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At Street Level: FRGMNT’s Superheroes Cry Too

An old critic’s axiom says that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. In other words, it’s an absurd and seemingly irreconcilable exercise. Nonetheless, we do write about music, we do dance about architecture, and we dance, too, about lots of other matters of modern concern. The subject of a work of dance is often elusive and diffuse. But dance is nonetheless the operative mode proper to addressing life’s irreconcilable absurdities.

The Montreal collective FRGMNT’s latest performance, entitled Superheroes Cry Too, is an immersive work of art that addresses a number of ostensibly disparate themes: psychotherapy; structural restraint; cyclical nature; ubiquitous media. And the nonrepresentational qualities of movement—particularly the various styles of street dance the collective incorporates—are at once more suitable and also more immediate points of entry into otherwise complicated human conditions, and the more subtle everyday feelings they cultivate.

FRGMNT aims to “make the discussion around the communication of all kinds of difficult emotions fluid, open and empathetic,” their artistic statement explains, “and to normalize the respect of each other’s vulnerability.” There are no obvious markers of super-heroism on display, no capes or X-ray goggles, suggesting that we can seek to identify heroism in the quotidian. And while FRGMNT is an extremely hip collective of multi-talented hip hop artists, it is their vulnerable stance, a bold openness to be exposed and emotional, that ultimately endears Superheroes Cry Too to its audience.

FRGMNT consists of dancers Victoria ‘VicVersa’ Mackenzie, Ja James ‘Jigsaw’ Britton Johnson, Nubian Néné, Mukoma-K. ‘J. Style’ Nshinga, and the project’s co-directors, DJ and dancer Richard ‘Shash’U’ St-Aubin and choreographer Céline ‘ezzeC’ Richard-Robichon. And although the crew have known each other in intersecting circles since the early 2000s, they have come together in this configuration specifically for this work.

“It’s my first time being in this type of collective,” Shash’U tells me via telephone on the day before their premiere, “so I’m very excited about that.”

“Initially it was Victoria’s idea. She had this idea of bringing people together to work on a project, but also having the opportunity that we can develop and exchange different types of leadership. It was a cool exercise. It’s been a mix of all of our heads together.”

Superheroes Cry Too is presented at Ausgang Plaza in a series of loosely structured tableaus. The performers invite the audience to move about freely, obliterating the boundaries between spectator and stage. The narrator draws us into a story about a doctor-patient relationship while another dancer spins amidst a ceremonial circle of chrome handles, virtually hovering in mid-air. The dreamlike and aquatic electronic music and the dancer’s actions draw the audience from a claustrophobic wooden box to a circle of pink kitchen chairs, from one tableau to another, like chapters in a short story.

“We feel like it’s a whole experience,” Shash’U says. “It’s not really a Yellow Brick Road thing, it’s more like you’re in it and it’s a good vibe. For me, the meaning of the show is the experience that I’ve had through the collective itself. It’s essentially my experience with the collective expressed into a piece.”

FRGMNT’s members come from contrasting disciplines. “I really grew up in street dance,” Shash’U says, “so my styles were locking, popping, krump, and hip-hop. A lot of the dancers in this collective are very much familiar with hip hop. Néné is a pro at house dance. She also represents waacking, hip-hop, and house dance around the world. Ja I’ve known as a krumper and today he works with ebnfloh, which is mostly street dance. And Victoria worked with different crews. Everybody does have their experience in street dance and the stage. But to come together for this idea is very unique and also very unexpected.”

The collective also aims to break down the borders between institutional and more informal cultural traditions. “It’s different than going to a dance school and learning classical practices.” Shash’U says. “With something like Ballet, there’s a clearer structure in the way things are done, and that’s how they stay constant. For street dance, a lot of it is learned through human interaction. It’s very much a socially embedded type of thing. It’s hard to learn about street dance by sitting down and reading a book, or by following one way of doing things.”

There is a procedural quality to Superheroes Cry Too, an element of controlled chaos that exists between improvisation and highly choreographed movement. “All this is still a big process for us,” Shash’U explains. “A show is not really like a haircut. It’s never done, done. While you’re still getting it, you’re realizing this could be cool for next time, or that could be adjusted. This thing that we’re making makes us feel a certain way, and you just want to grow into that.”

It is ultimately the feeling that emerges between performer and spectator that makes Superheroes Cry Too so moving. There is no question that we can successfully dance about architecture, since dance is a powerful form of non-verbal communication, one which seeks to rationalize the irrational and grasp the unfathomable. “Because of the way it was taught to us, it has very much to do with communication skills,” Shash’U reminds me.

“The idea for me of street dance is sharing what they’ve learned, or wanting to showcase what they’ve learned to other people who understand. That’s the core of it. It’s the main reason why one B-boy thinks that they’re better than another B-boy. They believe in their passion, their art, their discipline. They think, I feel like I want to talk about this, I feel like I want to share this, and I want to show this to my friend who is going through the same things, and I want to have these conversations—but through dance. When it comes to us exercising our idea of art and discipline, the DNA of street dancing has to do with communication. You have no choice but to communicate.”◼︎

Superheroes Cry Too continues through December 11th at Ausgang Plaza.