December 2016 | Ballet Scene | Crossing Boundaries

Ballet Scene | Crossing Boundaries: Turfers and ballet dancers come together to address social justice

by Heather Wisner
Ballet meets turfing—a style of street dance that originated in Oakland, California—during a Mud Water Project rehearsal. All photos by Jason Lam

Ballet meets turfing—a style of street dance that originated in Oakland, California—during a Mud Water Project rehearsal. All photos by Jason Lam

When My-Linh Le watches turfers at work, she sees the grace, fluidity, and balance of ballet—no small feat, considering that turfers often perform their style of street dance aboard San Francisco Bay Area BART trains, busking for donations in cramped and unsteady spaces. “Turfers tend to get [up] on their toes,” she says, “and they like to do spins.”

So it made sense to Le to combine ballet and turfing in a concert setting. In 2015, the Oakland, California–based dancer created Mud Water Theatre/Mud Water Project. Its eponymous multimedia dance theater piece united six ballet dancers from the Alonzo King Lines Ballet Training Program with six local turfers. The impetus was San Francisco’s Dance In Revolt(ing) Times (or D.I.R.T.) Festival, which presents choreography that has social justice themes. Le saw an opportunity to show that the two styles had more in common than people might think, that turfing was as deserving as ballet of a theater audience, and that by collaborating, the dancers could speak to social issues in an artistic way.

“It started off with this very superficial intrigue with similar textures in the two, similar instincts, similar gracefulness,” Le says. “Once we started creating the project, we discovered that the similarities go a bit deeper than that.” Thematically, the piece addresses what Le describes as “structural racism in this country as well as the dismissal or denial of such. It seems like [the law] would be fair, because it applies to everybody, but the impact it has depends on what your race is, what your gender is, etc.”

[The ballet dancers] learned to do a little bit more freestyle and more improv, and [the turfers] learned to do choreography.Khristina Cayetano

Le was well positioned to see the potential of such a piece. At age 17, she began learning ballet and popping, and she studied dance at UCLA before attending law school at the University of California–Davis. Now, at 29, she’s a practicing attorney and a member of the Bay Area popping crew Playboyz Inc. Through street dance competitions, she discovered turfing; when she began casting for the project, the turfers included people she knew. She found ballet dancers through friends and on a scouting mission at a Lines showcase. Over eight weeks, the project created a 20-minute piece that seamlessly blended ballet and turfing for its January 2016 debut as part of D.I.R.T.

Dancers discovered new movement styles and new ways to express themselves through the project.

Dancers discovered new movement styles and new ways to express themselves through the project.

The process, however, was less than seamless. Discovering that grants are typically awarded to directors with longer track records than her own, Le turned to crowdfunding, raising money via Kickstarter to pay dancers and collaborators—an important consideration especially for turfers, who gave up time when they could have been dancing for money in order to rehearse. The campaign was a success, exceeding its $8,000 goal by $2,000, and a Berkeley martial arts studio offered practice space in kind.

In the meantime, however, personnel issues cropped up.

Darlyn Perez and Marcus McCray learned to trust each other and their fellow ballet dancers and turfers as they adapted to new dance languages and cultures.

Darlyn Perez and Marcus McCray learned to trust each other and their fellow ballet dancers and turfers as they adapted to new dance languages and cultures.

“The cast kept changing. I started forming a group during the application process and also during the crowdfunding [campaign], but by the time we got funding, a lot of the people had dropped out, so we had to replace them,” Le says. “We didn’t have the full cast until it was time to do the tech rehearsal. It was pretty stressful.”

She also had to contend with turfers arriving late to rehearsal. “It was hard to navigate, because on the one hand, you don’t know what’s going on in their lives, so you want to be patient and understanding,” she says. “On the other hand, you have to have rules, or else the thing falls apart and everyone starts showing up late. There was a lot of trust that we had to have up front, and working through that took a long time.”

Along with learning to trust Le, the dancers had to learn one another’s dance languages and cultures in real time.

Khristina Cayetano, 25, had studied ballet and street dance in her native New York City before she came to Lines and she believes turfing didn’t present as much culture shock to her as it did to some of her colleagues. Still, she says, “the structure of ballet is very different and the culture of ballet is very different.” Ballet dancers, she explains, are motivated from the outside in, directed by instructors, whereas turfers are motivated from “the inside out, where it’s like, ‘I want to do this, I love doing this.’ Ballet is kind of like that, but it’s more like, ‘This is what I need to do to become a ballet dancer and be in a ballet company.’ ”

The dancers began to share their own stories of personal struggles, including overcoming homelessness and coping with violence.

With the turfers, Cayetano continues, “the mindset is, ‘If I’m going to dance, it’s to let off steam, it’s to enjoy myself, to have some fun, because I already have a hard life; I have a lot of work to do. [For a turfer,] coming to a rehearsal isn’t like coming to work. It’s like, ‘I already had to go to work.’ Whereas for [ballet dancers], we’re training for work, because we have the money to take classes and be in programs.”

Mud Water founder My-Linh Le (center) studied both ballet and street dance; she created the project as a way for dancers to collaboratively address social issues.

Mud Water founder My-Linh Le (center) studied both ballet and street dance; she created the project as a way for dancers to collaboratively address social issues.

“I thought ballet dancers might be snobby,” says Arthur “Dopey-Fresh” Gardner Jr., a 28-year-old San Francisco–based turfer and part-time dance instructor. It didn’t help that when Le began rehearsals with a cipher (a freestyle exercise done in a circle with the dancers taking turns performing in the center) some of the ballet dancers balked.

“They were looking at us like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ” Gardner says. “They just didn’t understand how to start. They were thrown off by the whole process. But they were willing to try. The following week, we sat down and had a conversation.”

The dancers began to share their own stories of personal struggles, including overcoming homelessness and coping with violence. The barriers between them started to blur in ways Le hadn’t anticipated. “I wasn’t intentionally looking for people who had gone through a lot in their lives, but it seems like that’s what the project wound up attracting,” she says. “It almost didn’t matter what style of dance they were doing. I had a knack for finding dancers who had this kind of experience and [who] bring it to their dancing.”

Le blocked the piece and began building steps based on images she had in mind. It wasn’t always easy to translate that vision, though, which prompted experimentation and discussion. She says one dancer kept asking, “What do you want? Just tell us what you want!” Le tried to explain her process: “We try all the ideas and keep the ones that work and throw out the ones that don’t. Some of the dancers were expecting set choreography.”

The rehearsal process provided room for discussion and experimentation; Khristina Cayetano (bottom) says she and the other ballet dancers sometimes found the lack of set movement challenging: “The language we speak is ‘You tell me what to do and I do it.’ ”

The rehearsal process provided room for discussion and experimentation; Khristina Cayetano (bottom) says she and the other ballet dancers sometimes found the lack of set movement challenging: “The language we speak is ‘You tell me what to do and I do it.’ ”

Conversely, some of the dancers weren’t expecting set choreography. “[Turfers are] freestyling, so choreography is never really put on them, so they just don’t think in that way,” Cayetano says. “Ballet dancers, we don’t freestyle. The choreographer puts something on us and we can emulate it. In rehearsals, for the ballet dancers, it was a challenge. The language we speak is ‘You tell me what to do and I do it. It took [the turfers] a little while to catch on to that. We learned to do a little bit more freestyle and more improv, and they learned to do choreography.”

“One of the dancers told me it was like you were in some foreign exchange program,” Le says. “They spoke two different languages, but then they were discovering how many words sounded the same and they would get really excited. As we moved further along and they started to see [the final piece] come together, that’s when I started to see [the process] was really changing.”

She remembers one rehearsal in particular as a breakthrough: “I had one ballet dancer and one turfer pair [up] and go across the floor improvising together. It was very loose in the structure; I just gave them a few prompts: ‘You’re going to move along this trajectory, and you’re going to move at this pace, and here are a few other restrictions.’ There was such a close connection [between] the two dancers, it was almost as though they were doing the same choreography—except there was no choreography. But they were listening to the music and to each other so carefully, it was like they were reading each other’s minds, and then you couldn’t tell which one was the turfer and which was the ballet dancer.”

At first, Mud Water dancers, including Arthur “Dopey-Fresh” Gardner Jr. (top and bottom right) and Tatiana Barber (bottom left), weren’t sure how the collaboration would work. In the end, says Gardner, “we all learned a lot from each other.”

At first, Mud Water dancers, including Arthur “Dopey-Fresh” Gardner Jr. (top and bottom right) and Tatiana Barber (bottom left), weren’t sure how the collaboration would work. In the end, says Gardner, “we all learned a lot from each other.”

“The first time, we didn’t know what the heck we were doing,” says Gardner about the piece’s evolution. In the end, however, “we all learned a lot from each other.”

The piece was educational for the audience as well—and well received. “We got an amazingly warm reception from audiences the first time we performed the project,” Le says. Besides seeing the two styles work together, viewers appreciated the project’s treatment of racism, something Le says she has become more aware of since she began working in the legal system. “We talk a lot about race in our piece, and that’s something that’s been weighing pretty heavily on my mind as more and more stories come up in the news,” she says. “I used to be one of those people who was in denial of racism still being a thing.”

“I knew [the piece] was going to touch [on racism], I just didn’t know it was going to touch it that deep,” says Gardner, noting that some viewers said they had been moved to tears by a solo he performs against a backdrop of footage of recent high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police. “I feel like a lot of people are trying to ignore it or they’re kind of dancing around it. We’re showing how it feels. You can feel the tension. I feel like that’s what [art] lacks right now.”

Cayetano agrees: “[The piece] was innovative, and I think that’s what ballet could use. We can use tradition, but we need to innovate to progress.”

The second and final installation of the Mud Water Project will take place in March 2017; purchase tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2764560/. For more information (and video clips), go to mudwatertheatre.com.


DSL managing editor Heather Wisner is a former associate editor at Dance Magazine. She has written about dance for SF Weekly, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, and Portland Monthly, among other publications.