January 31, 2018
The Roots is nearly a ballet, stuck between romantic and neoclassical sensibilities with its set of stylized living room furniture by Olivier Borne, danced on by a cast of eleven men, all looking vaguely distressed in a space made ghostly by Fabrice Crouzet’s lighting at the Joyce Theater. The single-gendered piece may tempt one to call The Roots the French contemporary hip-hop answer to Balanchine’s Serenade, especially given choreographer Kader Attou’s musical choreography, yet the movement refuses to settle on being simply pure, and, clocking in at ninety minutes, takes considerably longer to make its case.
As contemporary ballet has solidified into a genre, contemporary hip-hop swiftly follows. Abstractly, it is a fusion with the potential to bring out the best in its components. While the shorthand for contemporary movement has become indulgent noodling, its advanced formal sensibility is not necessarily what hip-hop needs, but maximizes the way we see hip-hop’s precise movement onstage. The Roots, however, instead takes shortcuts that leave us entertained in several irreconcilable ways.
Many idioms of hip-hop are present in Compagnie Accrorap. Each dancer, unilaterally proficient, excels in particular at one or two. From tutting’s hand gestures through the complex body sequencing of waving and popping/locking to full-bodied breaking, no movement can be done without a crystalline process of execution.
A link that emerges between hip-hop and ballet is their elemental vocabularies, that, of course, contemporary would want to futz with. The difference is that, hip-hop often requiring complete bodily investment in any movement, there is not as much room for motivic variation in spinning on one’s head as there is in fouetté turns. We know we are seeing the movement again when it repeats, but as a carbon copy we begin to view it as one would a gymnastics routine.
Attou’s composition adheres with contemporary ballet companies far and wide – a slide show of spatially meandering solos and duets with frontal unison at the beginning, sometimes in the middle, and definitely at the end. Recognizing his exhausting use of unison, that is admittedly wholly captivating when it comes to hip-hop’s intricacy, Attou will spit an odd man out, which, too, becomes laboriously expected.
We are often charmed by circus-influenced physical craftiness, such as a slapstick game of musical chairs with a chair that breaks down, and a meta game of continuing to move after the piece has ostensibly ended. They serve as a breather for the performers, save the most memorable scene – a lone tap dancer in a spotlight atop a table, luring the rest of the company to join him like moths to a light bulb, each dancer physically responding to the sound in their personal vocabularies.
After doing well in each department, Attou ends the piece with a high-energy jam session. It is celebratory and beautiful unto itself but, in context, reads as an apology for anything that may have been not as entertaining until then. The Roots’ roots are all very apparent, but each scene is a potential piece unto itself; we can only climb one branch at a time.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews