Turf dancers are typically seen busking on BART trains as they pass beneath the bay or enacting sidewalk soliloquys on the streets of Oakland. Technically stunning, the fluid dance form is of the people, performed on the same ground as the audience — followed by a tip hat.
By contrast, contemporary ballet still retains the elitist tinge of its origins in royal courts. Ballerinas command theater sets, captivating audiences at grant-funded, ticketed events. That disparity in stage setting is symbolic of complex cultural differences — the ways in which the professional fine art world privileges certain art forms and how others thrive outside it.
Artistically, one discipline is no more legitimate than the other. But dancer My-Linh Le wants to know what would happen if their two settings were to collide. If turf and ballet dancers were to take the stage together, what differences would fall away and what similarities would emerge?
Le is currently crowdfunding a project called Mud Water Theatre in hopes of answering that question. Her vision is to bring together twelve dancers — six classically trained ballerinas and six turf dancers — to tell a story together, narrated through spoken word. "I'm not saying [turf dancers] are unhappy performing for people that just pass by them all the time in places where they can be easily ignored," says Le in the Kickstarter video for her campaign. "But it's a personal goal of mine to put their art on a platform where it might be more appreciated, because it's just as technical and beautiful as any other dance that we give grants and stage time to."
Le began learning both ballet and "popping" (a street dance style with some similarities to turfing) as a senior in high school, but she deliberately kept her two practices separate in order to fit in. After studying dance theater as an undergraduate at UCLA, she attended law school at UC Davis. Now, she lives in Oakland and splits her time between dancing and practicing law. She is in a longstanding Bay Area popping crew called Playboyz Inc. — the first female member since its inception in 1981.
Le stands out among her fellow Playboyz not only because she's a woman, but also because she has come to embrace her instinctive inclination to let ballet techniques seep into her popping practice. A couple years ago, when she finally decided to give into the urge to merge the two styles, she realized that the result looked similar to turfing in many ways. Although she knew that turf dancing wasn't a direct reference to ballet, she found that its molten movements, graceful pirouetting, and gestural poetics offered an undeniable similarity to the age-old dance form. "I thought, well, if they're not doing it on purpose, it would be really interesting to explore where that comes from," Le said in interview. "Maybe it's just a totally separate thing, and maybe it's in our nature to be graceful and to be fluid and smooth in our movement."
- Bert Johnson
- Mud Water dancers Dana Fitchett and AJ "DopeyFresh" Gardner.
With encouragement from TURFinc's famous Johnny 5, Le decided to stage a conversation between the two styles. But when she first brought in the dancers for rehearsal, it wasn't so smooth. Different dance backgrounds meant different expectations about choreography and collaboration. She described it as two groups speaking two different languages. By the end of the session, though, they fell into step with one another. "They're gonna be learning from each other," Le said, "but not each other's vocabulary exactly — more like how to cross these barriers of understanding and connect but stay true to their own styles."
Mud Water has already been accepted to perform at the DIRT dance festival at Dance Mission Theater in January. But Le was only able to hold two rehearsals before her tentative cast fell apart. Without any money upfront, she couldn't get any turf dancers to commit to the project.
"They just can't afford the time and cost to come into a studio and rehearse for nothing," said Le. "And I don't want them to. They deserve to get paid." But Le was shut out of the grant world because she hasn't produced a professional show in the past year — a common requirement. So, she's hoping to crowd fund $8,000 by November 19. As of Monday, she had raised just over $4,500.
The name "Mud Water" was inspired by the lotus, the Chinese symbol of enlightenment. Although the flower grows through muddy water, it emerges as a pristine symbol of beauty. For Le, both ballet and turf dancing represent a similar kind of self-realization. "[The similarity] makes you think, it's gotta be human nature," said Le. "Like something really deep, embedded in our subconscious, that comes out maybe because of pressures or because of the waters of experiences — the really challenging things that life throws at us — and that's what I really want to explore in this project."