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Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang cultivate a dance rooted in hip hop that incorporates many artistic languages including dance theater, spoken word and interactive sets. This French-Spanish-Korean couple, inseparable in life as on stage, translates their complicity in difference through blending of dance genres and cultures. Also… How is it choreographing for Madonna?
Dance ICONS: Honji and Sébastien, you come from very different dance backgrounds. Please introduce us to where you began.
Honji Wang: I grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, and started ballet classes because a friend went. I did eight years of ballet at a conservatory. Every year there were exams and they examined your technique as well as your body. And every year they told me that I would be a very great modern dancer. At the time I didn’t know what modern was. I wanted to be a classical dancer, dance in Swan Lake and become a prima ballerina. But they told me that with my body configuration, I would be a modern dancer because I was short. I didn’t like that. Then it was very painful, but today I’m very glad they told me this. I see how hard it is for ballet dancers in classical companies.
At the same time, my culture was hip hop culture. I listened to hip hop and my daily life was filled with hip hop. I discovered hip hop dance pretty late, at 17, after I had stopped ballet training and studied martial arts. I did all kinds of movement research to find out what was fun for me. When I moved to Berlin, I discovered the hip hop underground scene, and from then on I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I trained even harder than when I was training in ballet. There is no teacher, but there is a group. It’s like a collective: a hangout place with music and talented people. There’s a big mix of people who want to succeed, want to become the best. It’s very natural and the people there have so much power, even more power than a teacher standing telling you what to do.
Sébastien Ramirez: I grew up in the underground scene. I started dancing when I was 13, about 1995. There was a spot in Perpignan, in the south of France near the Spanish border, where you would go and start to train and dance. The hip hop scene, of course, is born in the ghetto and is our own way of expressing ourselves, a way to be somebody. It was a voice for us that allowed us to be respected and different. Where I grew up and started dancing, it was a mix of Portuguese, Spanish, Arabs, Gypsies … everybody was linked to music. They were all playing instruments, practicing dance forms; I grew up with so many different cultures mixing together.
We used to train with French rap music. France has its own underground hip hop culture as well. They find their own inspiration and develop their own style, but we’re using also the classic hip hop music that developed in America.
Honji and I met in Berlin when she started training in the underground scene there. I was traveling around the world meeting international dancers and training in different spots. We met and trained a bit together and then started choreographing a little show together.
Her modern dance style interested me. She was passionate and had an incredible aesthetic that was totally different from what I had seen. Plus, she’s a girl who had very strong floor work; she was doing what the guys were doing. I found it very original and thought we could develop that into choreography. What attracted me at first was this new language we were discovering and our desire to create something together.
I already had a company, called Sébastien Ramirez, where I was working in collaboration with other dancers. I choreographed and we toured, but when I met Honji, it was a new start. She had a different aesthetic, a different background. We connected to develop something together and created Company Wang Ramirez.
ICONS: What inspired you to choreograph? Was it the physicality or did you want something else to happen?
S.R.: I love aesthetics and visuals and I focus on that. But I like to reach the audience and express something with movement, though it’s not about telling a story. It’s about emotionally revealing what is happening on stage with a person or a group without telling a story. I cannot explain a story. I can feel a story; I can feel emotions and put those together with an aesthetic of movement that I feel is a right fit. For example, for Monchichi or Borderline, the source of inspiration is our personal life, our development. We are inspired by dance, by who we are, and by what we do in society. Monchichi is about identity, culture, the cultural clash and that’s pretty obvious. But it was not our main goal to talk about our identity. It just happened by doing research, exploring and dancing. We put it all in the same pot to cook together.
ICONS: Tell us about your research.
S.R.: The research is about the body and our vocabulary, which is hip hop dance. It is how we can push the limit of the movements or this visual or this aesthetic with the feeling. We’re trying to keep the same feeling but push it to the maximum.
We have our vocabulary and we dig into what we do and what we know. Hip hop and dance theater are two very different worlds. These are our tools to express and talk to people. I don’t create a piece by thinking about how I’m going to impress the audience.
We express ourselves with … artistic work with a sensitivity to what topic we choose to address. That’s it. And if you’re a great dancer who has great skills, it’s better. If you’re an incredible classical dancer who does crazy moves, it’s better to develop yourself and your work and you can definitely go further. The more you push your skills, the more opportunities you have to explore movement and the more you have to express yourself.
H.W.: There are moments of improvisation. In solos we have a strong structure and a path, but you can go around this path as well and develop around that.
We love to tell our dancers to surprise each other with feelings, to get the real feeling out. If we get too rigid in executing the choreography, it becomes flat. Every time we perform, it’s about a new feeling and we surprise each other and give each other a real feeling. We love surprises: They give a little bit of insecurity and that makes for tension and you will be more focused and on point.
ICONS: Everyone wants to know what it was like choreographing for Madonna. Did you have a lot of freedom or did she ask you to do something very specific?
S.R.: She said to us, “I want you to do your choreography to all the dances and do it full out.” She’s really tough and a really hard worker. We trained all day; it was very physical. She has top-notch dancers. She’s very clear and on point. She knows exactly what she wants and she takes responsibility for every branch of the creation process: styling, music, choreography, singing, dancing, and interpretation of emotions. Because it is in a different context, you can’t work the same way as you would on a smaller scale because you don’t have much space for the smaller, more intimate details. Everything is big and needs to be packed with movement, so it’s a different approach, but in other senses, it is the same. What does it mean with this music? How does it feel? The lyrics play an important part, along with different emotions. It was incredible to see my choreography with so many incredible dancers in a huge setting. That was an amazing experience.
H.W.: We worked for two weeks and focused on two songs. I was very, very impressed that she had the sensibility of the art form and she was really focusing on the dance. She also knew so much about Sébastien and me as well. She had done her homework. She knew exactly what she wanted to ask and what she wanted to get. Madonna had this great sensibility of time. When Sébastien was improvising a solo on stage, everybody was watching him and noticing how he was taking his time and interpreting, not just dancing through it. She liked that, which surprised me. I thought she just wanted flashy movement, but she liked the tranquility of Sébastien’s movement. She gives a lot of respect to dance. Usually dancers in the entertainment scene are just a part of the whole machinery, but Madonna makes sure that the dancers are her soldiers. It’s still a golden cage, but she values your work, your ability and where you come from.
ICONS: What’s next?
H.W.: A new project for Jacob’s Pillow: Everyness, a 70-minute work for five dancers, in Spain and France this month. A new piece for Sadler’s Wells in September. We have two short film/video projects we’re shooting and we have new full-length productions coming up in 2018 and 2019.
More About Company Wang Ramirez…
Since its creation, Company Wang Ramirez, has produced and choreographed dance-theater pieces that have won many awards and accolades, including the New York Bessie Award and a nomination for the Rolex Mentor & Protégée Arts Initiative Program.
Acclaimed by international audiences, the company is invited to major theaters and festivals, such as Théâtre de la Ville, La Villette and Théâtre National de Chaillot (Paris), Sadler’s Wells (London), Apollo Theater (New York), and Mercat de les Flors (Barcelona), and receives the support of important international co-producers.
Wang and Ramirez have evolved a new aesthetic language in dance that draws on their blended origins and balances the masculine and feminine perspective. Their interrogations are based on human relationships, both intimate and group. Confronted daily by the realities of this new urban mobility, they never cease to deepen their quest to find new choreographic languages. Both virtuosic and subtle, their choreography seeks to uncover personal and universal truths and break down barriers.
Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater, and the performing and cultural arts in the Washington, D.C., area. You can read her work in Dance, the Washington Jewish Week, Pointe, and many other publications.
Headshots, © Jan Van Endert
Monchichi, © Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance,
Grant Halverson ©ADF
Borderline, © Frank Szafinski
EVERYNESS, © Denis Kooné Kuhnert