Hip-hop Haute

Club dancing meets high art through the Nebellen company.

What happens when a hip club dancer and a ballerina get together?

Nebellen happens, that's what.

Nebellen Dance Company, performing one night only this Saturday at Pima Community College, is the creation of club dancer Benjamin Howe and Ballet Arizona's Ellen Rath. The name of their 3-year-old Phoenix company comes from a convoluted coupling of the pair's own monikers.

"It's my name backwards and Ellen's name forwards," Howe explains by phone from his Phoenix home. And if the troupe's title (pronounced neb-EL-len) is rattled and rolled, so are its eclectic dances. Howe is a veteran of martial arts as well as hip-hop, and Rath did gymnastics before turning to ballet. Add to that background their interest in rave and house music, and you get Nebellen's high-energy amalgams.

"Nebellen does every sort of club dance," Howe says. "We describe it by the music--electronic, house, hip-hop. It's very athletic, very energetic."

And, he adds good-naturedly, "It's very tiring!"

DJ Solomon spins music live on stage at Saturday's show, The Fourth Nebellen With Kenny Perez. This year's concert also incorporates martial arts.

"We received a grant to work with martial arts master Kenny Perez," a three-time member of the U.S. wu shu team, Howe says. "We worked with him and put together a martial arts dance piece. It's a hybrid, a lot of fun. But we don't look like wu shu masters!"

And where does ballet fit in?

Rath, a Minnesota native now in her eighth season with Ballet Arizona, creates work that "looks completely different from ballet," says Howe. But like all ballet dancers, she brings her classical training to everything she does. "The first year you could tell (she's a trained ballerina)," Howe says. "Now her work looks completely different."

Among the 20 young dancers in the troupe, numerous women have studied ballet, and at least one, Sadako R. Johnson, aspires to a full ballet career. The troupe includes a strong contingent of ASU dance students and grads, as well as a Mexico City "b-boy," a hip-hop singer and the founder of the Ballet for the Blind.

"More of the girls are trained in ballet, modern, jazz," Howe says. "More of the guys are from what I do." When he was growing up in Cleveland, he says, "I never knew those things (dance studios) existed!"

Now a dance major at ASU, the 27-year-old Howe didn't come to dance until the age of 15. In his hometown, he says, teen clubs sponsor raucous dance contests, with home-grown dance groups hip-hopping and tuxedo-ing fiercely against each other, elevating rhythmic, asymmetrical street dance into an indoor art.

"It's usually guys, two or three; they have a routine and try to outdo the other groups," he says. "A couple of friends and I started a group, Tricolors." Tricolors caught on, and the trio "moved on to doing local concerts and commercials. We became local celebrities."

But Howe soon grew more ambitious than his buds. When a friend needed help moving to ASU for college, Howe went along, with plans to continue on beyond the Valley of the Sun to Los Angeles, where hip-hoppers can get work in TV and music videos. But his money ran out in Phoenix.

The Ohioan had no clue how to break into dance in Phoenix--"I didn't know about modern or ballet companies; I didn't know how people were selected"--so he turned to acting. He's done some work with Is What It Is Theater, and even got a part in the movie What Planet Are You From? Still, his feet were itchy, and he eventually found his way to the Phoenix dance scene.

"I met Ellen dancing at a club called Insomnia. It's closed now. Ellen was making a little money dancing there. One night, we were there, Ellen was there, and I said, 'Who's this girl?' We both had an interest in dance and exchanged numbers."

Since that club night, their partnership has thrived, both personally and professionally. They're engaged, and each year they've had increasing success with their semi-eponymous troupe. Early on, Howe remembers, "Ellen said, 'Let's put a show together.'"

The first concert, in May 2000, sold out.

"Everyone loved it. Everyone from children to senior citizens was on their feet clapping. We thought, 'We have a good thing going. We formed a 501c (nonprofit organization) and did the business side."

Like all Ballet Arizona dancers, Rath has a contract that keeps her employed around 30 weeks a year, giving her time to devote to her un-ballet-like enterprise. Nebellen has done one big concert a year for each of the last three years (the shows are called The First Nebellen, The Second Nebellen, etc.) and up to seven smaller concerts. The co-artistic directors make a point of collaborating with other artists, performing in 2002, for instance, with the drumming group Anya. They had their first Tucson show last summer, and last year, they took the Nebellenites to China, doing a three-city tour at the invitation of the minister of culture.

"This year, we're going to booking conventions, hoping we'll get hired, (and) take it to the next level," Howe says. They had their first concerts at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts last weekend.

Apart from the martial arts collaboration with Perez, the 20 dances scheduled for Saturday's concert are all the creations of Howe and Rath, separately and together. Rath's choreography won her the Arizona Commission on the Arts Artist's Project Grant in 2001.

"We work together on the majority of the dances. I'll do a piece by myself; she'll do a piece by herself." But even for their solitary works, he says, they give each other critiques and advice.

The program includes a number of dances for the entire high-stepping company, along with trios and quartets. The sole solo, "Solitaire," actually deploys seven dancers, who take to the stage in rapid-fire succession. Few of the pieces last longer than three minutes.

"It's total theater for younger audiences with a short attention span," Howe says. "It's not just for young people. But we hopefully will build up the dance audience and reach younger members who have no way of relating to ballet or modern concerts. After a Nebellen show, they might say, 'Well, maybe I'll try something else. Maybe I'll go to Alvin Ailey.'"

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