culture and catapult it onto a mainstage. "New York is Burning" emphasizes that ball culture and the LGBTQ community it serves "deserve a seat at the table because we have always been there." The show is about "creating spaces and taking up space" and the right to "call me by my name and respect my dream."

It begins with a nod toward its club-scene origins, opening in darkness to simulate the moment before a party starts when the energy crackles. As the lights go up, whatever expectations the audience was holding about ball culture of Les Ballet Afrik feel naive or limiting. This is more than could be imagined. "New York is Burning" focuses on voguing -- modern house dancing using elements of hands, catwalk, duckwalk, floor performance, spins and dips -- and mixes in contemporary, classical, West African and Afrobeat styles. It's clear each dancer is skilled in these forms and much more, deftly able to bring an ease and a gravity to the movement, which the company defines as "Afrikfusion." To define its style as "dance" or "movement" feels limited. Afrikfusion and "New York is Burning" is an energy, a vibe shared between artist and audience.

This energy is best represented in ensemble numbers, particularly those with all female-presenting members, or solos from Wiles. But, no matter how skilled and fierce the performers, if the audience remains brain-dead and mute this vibe fizzles quickly. To up the energy, commentators, or emcees -- a staple in ball culture -- take the stage between dance breaks and spit "raps," or commentate, over a beat. "New York is Burning" emcees Karma Banks and Tygier Morgan use diss battles and stream-of-consciousness riffs to offer the audience a crash course in ball culture, and a peek in the experience.

This effort to educate audiences and elevate the ball scene is vital, yet it can slow the show down. One scene where Wiles lip-syncs -- another staple of ball culture -- to spoken word about the importance of self-love, freedom of expression and equality while performing sets a nice tone for what ball culture is about. But monologues from the emcees detailing ball history may be better written in the program, or as a talk-back option after the show. "New York is Burning" is unique enough audiences would certainly appreciate staying an extra 15 minutes to hear about this history without wondering when the next dance break will begin.

One can't blame audiences for this impatience, not when the show is so engaging and beautiful, with striking lighting choices from Zach Lobel and a music experience curated by DJ AlginAligns that one wishes were available online. Costuming, perhaps chosen by the cast, lives up to the legendary fashion in ball culture. It's a Y2K throwback, it's glam, it's showgirl, it's camp, it shines on stage. When these artistic elements combine in the dance breaks, "New York is Burning" gives audiences a true tour-de-force.

This is a performance that can light up a cold Tuesday evening and also carry audiences into a holiday weekend. It's the ideal show for The Joyce, a theater both intimate and reverent located in Chelsea, one of New York City's quintessential LGBTQ neighborhoods. Grab a balcony seat and find closeness even in the nosebleed. Or sit down front and catch sweat off the dancer's bodies. There are no bad seats. For a brief, one-hour show without an intermission, a theater that is both a living room and an arthouse is ideal.


The American Dance Platform runs Jan 10-15. Tickets, ranging in price from $10-$55, can be purchased at www.Joyce.org, or by calling 212-242-0800. Ticket prices are subject to change. The Joyce Theater is located at 175 Eighth Avenue at West 19th Street. Masks are required in the theater.



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From This Author - Lora Strum

An award-winning freelance journalist specializing in long-form, community-focused storytelling, Lora has written for the Washington City Paper, the PBS NewsHour, Marquette Magazine, Broa... (read more about this author)


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