GUNSHOTS RING OUT in Studio C of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, but not a single dancer flinches. Most continue to stretch, encouraging their impossibly long limbs to get even longer, while a few bounce around on their toes like boxers shaking loose in the ring. As tough as they try to look, the toothy grins give them away. It’s not every day ballerinas get to warm up to hip hop.
“All I wanna do is (bang bang bang bang), and a (ka-ching!), and take your money.”
M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” blasts from a stereo, while visiting choreographer Victor Quijada looks on with his arm slung across a chair. He’s today’s DJ and director, the emissary of cool, clad in black Adidas pants and a red Umbro sport shirt boasting an allegiance to England. Is he a dancer or a soccer player? The svelte 36-year-old could pass for either, with a torso built for one-armed lifts and handstands. Quijada is often confused for someone, or something, else; he’s both a ballet dancer with a background in breakdancing, and a streetwise b-boy with a classical arts education. Right now, he’s a dance fusion expert teaching the PNB how to pop and lock.
They call him “Rubberband”—at least, they did when he was eight, and his elastic breakdancing style earned him the nickname on the streets of Los Angeles. The son of Mexican immigrants, Quijada set out on a path forged by American Dreamers: He studied postmodernism and Dalí at LA County High School for the Arts, then joined Twyla Tharp’s modern dance troupe in New York City two years after graduation, where he was the only member without classical dance training. “I had quite a chip on my shoulder coming from that street dance world,” he said. “It was tough.… At times I needed to prove myself more than anyone else was proving themselves.” In 2000, that spirited effort landed him a spot in Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal—2,900 miles from home—where Quijada added classical ballet by George Balanchine to his repertoire.
But he never truly moved on from breakdancing—it was always there, kicking him in the shins. In 2002, at the age of 26, Quijada started his own modern dance troupe in Montreal; he brought on classically trained ballerina (and life partner) Anne Plamondon as co–artistic director. Naming the troupe was easy: Rubberbandance, a company that stretches the boundaries of classical and contemporary movement, fusing hip hop and ballet with elements of capoeira, martial arts, even yoga.
“It’s obvious to me that this is the next wave of contemporary dance,” Quijada told the Los Angeles Times, “borrowing from the streets and putting hip hop on stage.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet is no stranger to new types of movement. Ever since Peter Boal stepped in as artistic director, the company has performed commissions by some of the world’s leading modern dance choreographers: Jiŕí Kylián, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky. And now, Boal has called on Victor Quijada to create a piece for PNB’s New Works showcase this month. It’s one of three premieres in an already diverse lineup featuring A Million Kisses to My Skin by British choreographer David Dawson, about the bliss of being a dancer, and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s tribute to a friend who died unexpectedly, Cylindrical Shadows. Quijada’s world premiere fits somewhere in the middle—a work still very much in progress when I sit in on rehearsal.
The rubberband man gets up from his chair to spot Carla Körbes, a delicate principal—the White Swan type—who’s currently trying to do a cartwheel atop a seated Lucien Postlewaite. Her feet leave the ground, shoulders touch shoulders, and she lands hesitantly. The look on Postlewaite’s face is a mixture of fear and relief—a silent Are you okay?
“Trust that moment. The guy’s strong, he can take you,” Quijada says. Körbes grows more fearless with each cartwheel, until this body-hurling movement looks graceful, controlled. Quijada and Plamondon walk among the dancers, teaching them dime stops (sharp movements, “like you’re stopping on a dime”). Like an elastic band, the dancers tug back and forth, rolling over and under each other, never losing contact. “There’s separation, but there’s always an anchor point,” Quijada says. “That’s the key.”
Faces screwed in concentration, the dancers review these unfamiliar moves over and over—trying to be both relaxed and technically sharp. In some cases, they’re undoing what they’ve learned from years at the barre. “Don’t point your toes,” Plamondon tells Körbes. “Don’t turn out.” Carla stops midinstruction, laughing. Everyone starts laughing, even Quijada and Plamondon. No one ever said “Hip Hop for Ballerinas 101” would be easy.
Pacific Northwest Ballet: New Works
Mar 16–24, $28–$168,
McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St, Seattle Center,