Trend setting is not for the faint of heart. It’s risky, especially in an art form like dance that requires total vulnerability, constant innovation, and an implicit understanding that nothing is truly “original.” So it is no simple thing to discuss how Amy O/tinyrage, the Seattle trend-setting dance storm, is able to simultaneously entertain and challenge audiences. At The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance That You Will See This Decade, Amy O’Neal defies, reinforces, and dismisses every idea of a white female dancer audiences have ever had. Never before has a gender and racially defined dance form like hip hop been so methodically contested with massive devotion and honest, passionate respect.
Respect is a hard thing to explain, as it requires defining “the line,” which was clearly on O’Neal’s mind on October 14, 2012 at Velocity’s Founders Theater. But as with so many things, O’Neal rose to the challenge by asking the most difficult questions with transparency and humorous talent. The performance displayed a series of “Exhibits” that opened a dialogue with the audience through projected text, a sort of essay that invited the audience into O’Neal’s personal investigation of hip hop. O’Neal instantly won the audience’s respect in “Exhibit A” when her strength and sinewy specificity were highlighted by a satirical sampling of tai-chi, karate, contemporary dance improvisation, and captivating dance-hall styles.
Amy O as Ciara Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
Honesty garners respect. O’Neal displayed great respect for the audience by exposing her most vulnerable side. She asked the audience difficult and challenging questions currently facing the field of popular music. By leading us through her journey as a female in a field that traditionally objectifies women and sex, O’Neal presented the audience with her perspective on the topic. “Where is the line between power and empowerment?” she asked in a post-performance chat. During a sampling of hip hop artist Ciara’s 2010 music video hit, Ride, O’Neal investigated the dichotomy of using sexual expression as a tool of personal power and being diminished/defined by sexual gender roles. Exhibits D and E depict O’Neal as “Stripperina,” a persona garbed in a black tutu complete with light-up platform heels, tiara, and a stripper pole. She uses this new identity to investigate the misconceptions around dance as a means of expression. This is a familiar issue for dancers who have dealt with the American male stereotype who, after a few too many drinks, insists on asking, “So you’re a dancer—like an exotic dancer?”
Respect for personal expression through music and dance is the other uncomfortable truth that O’Neal tackled. In a musical era defined by “sampling,” the audience is asked if anything is new or original. Is it respectful to borrow certain aspects of other people’s work, and where is the line between tribute and plagiarism? It’s a question that has plagued popular music since the Jazz and Swing Eras, and O’Neal presents no illusions when she quotes Cyndi Lauper, Big Boi, and Janet Jackson. O’Neal cites several dancers as personal inspiration, and recreates their work with her own interpretation. The audience was led to draw a line between creatively borrowing and copying someone else’s work.
O’Neal is digging into the future with fluid style, rhythmic dynamism, and a shovel shaped into a tool for critical thought. What otherwise might have been cheap and senseless booty shaking was instead rich, luxurious, meaningful, and a positive form of self-expression. O’Neal has chosen to address issues familiar to digital natives, hip hop lovers, or anyone who has ever been swept up in the magic of popular music. She does so with merciless honesty and fantastic skill. In the background of the spinning vortex that was O’Neal on Sunday night, a personally directed documentary that explicitly asked random Seattleites these very same questions was projected behind the stage. The interviews were at times hysterical, uncomfortable, shockingly predictable, joyfully surprising, and most importantly, honest. O’Neal has decided to represent herself according to her own passions, but has also taken the rest of the world into account. No matter the source, everything has become fodder for the inspiration of this honestly creative, innovative individual.