Darrell Grand Moultrie lives in New York’s Spanish Harlem. Growing up there in the 1980s and ’90s, he didn’t quite fit in.
“I was raised in an African-American household. R&B, gospel, rap was the soundtrack,” he said during a rehearsal break in Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. “But go outside to the store or to the barber shop, you heard Latin scores — merengue, salsa, reggaeton, flamenco, Gypsy singers.”
Moultrie is in town on a commission from Philadelphia’s BalletX dance company to choreograph a new dance piece he is calling “Vivir.” The young choreographer seems to be able to do anything — he has found success in musical theater on Broadway; in modern dance and ballet; and in pop as a touring choreographer for Beyoncé’s Mrs. Carter Show World Tour in 2013-2014.
“She’s a very positive woman, very hard working. It was an exciting gig,” he said. “I wish I could do it again. I’ve never seen her since, but it was a fun gig.”
“Vivir” is Moultrie’s second gig in Philadelphia. He made “Differences in Sections” for BalletX in 2012, marked by a violin and piano music and daring movement and color palette. For this show — popping again with electric blues and oranges — he scored the dance with a playlist of Tito Puente’s big band, flamenco, and the acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela with their aggressively percussive interplay.
A New Yorker born and raised, moving through an array of cultures daily, he learned to not just respect them but embrace them and learn from them. In “Vivir,” he celebrates the music that energized his neighborhood.
“It was the ’80s when crack was a big, big problem. Those years,” said Moultrie. “To watch it change now is interesting. You can gentrify it, but in the deep pockets where they can’t get the people who have been there, they can’t get them out yet, and you still hear rhythms and cultures, the traditions are still there.”
The BalletX Spring Series features three works, including two premieres by visiting choreographers and a piece by BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan, “Increasing,” made for the Vail Dance Festival in 2014.
Catching the ‘Soul Train’
While he shares the same bill with Moultrie, the upbringing of the other visiting choreographer — Trey McIntyre — couldn’t be more different. He grew up in Wichita, Kansas, in the 1970s, watching African-Americans dance on TV.
“On Saturday mornings, I’d watch ‘American Bandstand’ and ‘Soul Train,’ and saw it as other-worldly and something to aspire to,” said McIntyre. “At the same time, the predominant memory is how many serial killers there were. There was a real sense of doom. In Kansas, there was the BTK Strangler. That was a morbid dude. Every night, it was on the news. That was my boogeyman.”
“The Boogeyman” is McIntyre’s homage to the extravagantly funky moves seen on the TV dance show “Soul Train,” picked apart and reassembled as avant-garde ballet.
He made this piece in collaboration with the BalletX dancers, most of whom are too young to know what “Soul Train” was. Together they watched hours of YouTube clips to get the right moves.
McIntyre found a significant generation gap between then and now. It wasn’t hard for the dancers to figure out the moves, but getting the feeling right was a challenge.
“You can get a similar movement now, but there’s a level of irony in it. Sarcasm, even,” he said. “But look at ‘Soul Train.’ There’s no guile. Nobody’s making fun of the movement, it’s a complete embrace of eccentricity.”
He advised the dancers to get funky with it, for real though: “Don’t act your pleasure. Show your pleasure. Dance from that.”
Although McIntyre doesn’t dance, he is trying to lay himself bare on the stage. To him, the music of the 1970s was tremendous fun at a time of deep unrest. The ’60s cultural revolution was over, and fear had embraced the nation.
“The paradigm adults were subscribing to were falling apart. Nobody knew what they were doing,” he said. “The ’60s were a time to break things open. It had a spiritual component. In the ’70s, we lost the spiritual component. The music was an escape, an indulgence.”
Tapping into those crazy dance moves on “Soul Train” is a portal to conflicted memories.
“We’re doing an archaeological dig, doing this,” said McIntyre. “Then, I have a springboard. I can take it into places that are more personal for me.”
BalletX Spring Series runs at the Wilma Theater through Sunday March 18.