As always, ambitions run high at the launch of 2015 season at the Park Avenue Armory, which is in itself quite possibly the most stunning arts venue in New York City. For this season opener, the Armory commissioned FLEXN, an extraordinary collaboration between the legendary director Peter Sellars and, on another end of the celebrity spectrum, Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray, a forefather of flexn, an urban dance style that was born on the streets of Brooklyn, East New York about a decade ago, easily recognizable for the dancers’ contortionist, rubber-jointed moves.

© Stephanie Berger
© Stephanie Berger

Conceptually speaking, the project as a whole is impressively conceived: Sellars and Gray spent several months in residence at the Armory, developing the work with a diverse group of 21 street dancers; each of the nine performances is preceded by a panel conversation featuring scholars, artists, activists and government officials weighing in their thoughts on the issues of social justice and (in)equality and the visual artist Ben Zamora created a gigantic light installation that covers nearly the entire length of the venue’s north wall (think roughly one-half of a football field) providing a dazzling array of animated neon patterns as a backdrop to the equally gigantic, 160-foot runway stage. Not to forget, the entire experience of FLEXN is boosted by a large-size glossy catalog – featuring everything from stylish fashion-magazine-worthy black and white photos of all the dancers, to a “flexapedia” – and an accompanying visual arts exhibition in the Armory’s entrance halls.

So far so good. And yet, shortly after the show begins, what does not work in the whole operation surfaces rather quickly. While the large troupe of dancers as a whole exhibits an impressive array of talents, their skills are highly uneven, and the grand scale on which their work is exhibited here most often hinders their efforts to shine. To be completely honest, I feel like I have seen much more punchy and memorable urban dance on the streets and subways of New York. But, in fairness to these artists, this form of dancing is typically performed in extremely tight quarters (and presented with equally meagre means), where the public is in close proximity, the immediacy is palpable, the energy is infectious, and the acts are rarely more than a few minutes long – the sum total of these circumstances tends to be gut-punching, in the best possible sense of the word. The operatic scale on which these flexers’ work is presented, proscenium-style, and – for many spectators – dozens of feet away from the stage, strips this urban form of its original immediacy and significantly diminishes its impact. In spite of the ensemble's best efforts, the massive stage and lighting installation overwhelms, and, at times, nearly obliterates the dancing.

© Stephanie Berger
© Stephanie Berger
The production is equally problematic on directorial and dramaturgical levels. The 160-foot stage and the mise-en-scène are egregiously underutilized, as a great deal of the performance is comprised of intimate compositions (solos, duets, etc.) that get all but lost on the long runway; even the larger group sections are relegated to smaller sections of the stage. It is not evident from the program notes who is responsible for creating the loose narrative thread of FLEXN, which is underscored throughout to the blasting sounds of Billboard Hot 100 hits (past and present), from the likes of Drake, Rihanna, Maroon 5, and, on the slightly more esoteric end, Imogen Heap. Whatever the case may be, the storyline certainly hits the zeitgeist as “scenes” of policy brutality, gangs, street violence, shootings, trials and racial profiling, among others, are presented throughout the piece. Unfortunately, much of it is dealt with in a rather facile manner, relegating the staging to a pantomime of the pop songs’ lyrics that reaches, at times, downright cringeworthy levels, such as in the work’s penultimate (and longest) section where each dancer, enclosed in a square of light – suggestive of a solitary confinement cell – proceeds to perform his/her own solo, each lasting nearly the length of an entire song, one at a time.

At best, FLEXN left me with extremely mixed feelings. On a civic and political level, the significance of the Armory – a high-brow venue in one of Manhattan’s wealthiest neighborhoods – taking on a project that gives voice to an underrepresented community, and tackling issues of social justice on such a monumental scale, is truly exemplary. And yet, ironically, the raw talent of these urban dancers was drowned in the venue’s majestic scale and under FLEXN’s highly ambitious production design, which, in spite of its magnificence, ultimately proved counterproductive.

***11