Translating the Cipher: Rubberdance Group Creates a Contemporary Hip-Hop Genre

by Ariel Osterweis Scott

Dancer Magazine, August 2008

Imagine a pas de bourrée. Now insert breaks: pas de bou-pop, then pas de pop-rrée. In his choreography for Rubberdance Group (RBDG), Victor Quijada stages such stylistic unions, allowing ballet to intermingle with break in a contemporary aesthetic that challenges categorization. Weary of labels, Quijada tells me that if he were forced to name his style today, he would call it, “post-hip-hop or contemporary break.” In Quijada’s work, hip-hop moves can be executed with the tempo and texture of an adagio, and sneakers can be worn to dance a pas de deux.

Based in Montreal, Quijada founded RBDG to explore the limits of choreographic hybridity. Embodying multiple techniques, Quijada is informed by his career as a B-boy in Los Angeles as well as dancing with Twyla Tharp and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. From hip-hop to contemporary to ballet, the trajectory of Quijada’s dance career is anything but ordinary.

Quijada grew up in the Baldwin Park section of L.A. His inceptive dance experience includes freestyling in hip-hop ciphers. He tells me, “Whenever I say hip-hop, I’m thinking about that moment, 1990-1996. I’m talking about an experience; I’m talking about a music, a culture, that time in Los Angeles. Sometimes I feel a little bit disconnected from hip-hop. Now I don’t recognize the word ‘hip-hop.’”

Quijada explains that the freestyling (as opposed to foundation breaking) he and his crew practiced in L.A. evaded categories: “Is it a funk style? We’d be dancing boogaloo, then on the floor one minute and back up, and it was so much about responding to sounds and musicality and creating your own style. I remember during that time that if people were doing break moves or things that were coming out of videos, we didn’t want to see it in the cipher. The B-boy event in 1990s’ L.A. was a new thing, but now it’s a sport. You have to sign up.”

If B-boying has taken on new competitive dimensions, Quijada, too, has evolved. It was not until immersing himself in modern dance, then ballet, that he began to develop a nuanced appreciation of the ways in which hip-hop could become increasingly recognizable to him again. Quijada’s hip-hop is one that embraces dramatic narrative and tanztheater-type abstraction as much as it calls on the adept shoulder stand or pop.


Lila-Mae Talbot & Joe Danny Aurelien
Photo by Chris Randle

When Quijada studied modern and postmodern dance with Rudy Perez at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, he began to develop a taste for concert dance. Perez introduced Quijada to Graham and Cunningham techniques and the Judson Church movement, which occurred in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Nevertheless, “Nothing I had seen in the concert world could compare to how fast and risky and exciting the cipher was”—that was, until Quijada stumbled onto Twyla Tharp’s work. Hired by Tharp not long after high school, Quijada found that her choreography approached hip-hop in its fast footwork: “Working with Twyla was such an amazing eye-opening experience on so many different levels. Her work is so fast, exciting and risky.”

If Tharp and the cipher shared an appreciation for speed, Quijada found an unexpected connection on the level of partnering. Although hip-hop isn’t typically thought of as a duet form, Quijada explains, “In Twyla’s work there was the presence of partnering, and I wondered how I could connect that to what I had known in the cipher.”

Quijada notes that in hip-hop, “there’s a certain ‘groundedness’ and weight…so your body’s ready to connect with the floor, a partner or space as if it were something solid you could use. When I first came into contemporary dance, the first thing that came naturally to me was partnering. I realized I had been doing a lot of partnering with the floor, space or myself, manipulating space or using the floor as a partner. It’s as though you are partnering yourself the whole time.”

RBDG relies heavily on partnering, both dramatically and physically, but neither men nor women are given preference in terms of who is lifting whom. “There’s a lot of equality in terms of how the two sexes are used.” Quijada’s piece “Elastic Perspective” is a perfect example of how his choreography demands elasticity, tension created through two dancers’ fluid push and pull.

Though comfortable as a partner, Quijada felt the need to catch up to other Tharp company members, especially on the level of ballet technique. If they had had many more years of modern and ballet training behind them, Quijada admits, “I was late.” In order to improve his ballet technique as quickly as possible, Quijada says, “I was taking the morning class and then the night class after rehearsal.” Supplementing Tharp’s rehearsals by taking classes with American Ballet Theater and Madame Darvash in New York eventually paid off. Quijada was subsequently hired by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. He has remained in Montreal after dancing with the company from 2000 to 2002.

Without missing a beat, Quijada formed RBDG in 2002. The company performs in both hip-hop and concert dance venues, blurring boundaries between the two. Since its inception, RBDG has been fueled as much by individual dancers as by Quijada’s “post-hip-hop” aesthetic. However, Quijada is careful to note that dancers are not hired to merely “do their thing, like popping here and footwork there.” Instead, each dancer, whether initially ballet or hip-hop trained, must be called upon to do it all, fusing techniques and approaches. While dancers in much of the early work learned the company style through the choreographic process itself, the current company includes new members who are immersed into intensive workshops. Evolving from the choreography, Quijada has recently had to “develop a technique” in order to speed up the process of stylistic unity.

Although Quijada tells me that at one point his “biggest fear was that technique would overpower the freedom felt in the choreography,” he has realized that skill and artistry can indeed be reconciled. He reflects, “I spent years and years and years in the cipher doing my own thing; I spent years in the concert world learning this other thing that influenced what I had been working with. I was educating myself on how the proscenium works, how the theater works, how all those dance forms from extremes of the spectrum can coexist. And that’s what is unique about the work: that I’m trying to take that experience and those capabilities and share them as a technique. I have such a real respect for the word “technique,” and for a while I didn’t want to say that what we were doing was a technique because I have such a respect for ballet technique. What we’re doing with this company is unique enough that there’s a lot of training that has to occur before dancers even do the work. There are ballet dancers and break dancers, and there’s a lot of training, un-training and retraining that has to occur.”

Company workshops take on a structure similar to the progression of a ballet class: “It’s kind of like…a ballet barre. You start with a tendu, and that tendu will eventually lead to a grand jeté. There are two parts: a standing part and a floor part. Everything we go through in the standing and on the floor is starting at zero and goes to the maximum. There’s a thread to everything we do.” Quijada reminds us that technique is just a vehicle. “The work for me is really about the humanity, about the people on the stage and the people watching the work.” When the company is on tour, they conduct master classes, workshops and lecture demonstrations. According to Quijada, “In workshops and master classes, the main thing that I’m focusing on is the physical approach to this work. It is the same workshop I give the company, which is a preparation to do the work. I try to teach whoever’s in front of me.” Lec-dems give Quijada the opportunity to further “break down” the components of his movement: “Lecture-demonstrations, such as the one based on ‘Elastic Perspectives Redux’ are very educational. We break it down to the most basic denominator. This makes everyone an insider.”

Especially in his current work, Quijada is dedicated to expanding that group of insiders. He says, “I’d like to make everyone in the audience an insider. I care enough [about the audience] to challenge them, but I care too much to say, if you don’t get it, then you’re stupid.” This doubled sense of inclusivity and challenge is directly informed by the hip-hop cipher, where dancers comprise the circle’s perimeter, jumping into the center to show off their skills. As Quijada reflects, “That’s how I know dance: you go and you do it, and you’re waiting for your turn.”

His current work tests the audience’s sensory awareness. He and co-director Anne Plamondon (formerly of Nederlands Dans Theater II) are working on a continuation of the duet “A/V Input Output” premiered in March. It was performed at Place des Arts, where RBDG is resident artist. “Phase Two” is the working title of the entire piece, which will ultimately interweave the duet with a sextet, incorporating video and live text. Quijada likens this process to the process of sampling, saying he will “splice them together, going back and forth from one world to another.” Engaging with concepts of hyperreality, breaking the fourth wall and visibility, Quijada says hyperreality has to do with what you see and don’t see, how we present ourselves, and our fixation with celebrity culture.

Quijada has a fascination with how we see performance and how to make performance more of an interactive activity. For example, he plays with proximity and aural legibility. He says he has developed audience interaction a lot more, and his performances are interactive. “But audiences don’t have to get out of their seats. They might overhear a conversation.”

The cipher’s circuitry of inclusivity is not entirely lost. Although Quijada explains that the hip-hop cipher goes through a transition when you put it onstage, becoming no longer a participatory event but a circle that has everyone feeding into it, a reciprocal relationship between performer and audience is created anew. The cipher’s new perimeters leak out toward the theatre’s wall. To enter RBDG’s space is to enter a cipher where discomfort is just as valued, a form of participation as a practiced head spin.

RBDG’s current type of musical collaboration is also informed by hip-hop culture. The company is collaborating with a Toronto DJ Jasper Gahunia (a.k.a. DJ Lil’ Jaz) who was working with a Toronto-based rapper named K-OS. In a mode not dissimilar from Quijada’s own hybrid technique, turntable champ DJ Lil’ Jaz samples classical music into a hip-hop form. Quijada explains that Lil’ Jaz “went to a bunch of classical records, sampling one note here and one note there.” Their collaborative process included e-mailing each other MP3s and exchanging essays. Quijada describes DJ Lil’ Jaz’s music as the “most beautiful, nasty, illest, most romantic and most dirty music ever!”

The forum of a concert dance company allows for such rich collaborations. Quijada admits that he could have traveled along an easier path by freelancing instead of pursuing the company. He says, “We didn’t take the easy way. It’s very hard to have your own company.” However, the success of RBDG has allowed Quijada to occasionally set works on other companies, such as the esteemed Pacific Northwest Ballet, for whom he choreographed a piece in 2006. RBDG likes working in various art forms and has created three short films, performed for television and participated in commercial work.

Although much hip-hop has fully entered mainstream culture, Quijada assures me that RBDG’s unclassifiable brew of post-hip-hop or contemporary break is still very underground. With touring scheduled to Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and Hawaii in the next year, that remains to be seen.

For more information on RBDG, visit: http://www.rubberbandance.com.

Ariel Osterweis Scott is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, educator and ethnographer. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley and can be reached at aos@berkeley.edu