Hip-Hop Dance Artist Profiled in Gazette

Jennifer Weber's all-female hip-hop Decadancetheatre. Photo by Daniel Pincus

From the Versace clad to devotees of cut-off jeans — everyone’s welcome at Jacob’s Pillow

By Aviva Luttrell, contributing writer

Republished with permission from June 19, 2014 Daily Hampshire Gazette

Amherst native Jennifer Weber is returning to western Massachusetts, but not for any ordinary visit.

From June 25 to 29, Weber and her Brooklyn-based, all-female hip-hop crew, Decadancetheatre, will perform at the internationally acclaimed Jacob’s Pillow in Becket. The Pillow, as it is called, is the nation’s oldest summer dance festival.

Over the course of the week, Decadancetheatre will give six performances as part of the program “Unreal Hip-Hop.”

“Performing at Jacob’s Pillow is one of the biggest honors as a choreographer,” Weber said in a recent phone interview.

Weber graduated from Amherst Regional High School in 1996, and didn’t begin her hip-hop career until college; she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she majored in communications. It was there that she got her first taste of hip-hop. She formed her first hip-hop group, Strictly Funk, while she was a student at U of P. The group is still in existence at the school.

“I got started with hip-hop the way so many people get started ... by going out and partying in clubs,” she said.

Weber took jazz, ballet and tap lessons at a studio in Sunderland, but quit dancing before college. Working as a professional choreographer, she said, never seemed like a reality when she was younger.

Weber founded Decadancetheatre in 2004 with the aim of altering the image of women in hip-hop, a genre in which women are often seen clad only in bikinis and dancing in the background of music videos 

“I really wanted to change that by drawing attention to how many brilliant female hip-hop artists exist,” she said.

Six dancers, who hail from Germany, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, England and France, make up the core of her company.

Weber and her crew appeared at The Pillow four times as part of the Inside/Out series for emerging artists, most recently in 2011, but this year is the first time they will be featured indoors in the Doris Duke Theatre.

There, the group will perform “4,” Weber’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

“With this piece, we are translating Vivaldi’s music through our contemporary language. It’s a beautiful new way to see the music,” Weber said.

Weber was inspired to create “4” after choreographing her first piece involving classical music, “Decadance vs. the Firebird,” which premiered in 2004 and toured in the United States and England.

However, she said, that piece was choreographed mostly to hip-hop music, with only a small amount of classical. At that point, Weber said, she started to think more about reimagining classical ballets through hip-hop.

“I really wanted to take on the challenge of what it would be like to choreograph hip-hop to classical music,” she said. While the beat of hip-hop can be predictable, she said, “in classical, you don’t know what the next sound is going to be. There is this element of surprise.” Weber said she was drawn to “The Four Seasons” because of its energy and range of emotions: “What the audience is going to see is a really exciting new interpretation of classical music through the vocabulary of old-school hip-hop.”

One male dancer will join Decadancetheatre for “4” because, she said, she wanted to try something new.

Weber is currently a visiting artist at Mount Holyoke College. Although there isn’t a large hip-hop scene in the area, her classes fill up quickly, she said: “There definitely is a hunger.”

In addition to performing at The Pillow, Weber said, she is most excited about the atmosphere at the festival.

“It’s so beautiful there. It’s like summer camp for dancers,” she said. “It’s just sort of this mecca of people who love dance and participate in dance in different ways.”

Joining Decadancetheatre for “Unreal Hip-Hop” will be b-girl Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie performing a selection of solos and duets, and identical twin brothers, Bill and Bobby McClain, also known as The Wondertwins.

Performances will take place June 25 to 28 at 8:15 p.m., and June 28 and 29 at 2:15 p.m. Tickets are $22 to $42, and $10 youth tickets are available for select shows.

Free events

“Unreal Hip-Hop” is just one of over 350 events taking place this season. Of those, more than 200 are free.

“We always like to say The Pillow has no gates,” said Mariclare Hulbert, director of marketing and communication. The free events include performances, talks, exhibits and more.

Free outdoor “Inside/Out” performances take place Wednesdays through Saturdays from 6:15 to 7 p.m., June 18 through August 24.

This year’s series includes theatrical contemporary dance from Buglisi Dance Theatre on June 27, contemporary ballet choreographer Emery LeCrone’s company on July 17, modern choreographer Marta Renzi with her Project Co. on July 24, a Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist in Molissa Fenley’s “State of Darkness” on Aug. 7 and students from the School at Jacob’s Pillow every Saturday evening.

Free PillowTalks, which feature directors, choreographers, visual artists, authors and filmmakers, take place Fridays at 5 p.m. and Saturdays at 4 p.m.

Pre-show briefings are given by scholars-in-residence 30 minutes before every performance, and post-show talks are held Thursdays in the Doris Duke Theatre and Fridays in the Ted Shawn Theatre. Tours are Thursdays and Saturdays at 5:30 p.m.; free photography and art exhibits are also open.

Hulbert said that these events are especially helpful for newcomers to the world of dance.

“I think for a lot of people, if they don’t have experience with dance, it can be a little scary,” she said. “Our free performances are a great way to come and listen to a talk and get context for a performance you might be seeing.”

Main-stage performances

Additionally, Hulbert said, there are several notable ticketed performances coming to The Pillow this season.

The Hong Kong Ballet, one of the top contemporary ballets, according to Hulbert, will perform from June 18 to 21 at 8 p.m., as well as June 21 and 22 at 2 p.m. in the Ted Shawn Theatre.

Hulbert said the ballet, which made its Pillow debut in 2012 and features 20 to 30 dancers, will perform a program of international works.

“Last time they were here, the audience absolutely loved them,” she said.

This season will also feature the world premiere of 83-year-old Carmen de Lavallade’s new solo performance, “As I Remember It.” “She is an absolutely honored and revered artist,” Hulbert said. De Lavallade’s career has included dance, choreography, and acting for stage and film. She holds the longest Pillow performing career on record; she made her debut in 1953 with the Lester Horton Dance Theatre.

In this performance, de Lavallade combines movement and storytelling to weave a theatrical memoir about her life on stage. It takes place June 20 and 21 at 8:15 p.m., and June 22 at 2:15 p.m. in the Doris Duke Theatre.

The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Archives, in Blake’s Barn, are open Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to 9 p.m. “Not only for just the dance world, but for American history, the archives are extremely important,” Hulbert said. Here, visitors can view collections of Pillow programs and photographs, browse books, and watch every dance performance that has taken place at the Pillow since the 1980s.

Hulbert added that one of the best aspects of the summer-long festival is the welcoming environment and diversity of attendees.

“One of things that I value the most about the festival and Jacob’s Pillow is that everyone is welcome,” Hulbert said. “You can look to your left and see someone who’s wearing Versace and look to your right and see someone who’s wearing cutoff shorts and sandals.”