The unexplainable phenomenon

Block 1750 re-envisions annual ‘Murmuration’ performance

0
Dancer Goodgold improvises as Tyson Bennet jams on the keyboard.
Angela K. Evans

Moving from behind his computer, Goodgold starts to dance to synthesized music. There’s a pause — and he waits for a live keyboard cue before he starts to move. As the music builds, played by Tyson Bennet, Goodgold tilts his head, snaps his arms out, pops up onto both toes of his sneakers, before rolling onto his knees. 

From Compton, the hip-hop dancer is in Boulder as part of the annual production of Murmuration put on by Block 1750, a dance studio and community space run by the Colorado Hip Hop Collective. 

Over the last decade or so, there have been varied iterations of Murmuration, a community showcase featuring a variety of collaborations between dancers and musicians. “The whole concept was artistic unity with new collaborations,” says this year’s producer and director Sarah Touslee. “So instead of putting a B-boy or a hip-hop dancer with a hip-hop beat, we were putting them with a harpist or something.” 

One year the producers asked dancers to BYOB (bring your own band); another year they created blind date pairings between dancers and musicians who didn’t know each other previously. This year, however, Murmuration is taking yet another form, with a single-story thread uniting the performance, and a score written by local musicians Bennett and Jesse Hunter, who together make up Von Disco, a Boulder-based trip-hop jam band with jazz and hip-hop roots.

The script isn’t rigid, following five main characters as they wrestle with light and dark forces through dance performances sprinkled with a few interludes of spoken word. Although Touslee wrote the script with another instructor from Block 1750, spoken word poets Changa and Franklin Cruz are writing their own performances based off the overall concept. Likewise, more than 45 dancers and musicians have been given creative freedom to integrate their work together for each scene. Jolt, a Denver-based graffiti artist, will also be live painting throughout the show.

“It’s real collaborative,” Hunter says. “I’m recording music, sending it to Tyson, then he’s sending it back. Horn players are recording on top of that and sending it back.” 

“They’re sending it to me,” Touslee continues, “I’m sending it to the dancers, then they’re giving me feedback… This would be impossible if we didn’t have the chemistry and trust in each other.”

Large groups are choreographing their performances before they get to Boulder, but the real collaboration doesn’t start until the week before the show, as dancers arrive from around North America to workshop their pieces with the musicians for the first time.  

Angela K. Evans Bowzee breaks, as Kosi Eze and Nubian Nene look on.

“The one thing about being street dancers, social dancers, is the fact that the music is really important, but rarely do we get to dance to live music,” says waacking/house/hip-hop dancer Nubian Néné, originally from Montreal but now based in Brooklyn. “And it is a completely different experience to be able to do that.”  

Bennet and Hunter scored the entire show, much like creating a score for a movie, while also attempting to honor a wide variety of style and performances into one cohesive narrative.

“We represent all the styles from breaking to crump to contemporary. And each of those has its own music, has its own style,” Touslee says. “It takes a certain level of professionalism where [the musicians] approached each one by just studying these dancers.” 

“And we’ve also had to be true to our own musical intentions in how we want to represent ourselves,” Hunter says. “It’s a really intrinsic, delicate process. But yeah, there is definitely synergy throughout the entire show that I don’t even think that we quite realize yet.”

From the outside, it sounds completely chaotic. There are so many moving parts coming together, it’s unclear whether they will collide on stage or engage in synergistic motion and sound to create something powerful. But that’s the idea behind Murmuration and it’s all done intentionally by the creators, as they seek to engage in a collaborative process that allows for each person to shine rather than stick rigorously to preconceived ideas.

“I believe in the art-on-art concept,” Hunter says. “There’s an element of spontaneity and just this energy exchange that happens on stage when you’re working with dancers and musicians. And then it’s extremely palpable for an audience to see.”

It’s a connection that dancers rarely get to have with musicians, and musicians seldom have with dancers. But it’s one for which Murmuration not only allows, but demands. 

“There’s a call and response between music and dance, which is kind of how all music is supposed to be, it is dance and dance is music,” says drummer Max Devincenzo from Boulder. For a street scene in the show, he’ll be playing a bucket drum, along with a set of license plates he zip-tied together and bent to make a certain snare-drum-type sound, all for house/hip-hop dancer Kosi Eze. 

“It’s been liberating,” Kosi Eze says of the process. “To have it be so human and so personal, to watch the person take feedback and create right on the spot and vice versa. To hear what we’re working with and then instantaneously decide, OK, this is where we’re going, this is what we can do. And the possibilities start opening up. They become almost endless.” 

Born and raised in Kenya, Kosi Eze moved to Ontario, Canada, when she was 13. As she dialogues with Devincenzo, Kosi Eze talks about the different African drum beats she’d like to incorporate in her performance. Devincenzo picks up the drum sticks and starts shifting around the upturned orange bucket, creating different tones as each stroke hits a different area. At first, Kosi Eze isn’t so sure. Then he starts hitting a certain beat and she snaps her fingers in agreement. As he continues, she stands up and starts to dance.  

“I could have stayed in Canada and done like a million things that I’ve done before, but this is a different opportunity in and of itself, just to be a part of the process and not just be a body to be sculpted and to be told what to do,” she says.

Angela K. Evans Kosi Eze dances as Max Devincenzo plays the bucket drum. Director and producer Sarah Touslee, along with Bennet and Jesse Hunter, watch.

It’s a sentiment shared by all of the dancers: Murmuration is unique in the performance world, allowing them — encouraging them, even — to tap into another realm of creativity. 

“Everything we’re creating is all from each other’s thoughts. It’s not from just one person. So we’re feeding off of each other and I think that that makes it really cool,” says Aurora-based breaker Bowzee. “It brings a whole different mindset to what I thought a show could be.”  

The story’s five main characters explore love, friendship, the sacred feminine and the complexity of life in the face of adversity, personified as a villain.

“They start to basically experience a certain darkness within themselves and travel into it. And we watch the group individually process and then also group together to discover unity and move through it,” Touslee says. “There’s a real sense of community and inspiration, but also humanity and truth to the human experience.”  

It’s a story that mimics the community and collaboration of its creators — the crew at Block 1750, the musicians and dancers from elsewhere. Murmuration seeks to highlight the individual creativity and personality of each artist, while acknowledging the larger symbiotic nature of life on this planet, recognizing we all need each other to thrive, to become everything we can.  

“We couldn’t do anything that we all do without each other,” Touslee says. “It’s really discovering each other’s talents and embracing each other’s shadows so that we can just respect each other and be a community.”

Over the years, Murmuration has in essence branded itself as a stable yet ever-evolving community connection point. Regardless of its varied concepts and forms, it “gets to the core of the human experience,” Bennet says. “When [I] see people dance, really no matter what level of dance they may be in, it makes me feel like people are worth fighting for. I mean, music and dance, what else is there to live for?” 

On the bill: Murmuration— presented by Block 1750. 7 p.m. Saturday, June 22, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. Tickets are $20.