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Dancing on Live Grenades

Above photo by David LaChapelleAll other photos byWild Don LewisOn a cold spring night in April of last year, a sold-out and palpably excited crowd sat in Aspen, Colorado’s 19th-century Wheeler Opera House for the last program of Aspen Shorts Fest, the city’s internationally acclaimed short-film festival. The lineup included U.K. director Andrea Arnold’s tough and delicate Wasp, which won the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film earlier this year, and Nacho Vigalondo’s Spanish 7:35 in the Morning, which was nominated in the same category. The evening’s closing short was David LaChapelle’s Krumped, a 24-minute documentary on South-Central Los Angeles’ underground culture of clown dancing and its razor-limbed descendant, krumping. The very white, very suburban Aspen crowd applauded, laughed and wept at the end of the night’s other clips. At the end of Krumped, they sat in stunned “What the hell?!” silence before bursting into applause. Iconic fashion photographer and music-video director David LaChapelle, dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt and sipping green tea in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont (where he conducts a lot of his business) nods his head vigorously and laughs when told this story. It’s a reaction he’s used to. Krumped was the fetus phase of the feature-length documentary Rize, a hot ticket at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and one of the summer’s grassroots-hyped counter-Sith options. But before it evolved into Rize and even before it befuddled and wowed the tony denizens of Aspen, Krumped was upsetting formula. “MTV came to see Krumped [last year at Sundance], and it blew up,” exclaims the effusive LaChapelle, who’s a disarming combination of worldliness, almost tangible sweetness of spirit and often surprising naiveté. Beaming with pride over the film (which he self-financed to the tune of $700,000) and passionately protective of the kids in it, he’s utterly charming. “Elvis Mitchell, who had never written about a short film and who everyone was expecting to single out some [feature], wrote about it in The New York Times. We had to get a room to accommodate people who wanted to invest, journalists who wanted to interview us. It was the same level of madness that people get when they do a feature, and it completely caught us by surprise. I [had] simply wanted to test the waters and see how people were gonna feel about it, maybe get someone to help me pay for it. That’s the reason I did a short. Because I knew from the minute I saw [krump dancing] that I was gonna make a feature about it.” The short was conceived just over three years ago, when LaChapelle was shooting a Christina Aguilera video in South-Central. In order to keep energy up during the shoot’s downtime, he brought along a DJ, who set up backstage. “My friends Tone and Rich (Talauega), who did the music for the film, came to me onset and said, ‘You need to see these kids,’ says LaChapelle. “‘They’re doing this dance called the stripper dance, and there’s, like, 20 of them doing it.’ I was brought backstage, and I was like, ‘My God! What’s going on back here?’ People were breakdancing, and these kids started krumping, and it was insane. Just watching them dance, I thought, ‘This is incredible.’ So [a few nights later] we went down to the hood with a cheap little camera and started filming.” In its final incarnation as Rize, the brief (84 minutes) documentary is LaChapelle’s worshipful look at the hard-knock origins, dazzlingly talented young participants and multilayered meanings tucked within krumping — the rawly frenetic, hip-hop-derived, African-rooted style of dancing that blends sharp-focus athleticism with unbridled personal catharsis. On the surface, this counterculture dance form is violent and hypercombative; it’s like watching a ballet performed atop a field of live grenades. It’s also a gritty new link in the cultural chain that stretches from breakdancing battles and the hip-hop cipher to the competitive balls and familial Houses of vogueing. Like its predecessors, krumping flowers from the shotgun marriages of poverty and race, imagination and ambition. There’s a loveliness and a moving depth of spirit inside the hardcore outlines of its practitioners, who furiously pump, pummel and stomp against erasure and invisibility. The strength of the film lies in how LaChapelle both brilliantly captures the kinetic, sexy, forceful dancing, and also simply lets the cameras roll as the kids speak thoughtfully about the world around them. To achieve the former, the director largely eschews quick-edits and showy camera work, realizing they’d not only be redundant but would actually short-circuit the power of the dancing. (The film begins with the disclaimer, “The footage in this film has not been sped up in any way.”) Having absorbed violence, loss, indifference and assorted strains of pain, and working from a vocabulary of hip-hop movement that has been honed into something both wholly new and eerily ancient, the dancers bounce it all back with so much force and joy-inside-their-tears defiance that they don’t need any technical assists. The jaw-dropping special effects are already part of their personal software, so steady wide shots, medium shots and a few carefully chosen close-ups do the trick. From the salacious grinds of the hip/ass/pelvis-emphasizing “stripper dance” (which the more macho guys sneer at) to the darker, poetically assaultive moves of krumping, the dance sequences in the film are often breathtaking; they’re easily some of the best movie images you’ll see this year. Take that! Miss Prissy has a bootful for anyone who wants to steal her groove. Though they appear to have evolved out of nowhere, clown dancing and krumping have roots in a now almost-forgotten, vibrant dance/youth movement that flourished briefly in the mid to late ’80s. Never really given a name, it was made up of competing dance groups with names like the Teasers, the Soul Brothers, the Godfathers, Heart & Soul, the Lady Heartbreakers and the Heartbreakers. They had a sartorial style called “Trendy” that reached from Prince to new wave, punk, mod and thrift-store chic for influences: tapered pants, creepers with the thick soles, patent-leather shoes, monkey boots. A lot of the guys wore their hair processed à la Cab Calloway, shaved around the sides and the back, worn in a bowl cut. The music they danced to was the electro and hip-hop of the day, but greatly sped up, with choreography (which was just the current dances — the Robocop, the Reebok, the Cabbage Patch — given a distinctly Cali twist) timed to keep pace. “It was primarily a black thing,” remembers Inglewood-based film director Jason Van Veen, “but there was some Latino flavor, too. The Latino kids used to have their parties, and their fliers would have all these names and dedications and shout-outs on them. We used to joke and call them the Aquanet parties. The girls had big hair; even the dudes had big hair, these big pompadours kinda bleached out.” Ironically, the scene was smothered out with the rise of music videos and the influence of East Coast hip-hop style. “All of a sudden,” says Van Veen, “people started seeing these images coming from New York — the kids with the high-top fades, the baggier pants, the African medallions and whatnot. Dudes didn’t want to dance to sped-up stuff anymore. I remember ‘My Philosophy,’ the KRS-1 video, or doing the Biz dance, De La videos, the Jungle Brothers. And Fresh Prince, ‘The Brand New Funk.’ We’d be glued to the TV trying to emulate all those moves. And a lot of the moves looked like a throwback to the ’40s. A lot of brothers were doing stuff that looked like the Lindy hop or some Nicholas Brothers–type moves, jumping over one another.” Dragon, an aspiring minister, spreads the gospel of krump. Sitting in the Mid-Wilshire offices of the film’s publicist, four of Rize’s stars — Miss Prissy, a.k.a. Phoenix; Lil C; Dragon; and the godfather of the movement, Tommy the Clown — are gathered around a conference table breaking down the origins of the style, their personal and professional goals, the difficult balancing act of trying to maintain the integrity of their art while struggling to bring it from the margins to the mainstream — and the assorted issues that plague the place they still call home. While talking, all except Dragon simultaneously juggle Blackberry communiqués and ringing cell phones. Lil C, dressed head to toe in military fatigues and picking at a carry-out breakfast from Burger King, has just recently completed work on a new Missy Elliot video (“They had me on wires and stuff. I was more like a stuntman than a dancer. Missy was like, ‘That’s hot . . .’ The shoot was great. I got a bunch of Adidas stuff. They were like, ‘Here, take it. Here, take it. Here . . .’ ”), while Miss Prissy tours as a dancer with The Game. Dragon, an aspiring minister, is launching his own clothing line, and Tommy the Clown is carefully holding the reins of the culture he’s been shepherding for more than a dozen years now, trying to make sure that as it goes “pop,” it doesn’t leave its originators behind. First and foremost, however, they want to make sure that the connection between where and how they live, and what they have created, is clear. “Where we live?” asks Lil C rhetorically. “I call it a sickness, basically. If turmoil and anguish are a part of your everyday life, you’re gonna get sick — just like if you’re exposed to certain germs every day. Those germs are gonna have an effect. In the hood or the ghetto, [there] are germs that cloud our judgment. They make us think, I can’t make it; I need to join a gang, because this is the only sense of family I’m gonna get. If I want something, I have to go steal it, because I don’t have any talent and I can’t make any money. I can’t go buy it, so I’ll go steal it from somebody else. You tend to fall in and believe it. There’s a negative stigma that surrounds South-Central — actually anywhere that’s outside of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, whatever. There’s a negative stigma around where we live. They drill our neighborhood into the ground so bad that it makes people think nothing positive can come from our neighborhood, and yet all of us that you see sitting at this table came from that area, where there are no positive opportunities. But some of us have been blessed and have had certain people placed in our lives that helped us realize certain things. Tommy, for people in the neighborhood, and for anyone who has ever come in contact with him or ever will come in contact with him, he’s one of those people that make you believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel.” A former drug dealer who turned his life around after being arrested and serving time, Thomas Johnson (a.k.a. Tommy the Clown) began performing at South-Central neighborhood birthday parties in 1992. With his clown suit, painted face, booming ghetto blaster, and funky but pointedly family-friendly footwork, he soon became both the face of “clown dancing” and a beloved community activist whose work with local kids (he eventually set up his own dance academy for them) filled the void where an official school arts curriculum and afterschool programs should have been. The goal was to give kids a viable alternative to gang life. He also organized the Battle Zone competition, where the assorted clown troupes and krump outfits would compete for bragging rights. In the film, Tommy is both hero and oedipal father figure. The kids who still dance with him, such as 20-year-old Larry (a hugely charming character who looks like a young Andre 3000 and works the camera like a movie star), look up to him with the reverence due a strict but loving dad. But even the kids who’ve broken away from clown dancing and formed the more intense offshoot of “krumping” — while almost dismissively impatient with a form they feel is limited and stuck in the past — are respectful of the man. As he is of them. “These kids that’s been in the hood, despite all the negativity that goes on, they choose to use their skills,” says a surprisingly soft-spoken Tommy. “In spite of everybody trying to talk bad about them, tear them down and bring them down, they use their talent and their skills to rise. I give major props to Dragon, Prissy, Lil C, Tight Eyez and them, ’cause they have unique skills that, despite what goes on in the hood, they still climb forward. It’s so many that was doing what [these kids] are doing, but they fell off to the wayside. They didn’t hang in there. They were too caught up in ‘Nothing ain’t happening fast enough.’ But you gotta use your talent and try to make it happen. Don’t give up. I think the movie is gonna let people know that no matter what, you got to keep going forward.” “Where we live? I call it a sickness,” says Lil C, who'd rather dance than succumb. Miss Prissy, who’s been nodding her head while Tommy speaks, adds, “I’ve changed my [stage] name from Miss Prissy. I have another alias — Phoenix. I changed my name because of what he said. I changed my name because I think that bird symbolizes me. People tear me down, tear all of us down, and a phoenix is a bird that builds itself up from its ashes. I feel like all of us sitting here can all relate to that bird, because we have all been torn down — by Hollywood, by the music industry, by the entertainment business. People have rejected our talents, because they can’t identify. People put up shutters and closed us out from a lot of events that we could have possibly benefited from just because they’re scared. “I feel like this movie on the whole represents our daily struggle. It shows that you don’t have to stay in the hood . . .” She pauses. “How can I say this? You don’t have to live in the hood and be a part of all the negativity that goes around in the hood. You don’t have to. There are other things. Just like Dragon said in the movie, a lot of people don’t have money to get involved in, like, afterschool programs and things like that. Some parents can’t afford day care and things like that. This [movement] is something that was created for those kids who couldn’t find that window. I’m 24 years old this year, and just to know that I’m a part of a movement that’s going to create stepping stones for people is enough for me. We’re going to help everyone that’s underneath us get to where we are. I want to see other African-American girls and Hispanic girls in the hood start dancing for artists and trying to get themselves out of whatever situation they’re in. I want to see more black men become artists. I want to see other black men and women and Latin kids become entrepreneurs. This movie is the foundation for all of that.” And that foundation is remarkably rich. Rize is both hugely entertaining and deeply inspiring. It’s also filled with some hauntingly provocative racial imagery: The spellbinding intercutting of archival footage of traditional African ceremonial dances with footage of South-Central kids krumping underscores the eerie sameness of movement, style and energy across time and continents, not only creating a dialogue between past and present but underlining the blood legacies of Negro ingenuity and resilience. The love and tenderness between the black males in the film exposes the lie of the one-note hardness that mainstream gangsta/thug rap and Hollywood would sell as “real.” (The moment when teen-elder Tight Eyez tells his young charge and unofficial little brother, Baby Tight Eyez, that he — the younger — is also a role model and source of inspiration, only to have the scowling youngster break into a sheepish grin, is enough to make the viewer cheese in his or her popcorn.) There are also shrewd nods to a cinematic forerunner, the Negro/queer/vogue culture classic Paris Is Burning. There are, in fact, countless instances in which Rize blatantly echoes Paris: the way Swoop’s endlessly applied makeup sequences in the new film mirror Dorian’s in Paris (volumes could be written about the kids painting African-style masks on their faces — “hiding” in order to be seen); how Paris’ Pepper LaBeija haughtily proclaims, “All of New York is wrapped up in LaBeija” and a character in Rize announces, “The clown thing is a big part of L.A.,” with both cases forcing the viewer to really think about who and what defines the respective cities and their subcultures; the celebration of found and created families in both films. (“I’m actually in Paris Is Burning,” laughs LaChapelle. “For five seconds. I’m in the segment around the Love Ball. I have long brown hair in bangs, and I’m wearing a beige suit jacket. Blink and you’ll miss me.”) But the film is also flawed. What makes it so frustrating at times, and keeps it just short of the classic status that’s within its reach, is its refusal to go deeper into the issues of politics, history and the assorted ways that oppression really works in America. It’s so determined not to risk discomforting the viewer, not to disrupt the easy flow of its feel-good uplift, that it sidesteps the opportunity to connect some crucial political and cultural dots. LaChapelle made the decision early on to forgo social analysts and cultural critics in order to let the kids speak of the world as they see it. “I was going after something else,” he says, “and I needed to just be really clever on how I did this film. Because if I did an academic film, if I did a political film that was really overt, the kids aren’t gonna see it. I needed to do it the way I did so that people could go to the theater and see it, number one, and fall in love with what they’re seeing, find some heroes and find some inspiration. If suddenly I had put in there someone to break it down with expert advice or opinions or statistics, it’d have been a different film.” To that end, we hear the kids unravel familiar ghetto narratives of violence, dysfunctional families and despair. And we also get the succinct summation of so many damaged psyches floating through the hood when Miss Prissy says, point blank, “Some people don’t feel safe outside this place.” It’s the failure to fully contextualize that place that hamstrings the film. Watts burned in ’65 not because that’s simply what Negroes do, but because industry and income had been taken out of the area, replaced with . . . nothing, save mounting frustration and despair. The years following that unrest were filled with broken political promises and indifference. By the time the riots went off in 1992, a culture of deprivation and defeatism had taken hold in the hood — not in all residents, but in enough to cast a powerful pall. Rize ends up shortchanging LaChapelle’s adored subjects, their struggles and their triumphs, by not fully mapping out all that they are up against. Without critical grounding and analysis, the ghetto becomes this self-created/self-sustaining entity detached from history and the machinations of larger, more powerful forces. It becomes a tool for authenticating the grit of a cultural commodity without forcing the shopper to appreciate real costs. The kids in the film are up against not only the racism and white supremacy of white politicians and their gatekeepers, but the ineptitude, corruption and cowardice of Negro politicians and leaders as well. The ghetto is no accident, and it’s not just a byproduct. It is gardened and maintained. “Yeah,” nods LaChapelle emphatically, “it wasn’t an accident. It was planned. In L.A. It’s no accident.” But he maintains that to provide more pointed political content would risk alienating audiences. “I had to let the kids speak for themselves. I just feel like that’s number one, because they are articulate. And maybe one needs to watch it twice to get in everything they are saying, because it is all there.” But then he unwittingly contradicts himself when he tells of an early test screening in the Bronx. The film opens with black-and-white newsreel footage of the 1965 Watts Riots; a plaintive Negro gospel song accompanies images of the enclave burning. Cut to: video footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, at which point the movie segues into color. “The kids in the audience didn’t know the significance of having those two clips open the film,” says an incredulous LaChapelle, “so I had to go back and put in footage of the kids in the movie talking about how this is where they live, and how they were really young when the 1992 riots happened.” But the significance of the footage isn’t just that it provides a geographical location for where the film’s subjects live, but that it speaks to much larger issues of justice, racism and social inequality. The irony/paradox is that these are the very issues that have given rise to the most American of art forms — those Negro creations of jazz, rock & roll, techno, House, and hip-hop in its assorted permutations, including krumping. This is not the only problem with the film. It’s a “documentary,” but one of its most celebrated scenes is blatantly staged. A memorial segment for a slain girl, filmed the Los Angeles River Basin, is almost awkwardly out of place, and while the audience I saw the film with at Sundance wept, all I could think was, “Why the hell would kids from the hood trek over there to pay tribute, in song, to a fallen peer? And does ‘Amazing Grace’ ever need to be sung again?” “I felt like [the slain girl] needed a memorial in the film,” says LaChapelle when asked about that moment, admitting that it was his idea. “I really felt like we needed to do something to honor her. And I love that song. It’s really that simple. There wasn’t a lot of premeditation going into it. It felt right. It’s a symbolic song. So much of it was just feeling. Like, I feel like it goes here.” Tommy the Clown: the original and still the king A trickier issue is the way the film deals with terms of success and validation. In the film, the dancer Tight Eyez says quite forcefully, “We’re not gonna be clones of the commercialized hip-hop world.” In their publicist’s office, Miss Prissy lays out how, up until recently, that was not even an option. At least not for the originators of krumping, who, like so many Negroes before them, have had to sit back and watch as their creation (which has crept into assorted music videos and films) was slowly co-opted and whitewashed. When asked exactly how they can keep krumping from going the way of overcommercialized hip-hop, Miss Prissy exhales and unleashes. “That kind of stuff motivates me every day,” she says, pounding the table. “And I know it motivates everyone at this table, because that’s been happening. I mean, there was a point in time where we got so wrapped up in what we saw on TV [elements of krumping creeping into the mainstream without them] that it stopped our movement. It was to the point where we were so angry that we weren’t doing anything with our anger. We would sit in the hood and be like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re sitting here working and creating, and these Hollywood kids is stealing our joint!’ And it was like, ‘Okay, [no more] excuses. Okay, you’re sitting back and you’re just gonna talk about it?’ And months and months passed by. And I guess we all got a grip. Every day that I dance, every day that I’m getting krumped, I’m getting krumped not only because it’s in me but because I’m not gonna let anyone take it from me. I birthed it. It’s my child. “When I’m in Hollywood, I’ll see kids — not even kids, people my age — and the same thing I was doing two years ago at an audition and having people go, ‘Thank you for coming. You’re spazzing, you’re not dancing, but thank you for coming,’ I see these same people at auditions doing what I was doing, and they’re getting booked. It’s so funny that everybody now wants to be a part of the movement. It’s almost like sitting there building a castle from the ground up and then people just moving in, just coming in and living in your home, and they didn’t even help you set the foundation.” “I used to think it was up to us to sort of protect and ensure that our movement wasn’t desecrated,” says Lil C, “because it’s very easy for the industry itself to grab something and violate the sacredness of it. They wring it out like a sponge and toss it back. They drain it of all its life essence and throw it away, not even knowing what it is they really threw away. And I used to think it was up to me and us, but what I’ve come to realize is that it’s divine timing. Timing is everything. A year ago, I was watching people do moves that we had created; I knew they were taking credit for it. It would burn a hole in me; it would make me so mad. But my mama told me that the truth is always undeniable. I talk to people, other artists, all the time, and they’re like, ‘I like that whole clown-dancing thing like they had in the Black Eyed Peas video.’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, no.’ ” They all laugh. LaChapelle complicates the matter as well. He delivers the kids to success by draping them in status quo signifiers of it — sleekly oiled bodies filmed for maximum sexual effect, long hair weaves tossed in slo-mo, artfully “outsider” costumes — that are often the same markers found in “commercialized” hip-hop: It all raises countless questions about the tensions between pop and the underground, about the two-way street of co-option, and about the ways in which people may actively resist or rebel against their circumstance but not necessarily against the system that created said circumstances; they may, in fact, agitate merely to become part of the very system that oppresses/excludes them without even being aware that’s what they’re doing, or while honestly claiming otherwise. And that system is treacherous not only for those with noses pressed against the window but even for those with VIP privileges. As the interview with LaChapelle winds down, he tells how he had to battle a surprise nemesis to get his film made. “I fucking fought off MTV,” he says with a mixture of pride and irritation. “When we were at Sundance [two years ago, with Krumped], MTV comes and they’re like, ‘We want to do a reality show based on your short.’ And I told them I didn’t want to do a reality show, I’m doing a feature. I’m gonna be here next year with a feature. And they were like, ‘Oh, um, okay, do you think we can have a copy so we can get it to our features division?’ So, I said, ‘Yeah, sure’ and gave them a press book and a copy of [the short]. Three months later, I go to Tommy’s place as usual to do some filming, and I pull up and I’m like, ‘What’s with all these trucks? What the hell is going on? Who are all these P.A.s, and where are all these grips coming from? Am I being punked? What the fuck is going on here?’ And this little hotshot director comes up to me and he goes, ‘Oh, yeah, MTV gave me a copy of your film.’ “And I said, ‘They sent it back to me. How could you have a copy of it?’ “‘Oh, they must have copied it.’ “Well, that’s interesting. So, MTV copied my film and gave you a copy of it, huh?” “ ‘Yeah, they gave me a copy of it. But I’m gonna do something really different from what you did.’ ” By this point, LaChapelle is on the edge of his chair. “This kid did Making the Band, from Huck Finn Productions or some shit like that. He goes, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do something really different from what you did. We’re focusing on the gang element.’ “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna do something different. You’re following around a guy in a rainbow wig through the hood? It can’t be that different.’ “They literally pushed me, Morgan and my friend Richmond out of the way [he makes a sweeping gesture with his arm to illustrate] while we’re filming a birthday party. I went into deep shock. I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I couldn’t sleep. Monday came around, and I called my agent and said, ‘What the fuck is going on? You gotta call MTV.’ He calls MTV, and this producer there was like, ‘You don’t own any of their life rights, we’re doing our reality show.’ “Tommy [the Clown] has been calling MTV for years, and they never called him back. But suddenly they’re all interested after seeing my film. So MTV’s lawyer is like, ‘You don’t own the life rights to any of these people; we gave you the option of making the reality show with us, you said no, so we’re proceeding without you. End of story.’” Coincidentally, and luckily, LaChapelle had the No. 1 videos on both MTV and VH1 at the very time MTV was trying to jack him. “Now, if I’d just been some UCLA student or something making this movie, my shit would’ve been over for me. My film would’ve been turned into a reality show on TV, and then no one would be interested in the movie. It would’ve already been the trend of the week. MTV wasn’t going to search out archival footage of African dancers and show the connection to what these kids were doing. They weren’t going to take the time to go to church services and film something that was that important to the kids. They wouldn’t have even made the connection between the church services and a krump session.” LaChapelle's agent called the MTV bigwigs, who apparently had no idea what was going on. They told the producer that he needed to have a conference call with LaChapelle. “The night before,” he chuckles, “I’m flipping out. I’m calling the prayer line. I swear to God. And the woman says to me, ‘What’s yours is yours and cannot be taken.’ Okay. I get off the phone, and I pop in this tape that a friend had left me but I hadn’t watched, and it was the Dalai Lama doing this lecture followed by a Q&A. The last question someone asks him, his response was, ‘Prayer is good, but you have to defend what’s yours. If Tibet had done that, we wouldn’t be in the position we are today if we had fought for what was ours and if we had fought for what is right.’ I thought, ‘Man, this is a message.’ I went in to that conference call, and I don’t know what possessed me. I told them that if they went ahead with their plans, I would call Robert Redford and tell him what was going on. I would go up to Sundance the next year with a bullhorn and yell that MTV was only up there to rip people off. I was taken over. I was drenched.” So, what happened? He smiles. “MTV didn’t do a reality show, and my movie’s about to come out.”