Globalized, Intercultural Hip-Hop: A Romance Story

Company Wang Ramirez's Monchichi

by Cameron McKinney on October 31st, 2016

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

“So… how did you guys meet?”

It’s definitely a question Sebastien Ramirez and Honji Wang of Company Wang Ramirez must have heard a thousand times. The French-Spanish Ramirez is a former Red Bull BC One France bboy champion, while his partner, the Korean-German Honji Wang, finds her movement influenced by not only hip-hop, but by ballet and martial arts as well. Company Wang Ramirez is a part of the Brooklyn/Paris Exchange between the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Paris Theatre de la Ville. The evening-length duet Monchichi gave its New York audience an endearing view of a globalized, intercultural world that simultaneously creates a fluid portrait of intimacy that blends street dance and dance theater.

The work opened on a seemingly barren tree set piece positioned in the upstage right corner. As the stage was slowly illuminated, Wang, donning a long white shirt, was revealed in the opposing downstage corner. As if practicing Tai Chi, she began an internally focused solo. Anchored by the soft shapes of her arms, she flowed easily between hard upper body hits and sudden stops that were immediately recognizable as a sample of her hip-hop background. The intricacy and complexity of this opening solo foreshadowed the unrelenting virtuosity of the entire work. Ramirez entered soon after, staying mostly around the tree upstage. The two performed simultaneous solos with intermittent glances across the stage that made the opening section feel like the start of a fairytale: the prince sees the princess for the first time.

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monchichi was infused with a pulse-pounding score that drove the dancers’ movements in space. The “boom-boom-kat” of hip-hop beats blended effortlessly the white noise / audible silence that is prevalent in the contemporary dance scene, accenting choreographed moments of stillness and the sporadic moments of heavy exhales that Wang and Ramirez were able to squeeze in in between hyperphysical sequences. The repeated bass drops in the music quickly became predictable to anyone who bothered to count the eights of the score, but each drop was met with both a new surge of energy and unique, seldom repeating phrase work. Monchichi was a choreographic marvel, even just for the sheer number of different phrases the pair had to memorize.

The duo’s costume change began as Ramirez exited and threw a pair of silver heels, a thin dress, and a blond wig onstage from the wings. As Wang transformed her long white shirt into a scarf and donned her new clothes, Ramirez recentered with a white oxford button up, suit pants and jacket. Wang attempted a few stumbling steps in the heels, teetering off balance for the briefest moment before collecting herself and straightening her wig. Then, to the audible awe of the audience, she performed a quick toprock before smoothly transitioning to the floor for complicated breaking footwork… in heels. You read that right.

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

With Wang and Ramirez now dressed to the tees and still exchanging brief glances in between impressive phrase work, the atmosphere felt like that of a first date. A mix of intimacy and awkwardness that we have all experienced. The pair’s both subtle and not-so-subtle attempts at capturing each other’s attention, albeit expressed through incredibly physical floorwork and hard-hitting upper body hits, was still endearingly relatable.

Ramirez was the first of the two to introduce spoken text into the work. Pausing his flurry of movement, he turned to the audience and began a childhood story about his early attempts at speaking German and the origins of his nickname “Monchichi.” For the record, a Monchichi is a baby animal doll from Japan that was incredibly popular in Germany in the 1970s.

After his monologue, the couple reconnected by matching the rhythms of each other’s arm waves. Once their hands met, the flow and fluidity that waving requires transferred to their head, chests, hips, legs, and then back up again as the two found a partnering sequence characterized by a steady cadence of collapse and release. As intertwined as they soon became, they stayed true to their own unique movement strengths. Ramirez accessed more codified breaking steps and Wang breathed into body rolls that brought life to her entire kinesphere.

p Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The lighting changed several times over the course of the evening, but Wang and Ramirez were often cast as silhouettes against a colored background. While their faces lost detail, the temporary anonymity that the lighting achieved allowed their bodies to become anyone’s. This anonymity seemed to be a consistent reminder to the audience that the yearn for intimacy and understanding is universal, not just limited to their journey. Company Wang Ramirez’s Monchichi has redefined the breadth of street dance’s inclusion in the contemporary dance world by proving that the stereotypically competitive art form can be harnessed to portray intimacy, curiosity, and unbridled passion. Considering that the origin of hip-hop dance and culture was a sociopolitical movement of defiance — an alternative method of fighting for both recognition and appreciation by marginalized blacks and Hispanics in New York — the value of seeing breakdance return to its birthplace as a transformed and inclusive art form cannot be understated.

Despite the continuous variations in movement, the theme was clear. This is our story, the pair seemed to profess with each glance or serendipitous touch. And with their words as well. The evening’s most humorous moment was a dialogue to the audience, in which the duo switched effortlessly between the multiple languages they each speak — German, Korean, French, Spanish, and English. After hilariously overlapping these multiples languages in dual monologues to the audience, they chose one phrase at the end to declare in English: “Love rules”.

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

In the closing scenes of Monchichi, the two found themselves in opposing corners, continually separating and returning to each other to echo the many disputes that can haunt any relationship. In other moments, they cut off their phrase work (the physicality of which never diminished even fifty minutes in) to look into each other’s eyes or share a soft touch. Eventually, Wang and Ramirez both initiated a never-ending arm wave in one arm, connected their arms together, and let the wave ride relax their bodies. The lights faded out to the pair moving their faces only inches away from each other.

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monchichi, Company Wang Ramirez. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monchichi portrayed the embodied listening required to meet someone else halfway. To understand that person not only in their personality, but in their physical and cultural history. In an increasingly globalized world, Ramirez and Wang serve as an important reminder that hip-hop dance is more than just tricks. Ramirez could have taken the easy route and let air flares, flips, or 1990s impress the audience. Wang could have thrown high kicks across the stage from start to finish. But instead, they focused on the more minute precision required to switch effortlessly between softness and attack, technicality and authenticity. In doing so, they proved the power of intercultural productions, the humor that virtuosity can enable, and the simple truth that no matter its form, love still rules.

This review of Company Wang Ramirez's 'Monchichi' is from the work's NYC premiere at BAM, running October 12-15, 2016, as part of the annual Next Wave Festival. Cover photos by Julieta Cervantes.


Cameron McKinney is a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and author from Memphis, TN. He is the Artistic Director of Kizuna Dance in NYC and teaches regularly at Gibney Dance.