There are different schools of thought about how dancers should best focus their energy. On one end of the spectrum, there is technique, which the performer can spend several hours a day meticulously refining. On the other end is expression, learning how to use their movements to best communicate emotion.
Santa Cruz native Harry Weston falls on the more expressive side of the spectrum. Now living in Los Angeles, he will be in town this Friday performing his piece “Without Fear” at the Santa Cruz High School Theater. And it will be an unusual showcase for his work, since he’ll be opening not for another dancer or musician, but an author.
And not just any author. The event features a conversation with Ishmael Beah, whose book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier told his own story of how he endured life as a child soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war in Western Africa. Heartbreaking and riveting, it became a bestseller, and he has just published his first novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, about two war survivors that return to their home village
Susan McCloskey, event coordinator at Bookshop Santa Cruz, put it all together. When Weston showed her the seven-minute “Without Fear” piece, she thought it was the perfect opener for Bookshop’s event with Beah.
“It’s about the movement of grief into acceptance, which is so much what Ishmael is doing both in his writing and also with his work in the U.N. with boy soldiers. I think there’s the idea of moving through the dark stories, and ultimately what comes is the light. And to me, that’s also what dance is,” McCloskey says.
Though Beah doesn’t know Weston, McCloskey knew he is a big fan of hip-hop and dance, and they come up frequently in his books. In fact, there’s a scene early in A Long Way Gone where some older soldiers tell Beah to give them a reason to let him live, and dancing literally saves his life.
Beah is also a UNICEF ambassador, helping other children soldiers with stories similar to him. Similarly, Weston teaches dance to underprivileged children.
“It’s this concept of dance as light in the midst of all this darkness,” McCloskey says. “Harry and what he does for his dance company, his whole way of thinking of dance as a social consciousness, going into inner-city schools, going into juvenile halls, giving kids a way to tell their stories that isn’t through violence. The impulse of dance, not just as dance, but dance as a way forward.”
Lessons of ‘Fear’
Weston first performed “Without Fear” in 2012 as part of his senior undergraduate choreography showcase at UCLA.
Primarily a hip-hop dancer, Weston choreographed the piece, and performed it with a couple back-up dancers. He wrote it, however, through improv and freestyling. It has a particularly vibrant, street-dance feel to it, while at the same time evoking powerful emotion.
The piece is divided into three sections, and is intended to express the different stages of grief: anger, sadness and acceptance. Weston pulled from his own experience losing his father when he was two, and then a family friend that was very close to him—and whom he refers to as his “surrogate mother”—when he was 19.
“Really what I wanted to do with the piece is I wanted to take the audience on kind of the emotional roller coaster that is the grieving process. In order to do that, I had to create a piece where we go through that roller coaster,” Weston says.
The anger portion of the piece is set to hip-hop, to which Weston does a lot of aggressive moves. In the sadness portion of the dance, Weston dances to a somber piece by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Weston says that during this section, more than any other, while performing, he relives the feelings he experienced when he lost his father and surrogate mother. In the final portion of the piece, acceptance, Weston dances to house music, and does a solo upbeat style of house dance style called “jacking.”
By the end of the piece, it has affected the performers as much as the audience, he says.
“All the dancers on stage, we look up and we smile and we get chills and it feels like this weight has been lifted, like that feeling of you’ve made it, you’ve made it through. You endured the pain and you got to the end, and you get to experience the acceptance and the happiness. It evokes tears in all the performers each time,” Weston says.
Substance Over Style
A big part of the reason Weston made the decision in 2008 to study dance at UCLA was because he liked the focus on conveying a message with dance rather than simply the techniques of dancing.
He had been involved with dance at a very young age. When he was a little boy, his mother started the first West African dance class in Santa Cruz. He discovered hip-hop when he was a little older, and got dance lessons from Gary “Gee” Kendall, who would go on to become one of the founding members of the Jabbawockeez dance crew, now famous for their Las Vegas show.
Once in LA, he met and later joined the Versa-Style dance company. When he left Santa Cruz, he was really only strong with breaking and popping. But founder Jackie Lopez liked him, and thought he had potential.
“Jackie really saw that I had a passion for dance. She was able to look past some of my limitations at that point. I wasn’t quite at the level I needed to be. She saw my heart. She said this regularly, that I was willing to work hard and I really loved to dance,” Weston says.
In the Fall of 2009, Lopez let Weston dance with Versa-Style at the San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest.
“It was my audition, in a way. If all went well, I would get to perform with the company later on. It went well, and I’ve been in the company ever since, traveling and performing with them,” Weston says.
They have traveled to Philadelphia, Santa Cruz, India, and Israel, amongst other places. Late last year, filmmaker Calvin Leung released the documentary Furious Beauty, which is about Versa-Style. It was originally intended to document the street-dance scene in L.A., but Leung became fascinated with Versa-Style and shifted his attention to them.
These days, Weston is not just a performer with Versa-Style, he’s also the company manager. He handles all the bookings and corresponds with the different theaters and promoters. He’s been on this side of production since his senior year in high school when he put on a dance performance/hip-hop concert at a local juvenile hall. He has done several events in LA, including helping out some non-profits. But what Weston really feels passionate about is teaching, particularly his work with underprivileged youth.
“Eventually I would like to engineer a hip-hop dance program for the juvenile hall system here in Los Angeles. I think there’s a big need for some kind of movement to be done. There’s nobody really doing any dance in the halls,” Weston says.
Another project Weston has in mind for the future is taking each part of “Without Fear” and expanding it, so that each section could be its own stand-alone piece. He sees “Without Fear” having a future because it’s about more than just the grieving process.
“These are three very basic emotions that we all experience. I know for a fact that these dancers [that he works with on the piece] haven’t really experienced a lot of loss in their life. However, this piece serves as therapy to them for other troubles that they’ve encountered in their lives,” Weston says. “I think that’s the beauty of the piece. You don’t have to know what it’s about to experience something. It’s an evocative piece on its own. The audience goes on that journey with us.”
Ishmael Beah will speak in conversation with Wallace Baine at Santa Cruz High School Theater on Friday, Jan. 17 at 7pm, $27.50 (book included).