Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 2002
It reads like the opening of a lush romantic novel:
In a world where people have become desensitized and oblivious to the events around them, I have found a love that allows me to remain conscious and aware…This love runs within me, along the streams of my veins. It pumps in and out of my heart with each pulse, contracts with each muscle, and makes contact with the world every time I move. If you cannot guess what my love is, it is dance.
So begins the college entrance application essay of April Tra, soon-to-be graduate of high school and of Eveoke Dance Theater’s Youth Performing Group. A first generation Vietnamese American, April started dancing at age five, taking tap and jazz classes. But she feels that her life really began in an after-school hip-hop class at her junior high. It was an off-site workshop taught by Gina Angelique, the powerhouse founder/choreographer of Eveoke.
April had always been drawn to the rhythm of hip hop. “There’s a pulse I feel,” she says, “the heavy baseline. You can feel it beating in your heart. And from there, to the rest of your body. You and the music flow together. You transcend your body. It’s a wonderful, totally truthful feeling.”
Her teachers felt it, too. “We were enraptured,” says Angelique. “She was a prodigy. Some dancers would spend 20 years getting to the level she’s achieved in four. Without any modern dance training, her natural talent was amazing.”
Once Tra entered the Eveoke Dance studio, she never left.
“I was so inspired watching them dance,” she says. “They’re so passionate. When you’re inspired, you want to feel that way, too. And you want to share that feeling with others.”
When she started with Eveoke, she was 13 years old. Now, at 17, she dances, rehearses or teaches for the company nearly 30 hours a week. And it’s not just about dance. Eveoke is devoted to cultivating social change through art. Their productions blur the lines between art-forms, combining theater, dance, music and movement to tell stories (such as the gut-wrenching “Soul of a Young Girl: Dances of Anne Frank” — in which April dazzled as Anne’s older sister Margot), and at the same time, to inspire social action.
Now Angelique and her co-choreographer, the gifted dancer Ericka Moore, have turned their attention to hip-hop, for their latest endeavor, “Funkalosophy.” It seems an unlikely focus for a frankly feminist organization.
“As a political activist, I’m passionately interested in the energy of youth culture,” says Angelique, a wunderkind who just turned 30. “Anything that gets them off their complacent, apathetic butts. I see how excited they get by hip-hop, even though I don’t like the unthinking violence of hip-hop, the utter disrespect of women. But there’s an incredible sub-culture of hip-hop creating its own kind of revolt, and we’re tapping into that.
“What we do is combine what’s appealing to mass culture with important social-political debate. We take the African roots, the funkiness and earthiness and rhythms of hip- hop and combine them with the inventiveness of modern dance. It’s not anti-everything. It’s pro peace and justice. Hip-hop is the perfect vehicle because it’s dance emanating from the hips and torso, the center of the body, the center of action. It’s dance of the soul. We can’t combat all those multimedia campaigns portraying women a certain way. But we can put out our own images of women and what’s meaningful in life.”
So “Funkalosophy” is a philosophy of hip-hop, a new vision for hip-hop culture, featuring ten talented, highly athletic dancers from the Youth Performing Group (one of them male), and two talented Company professionals.
The dancers make imaginative use of six-foot sections of chain link fence as a metaphor of alienation, misogyny, ignorance and lack of social-political sensitivity. In this 90-minute journey, the company brings social consciousness to slap-tap, pop-locking, breaking and street funk, using hip-hop music and dance to illuminate inner-city social struggles.
It’s an energizing but bittersweet swan-song for April Tra. “The main reason we’re doing this piece now,” Angelique confesses, “is because of April. She has a special gift for hip-hop and we wanted to celebrate that and her. But on a broader scale, we want to empower youth and hold them to higher standards.”
April Tra is a model for high standards and achievement. As she heads off to college, the lovely, graceful, self-possessed young dancer turns wistful. “I don’t know what lies ahead, but I strongly feel that I’ll return to Eveoke. It changed my life. How could I not give back to the people and the place that have given me so much?”
[Funkalosophy runs May 3-26 at the Eveoke Studio Theatre, 644 7th Avenue, downtown; 619-238-1153. Thursday and Sunday performances are Pay What You Can performances).
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.