Choreographers Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez’s premiered a show in Paris two weeks ago. They had meetings and rehearsals each day and performances every evening, A week later they left for China to work on an independent project before returning to Lyon, France to start a residency program. As soon as they launch that program, “Maison de la Danse,” they will head to the Bay Area with their Company Wang Ramirez for two performances of their hip-hop dance theater work “Borderline” at Cal Performances.
Such is the lifestyle of this rising star modern dance duo that Madonna helped propel into the stratosphere in 2015. Ramirez was enlisted by Madonna to choreograph two songs for her 10th world tour, “Rebel Heart.” He recalls being surprised at the fast pace at which Madonna and her team generated and swapped ideas for the tour and how ultimately Madonna took charge of every detail for the entire show, while entrusting him and other choreographers to come up with the execution. This sort of creative speed, output and intense — albeit exhilarating — process would remain his creative norm.
Wang and Ramirez are unique for multiple reasons. Their personal and creative relationship embraces and transcends differences in ethnicity, nationality and artistic training. Wang was born in Frankfurt, Germany of Korean heritage. Her dance vernacular – an abstraction of hip hop dance influenced by martial arts and ballet training – led her to work with a range of stars, from the kathak fusion of Akram Khan to the revamped flamenco of iconoclast Rocio Molina. More recently she has collaborated with the New York City Ballet creating a work for principal ballerina Sara Mearns.
Ramirez was born in the south of France of Spanish heritage, to a father who had been a circus athlete in his youth. At the age of 13 Sébastien came to dance by way of gymnastics and sports, starting his dance career as a b-boy. He is a winner of the Red Bull BC ONE international breakdancing competition and was also one of five choreographers to be selected by London’s Sadler’s Wells for a unique dance piece performed to Igor Stravinsky’s iconic “The Rite of Spring.”
For Wang and Ramirez hybridity is more a way of life rather than stylistic choice. They are the quintessential dance couple of these tumultuous times: a fusion of cultures, ideas, and of today’s rhythms and motions.
The two met while doing dance training in Berlin in 2003, and they became a romantic couple two years later. In 2008 they became creative partners. By that time Ramirez had already started his company, eventually changing its name to Company Wang Ramirez once they produced their first work. During our Berkeleyside interview, Wang said she never in her wildest dreams imagined the life they are currently leading, despite her deep passion for dancing and commitment to her career. Ramirez on the other hand, recognizing how much traveling he was doing and the number of projects he was involved with, knew that in order for him to have a romantic relationship that his partner would have to travel and be involved in those projects. He understood the complexity of relationship and knew that doing things together was essential. And, it seems that this union continues to work despite the huge pressure to produce that they are constantly under.
“The more we create now, the more we are performing on very important stages, on stages we share with choreographers who are at the top of their game, the greater the pressure,” Ramirez said. “We didn’t learn the handcraft in school, we learn by doing.”
Wang laughs at the concept of doing research for a dance.
“Who has that kind of time?” she asked. “The deadlines are fierce and our approach is really trial and error. We jump into a piece as an experiment to see where it will take us and that means making mistakes. We don’t have the luxury to sit around and mull things over.”
Fortunately, they are able to pick each other up when one of them doubts and wants to give up and walk away. They share a strong visual aesthetic that becomes the glue and narrative of their dances.
All this will be on display in “Borderline” at Cal Performances. Six performers, each hoisted with an aerial rigging system, will defy gravity — much in the way that the martial artists of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” sailed across roof tops and fought single combat on swaying bamboo trees – while break dancing and creating other innovative forms of movement. “Borderline” is tethered to street dance lingo as well as Greek and Korean mythology. Jean-Philippe Barrios’ (aka Lacrymoboy) original electronica score will also conspire to take dancers to greater heights, propelling this cutting-edge work.
Company Wang Ramirez is part of Cal Performances’ “Blurring Boundaries” series. This particular programming features artists whose work dissolves the traditional boundaries of their art forms, cutting across cultures, disciplines and even distinctions between classical and contemporary. Wang Ramirez’ use of aerial rigging in “Borderline” is just one example of how the company shakes up notions of time and space, and how they embrace new information and technologies to examine larger issues and myths.
Company Wang Ramirez will do two performances in Zellerbach Hall of “Borderline” at Cal Performances, on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 25 at 3 p.m.