Berlin B-boys Bring 'Flying Bach' to Washington
“No one thought this was possible.”
Enlarge image (© Germany.Info) It began with a dance battle set to Michael Jackson music in 1990’s Berlin. Growing up in the city’s multicultural Kreuzberg district, the Beirut-born Vartan Bassil took his passion for breakdance to co-found the Flying Steps breakdance crew in 1993. Attracting top talent from around the globe, the Flying Steps grew to become known internationally not only for their breathtaking “power moves,” but also the stunningly innovative choreography of their shows.
Earning respect in the street-dance world was sweet for Bassil, but it was not enough. Becoming a father and attending a parent-teacher conference made him realize he wanted to be known as more than a “hip-hop dancer.”
What he wanted, ultimately, was respect—at a musical, cultural, societal level. To tear down barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. To show, in a rapidly changing cultural landscape, that hip-hop dance was an art form.
In flew Bach
Enter Christoph Hagel. The opera director, having staged Mozart’s Magic Flute in the newly-opened U-55 subway in Berlin to rave reviews in 2008, was looking to further push the envelope of musical theater. Immediately taken with the Flying Steps after seeing them perform in 2009, he saw the potential for a new collaboration melding Bach with breakdance.
“There is a definite connection. This style of dance goes well with the counterpoint rhythm of Bach’s fugues, more so than traditional ballet,” Hagel says. “Breakdance and Bach also visually and musically influenced their individual periods of time in similar ways.”
Bassil, for his part, found what he was looking for in the Bach-meets-breakdance concept.
“After that first dance rehearsal to the Well-Tempered Clavier, we knew we wanted to work together,” Bassil says. “Christoph Hagel showed us not only how to embody the music, but also how to read the notes—to understand how the composition was built. Now we can dance to the sheet music.”
A hit from Berlin, around the world to Washington
Enlarge image (© Red Bull Flying Bach) Any doubts about the artistic potential of a Bach-infused breakdance show were laid to rest following the 2010 premiere of Flying Bach at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. “Those standing ovations at the end of each performance were a big relief,” says Bassil.
Recognition in the form of an ECHO Klassik award—among the most prestigious prizes in the world of classical music—followed soon thereafter.
“This contemporary interpretation of Baroque sounds unites urban dance with classical arts—two elements which were previously thought to be incompatible,” the jury then said. “The Flying Steps show that breakdance and classical music must not remain opposites.”
Sold-out shows around the world, including in previously unimaginable temples of high culture such as Vienna’s Burgtheater, kept the Flying Steps busy over the past half-decade.
But their performances in the USA—beginning with a six-night sold-out streak in Chicago in 2014, and since taking them across the multicultural birthplace of hip-hop and breakdancing—are always something special, says Bassil.
“A German breakdance crew performing to classical music in the US—and everyone was into it! That was insane.”
By Jacob Comenetz, Cultural Affairs Officer, German Embassy Washington