Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Amy O'Neal

The choreographer takes a break from dancing to push against breakdancing's masculine norms with Opposing Forces.

By Seth Sommerfeld October 21, 2014

Amy O'Neal steps off of the stage for Opposing Forces.

Amy O'Neal has doubled as one of the city's most thrilling dancers and choreographers for years, but she's stepping off the stage and solely focusing on directing the movement for her latest work, Opposing Forces. Tapping into Seattle's world-class pool of breakdancing talent, O'Neal explores the masculinity and aggression the dominates b-boy culture and looks to turn it on its ear. The boundary-pushing breakdancing of Opposing Forces takes over On the Boards this weekend (October 23–26).

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with O'Neal about intentionally making her dancers uncomfortable, attempting to change perceptions about hip-hop dance, and sex therapists.

What was the original inspiration for Opposing Forces?

There isn’t any one spark. I was thinking about what I wanted to do for my next project a couple of years ago and I had been thinking about wanting to do a piece with guys, but I didn't know who or why. And then I was also sort of writing a lot and thinking about the different aesthetic, and social, and economic values within commercial dance versus battling versus contemporary dance; hip-hop world versus the sort of other art world that I'm involved in. I'm involved in a lot of different worlds.  I'm thinking a lot about how people value things differently in those worlds.

And I started hanging around the Beacon Massive Monkees Studio when it opened up and became friends with Brysen Angeles who is part of Massive Monkees crew. I think our conversations helped put all of the pieces together for me. I started thinking about all of the b-boys, in particular in Seattle, that have inspired me over the years and who I've known through various things. So started putting together a cast of people. And when I was proposing the project to (artistic director) Lane (Czaplinski) at On the Boards, I really wanted to start with a question that seemed kind of impossible, or really, really scary. And so the idea of working with a group of b-boys—which breakdance is like the most masculine aggressive dance form that we know about and we sort of see in American culture—and I wanted to explore the ideas of femininity with guys who are taking part in this super masculine form. Those were all of the pieces that came together that get this ball rolling. 

To me it sometimes seems like breakdancing is almost more an athletic performance and a showcase of skills rather than an attempt to express stories or trying to get across a certain message. What was the process for adding thematic elements to that style of dance?

Well all of the guys in the cast have done stage performance before of various kinds, so they kind of understand. What's been interesting is that there are certain methods of creating movement that I do—that you could do with any dancer—that are going to create different outcomes according to how they move. I've started with just sort of some physical explorations to sort of get at some different qualities. But also using what it is that they do. Because I'm not gonna like go in and have them try to do other things that they don't know how to do. I mean, I am having them do things that they do feel uncomfortable doing because they signed up for that.

But as far as exploring the themes in that, we started really physically and then sort of got into conversations. Any time a cast member would have a point of resistance around what I was asking him to do we would stop and talk around things. Everyone in the cast is coming from a different generation and also a different perspective on things, and there are certain triggers that would happen if I'm asking them to try something physically. At different points people are like, "Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa, why are we doing that?" or "I don't wanna do that, it's gonna make me look weird or bad." So then we'd have to get in and talk about why, and that would usually really dive into the perceptions of them not wanting to be perceived as feminine or them not wanting to be perceived as homosexual. So then we really get into the heart of what this work is.

So what was the process of finding the dancers for the show?

Well it was like calling them up. (Laughs) They are all people I know. There were people that I had in mind to begin with. I was naming names of people that I would love to work with, people that I've known for a while, and Brysen would be like, "Oh yeah, they've totally been a big influence on the scene and it would be so amazing to work with them."

Is there a particular aspect of Opposing Forces that you're personally most excited about?

There are multiple. The first thing I'm really excited about is, especially for the premier, is just being completely outside of it. It’s the first time that I'm going to watch a major work at On the Boards happen that I've directed and choreographed.  Everything that I've done in the past at On the Boards, I've been in.

And I can't wait for people's perceptions for who (the dancers) are to be challenged and potentially changed. We did an open showing at On the Boards at the end of our residency, and this white, older man was there and he came up to me and some of the guys afterwards and said, “Wow, you really changed my mind about hip-hop in the past hour. I look at these guys and think they are thugs, but wow! They are really intelligent and really sweet guys.” (Laughs) And it’s like, yeah that's awesome, that's great. A lot of people have that attitude if you're not a part of that world. That's what the media shows us about hip-hop culture. That's what a lot of people see if they're not involved. So I'm excited to bring that to On the Boards and have people see something else.

And how is it choreographing a work that you are not personally dancing in for a change?

I mean I've made tons of short pieces on people that I haven't been in, but making a big work, in some ways, it's helped me be a lot more organized and grounded because I can see it on the outside. I'm also a little less sensitive about it because I'm not in it myself and my physical vulnerability is not there inside of the work. It feels really good to be able to talk about it from the outside and have confidence in the fact that it’s probably going to be pretty awesome. When you’re in it you’re like (melodramatic wailing voice), “Ahhh, no! It sucks! And... I don’t know!”

On the flip side though, it's also dance is something that I need to do a lot, so there’s a part of me that’s really restless and trying to balance that out too. Because I'm mostly directing projects right now and not working on performance. I'm also rehabbing an injury, so it kind of worked out. It's funny how the universe just says, “Okay, time to sit down for a second.”

If you weren't a dancer and choreographer is there another line of work you think you might've wanted to pursue?

I always kind of joke with my friends that I would probably be a sex therapist or something. (Laughs)

And why is that?

Because I'm always the friend that people talk to about their stuff; about their relationships and sex and things. They don't talk to any of their friends about it, but they'll talk to me about it.  Which is kind of an honor, kind of cool. But I think if I did that for a living I'd get really, really, really sick of it. (Laughs)

Amy O'Neal: Opposing Forces
Oct 23–26, On the Boards, $25

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