This year's White Light Festival highlights dancers and choreographers who blend numerous influences, from Indian classical to hip-hop. By absorbing and transforming these languages, they create beautiful, compelling, and engaging works that give clearer voice to the stories they tell.


"The beautiful thing about hip-hop is that it requires you," explains Boy Blue's composer and co-founder, Michael "Mikey J" Asante. "It requires your experience, your energy. How dances, how skills have evolved is because people put little bits of gymnastics in. Some people brought in salsa. Some people brought in Lindy [hop]. All these different things—the art form doesn't discriminate. It says, 'You've got something. In order for us to make this work, I need you to feel it.'"

The dance artists in this year's White Light Festival fly or fight their way across boundaries. They share a readiness to blend styles, to draw on different influences in order to tell the stories they want to tell. In Borderline, Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez float on bungee cords in a gravity-defying mix of hip-hop dance and aerial work. In XENOS, Akram Khan plays a colonial soldier taken from his homeland, holding on to the memory of Indian classical dance. Sculpture, martial arts, and contemporary dance flow together in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Sutra, as monks from the Shaolin Temple interact with Antony Gormley's set. And in Blak Whyte Gray, Boy Blue draw other styles into their hip-hop mix.

Borderline, XENOS, Sutra, and Blak Whyte Gray find their own balance between expression and technique, meanings written in different ways of moving.

"In the education of hip-hop, as an autodidact, you're constantly searching for your own style," says Honji Wang of Company Wang Ramirez. "Of course, you have to respect the techniques, but the biggest goal is to find your own style. I was very interested in different movement forms, such as martial arts, flamenco. Everything I saw inspired me. It was quite a natural path, including different disciplines without really having studied them. Everything that we saw, that we [she and Sébastien Ramirez] saw together, influenced and nourished us, made us move a certain way. So it wasn't a 'mind' decision, it was more feeling-based."

Borderline, XENOS, Sutra, and Blak Whyte Gray find their own balance between expression and technique, meanings written in different ways of moving. For both Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the meeting of dance languages has itself been a source of inspiration: the difference is part of the drama. Khan is a virtuoso in both contemporary dance and the Indian classical style kathak. Cherkaoui is even more omnivorous. After being talent-spotted as a teenager, and dancing on television, he took classes in ballet, tap, hip-hop, jazz, and flamenco.

As a choreographer, Cherkaoui has remained fascinated with other styles, collaborating with leading artists from other disciplines, such as flamenco dancer María Pagés, or the Shaolin monks who perform both dance and martial arts in Sutra. He is also one of Beyoncé's favorite choreographers, particularly for works with layered and complex iconography, such as the Grammy performance in which the singer embodied both the baroque Virgin Mary and the Yoruba goddess Oshun.

It's no surprise, then, that when Cherkaoui and Khan worked together, they literally talked about borders. In their 2005 show zero degrees, both drew on their sense of cultural duality; Khan comes from a Bangladeshi-British background, while Cherkaoui is Moroccan-Flemish. As they found ways for their different dance styles to mesh, they also looked at the uncertainties that can come from a layered identity, with an unnerving true story from Khan of the moment his passport was taken away on a journey to India. In XENOS, his First World War soldier is a character caught between worlds: a lost past and a mechanized, violent present; an Indian homeland and the trenches of the Western Front; remembered classical steps and elemental contemporary language.

Boy Blue's Asante and choreographer Kenrick "H2O" Sandy are grounded in their East London community, where they work with dancers ranging from four-year-olds to award-winning adults, from smaller theaters to the world stage of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Discussing Blak Whyte Gray, Asante is careful not to give too much away: He doesn't want to impose a reading, and is fascinated by what people find for themselves in this fierce, explosive dance. A program of three linked works, it's a move away from the explicit narratives of Boy Blue's earlier work.

Perspective is an essential part of Blak Whyte Gray. Asante's own process started with ideas of history. Of Ghanaian descent, he and his family would visit Ghana in the summer holidays. Remembering a feast day, he asked his father about it. "He said, 'It's nothing to do with me, that's your mum's people. They weren't always in Ghana, they travelled here.' When we have a baby-naming ceremony, or weddings, or funerals, what happens first is there's a pouring of libation. That is to call the ancestors to be a part of the celebration. And he said, 'When your mum's people say it—they're the Ga people—they call the Nile. So they probably would have come from that area, when coming to Ghana.'

"I thought, what? My mind went all the way back to school, to learning about Egypt and the Nile—its ecology, the historical aspect of what the Nile is. I never felt connected to Egypt as it was taught to me in school, even though Egypt was Africa. That really blew my mind—I was more connected than the teacher who was teaching me. My dad was telling me something about my lineage that I've never known.

"There were two major moments that changed the trajectory of how I wanted to approach this work. That was one. The second was the killing of Alton Sterling [by two police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana]. For far too long there have been specific scenarios that...the world has never seen, but we as people of color have always known and understood. Seeing that moment really said to me, I can't just do things for the sake of creative achievement. There has to be more that I have to be saying, or want to be doing, in the action of the work.

"The more you delve and uncover what is history, what is your personal history, what is political history—it becomes deeper, to fill your work with purpose. That was the main catalyst for Blak Whyte Gray. It needed to pose questions, but never answer them—leave it for the audience members to put themselves on it."

That ambiguity is one reason for the spelling of the title. "Blak is made up, but Whyte and Gray could be surname[s]," Asante explains. "I was always playing with the idea of personality. The ambiguity of the piece does that. You don't see anything about race per se. What you do see is the human experience."

Whether blending different traditions or deliberately clashing them, the works in this year's festival use multiple styles as a way of clarifying the artist's own voice.

When Wang talks about hip-hop, she also talks about her own sense of self. Though she had studied ballet until she was 13, she didn't necessarily see it as dancing. "For me, it was a training, something where I learned discipline. It gave me a lot of direction, because I was a very hyperactive kid. It was a very good way of finding my educational line, because I was not the best in school."

Finding the hip-hop community, she says, "I felt I really learned dancing. The difference was like worlds. Hip-hop was something when I grew up, to find my identity." Now based in France, she and Ramirez met in a training room in Berlin, and found they shared a fascination with learning new movement.

Borderline grew out of that sense of exploration. "We had a lot of martial artist friends," Wang remembers. "Sébastien especially was training a lot with friends who are into rigging. Martial artists often work in the movie industry—that's where they can actually make a profession out of it. Sébastien developed a friendship with riggers who were doing aerial work, for stunt men and for technical equipment."

On screen, this kind of wire work can be used for spectacular effects, such as the fight on swaying treetops in the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In Borderline, Wang and Ramirez use it to explore both movement and relationships. "He was very interested in elevating his dance, which is breakdance, into the air, to experiment with the weightlessness of the body on the floor," Wang remembers. "It took three years of research and development—just to familiarize yourself with the system. When we had to do a production, he said he'd love to go further with this rigging element, to build a show around it." Where movies hide the wires, Borderline puts them on display. Instead of being a special effect, the aerial work creates a world of causes and counterbalances, the motive power of movement.

Whether blending different traditions or deliberately clashing them, the works in this year's festival use multiple styles as a way of clarifying the artist's own voice.

"The essence of freestyle is so key," Asante argues. "Freestyle as an element is you really tracing the steps that you've had before, and bringing them all to the front—all the training that you've had. That could be your cultural experience, that could be your dance experience. Essentially, I think, once you're able to make that clear line between human experience and your work, the more it will start to resonate with other people."


Zoë Anderson is dance critic for the London Independent and assistant editor of Dancing Times. She is the author of The Ballet Lover's Companion (Yale 2015).