NEW YORK (AP) — An emotionally charged series in New York City is exploring racial and social injustice through dance, photography and public dialogue.
Among the elements of the production opening Wednesday is a stirring performance by 21 African-American dancers whose style of street dance known as "flex" is inspired by events in their own lives as well as larger issues like police-involved shootings of blacks.
The 21 dancers, most of them men ages 18 to 32, will perform at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory as part of a series that includes a panel of experts exploring pressing issues of social and criminal justice and a photo installation described as the single largest documentation of juveniles in solitary confinement in the United States.
"Every one of them has lost someone to a shooting, frequently to a police shooting," said Peter Sellars, a theater director known for stretching artistic boundaries and the co-director of FLEXN, which runs at the armory through April 4.
The dancers' first workshop for the commissioned performance began in August — the same month Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two unarmed black men, were killed by police.
During the exercise, two dancers began chasing a third dancer to a far corner of the room where they pretended beating him. He didn't get up, nothing was said "but everyone in the room knew that Eric Garner was on everyone's mind," Sellars said.
"Black young men are killed by police quite often and that story wasn't going away . it became clear people were really outraged, people were saying something has to change," Sellars said. "One of the reasons that art exists is to give people a way to express extremely difficult things without violence and to articulate complex feelings."
"The protest march is powerful but then what?" he said.
FLEXN comes amid a national debate about revisions to police training and policy.
The dancers' freestyling pieces are based on "flex" a street dance that evolved from a Jamaican style popular in Brooklyn dance hall in the 1990s. It involves a range of styles including flexing, gliding — and "bone-breaking" whereby dancers dislocate parts of their body to make moves "you could not imagine are possible," Sellars said.
One dance in the production deals with a subway fare beater. A dancer enacts a man jumping over a turnstile and getting into an argument with a police officer. An ensuing altercation ends with the "perpetrator" being shot and leaving his body to comfort his parents.
"What we know is that among those most likely to be victims of violence are young men of color," said Danielle Sered, director of Common Justice at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice who will sit on a panel titled "Restorative Justice." She said she was participating because it was her hope the 11-night series "will be able to raise the urgency of these issues in a way that is not just about the devastation but really pointed toward action."
Each of the dancers also created a piece about solitary confinement after Sellars invited them to respond to the armory photo installation by Richard Ross, who spent eight years documenting juveniles held in solitary confinement in 34 states.
"Thank God the mayor says it will not happen to 16 to 17 years old," Sellars said referring to Mayor Bill de Blasio's efforts to eliminate solitary confinement for those inmates and phase out its use for 18- to 21-year-olds by the beginning of next year. He said the dancers' exploration of the topic gives insight to an issue "that perhaps is easily debated . but we don't actually realize the weight of."
Prior to each performance, a half-hour discussion will be led by educators, community leaders and public officials on a range of topics, including reforming Rikers Island, community policing and stop and frisk. Among the participants will be "young people who have been through this and can speak about it," Sellars said.
"Most Americans treat these issues of violence in black neighborhoods with an imaginary distance," he said. "It's extremely important to have personal and grounded views in what is going on day-to-day in these neighborhoods and to hear personal testimony from a range of people."
Sered added that the combination of the arts and public conversation is "a powerful tool for conveying that — wherever we live and whatever our experience — these issues belong to all of us to experience, to think about, to grapple with and to change."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Park Avenue Armory, Stephanie Berger)