Posted April 18 on SanDiego.com

Pre-sale tickets sold out days in advance. The line for day-of sales wrapped around the building – two hours before the show started. Screams erupted from the nearly 3,000 attendees when the house lights dimmed, and the flashing strobes illuminated the stage. Nope, not a rock concert, though I wouldn’t blame you for being confused. This was Fusion – the largest hip-hop dance showcase and competition on the West Coast, now in its ninth year.

I attended the event about five years ago, when it was half the size. Now the event, produced by UCSD’s Multi-Asian Student Association (MASA) and the hip-hop troupe 220 (Second To None) welcomes 17 teams and hundreds of dancers for what proved to be an evening of epic length (close to four hours, no joke) with the distinct aim to bring awareness and visibility to Asians in hip-hop.

Some of the teams were just exhibition teams, putting on a good show for the pleasure of the crowd. Others were cultural groups, demonstrations of traditional arts presented with theatrical flair. Most of the troupes, however, were in competition for some serious bragging rights.

One rarely gets the opportunity to see so many talented hip-hop troupes share the stage on one bill, which is probably why Fusion is so damn popular. The energy that filled UCSD’s RIMAC arena was electric and frankly, I can’t remember the last time a dance show made me feel that way. The sheer number of dancers onstage was staggering, and their presence was powerful indeed. As for the dancing, it was simply top notch.

The dynamics of hip-hop dance are not comparable to any other form of movement. The skill and technique of this form are immensely impressive, not least of which is the perfect synchronization of dozens of dancers hitting the same beats at precisely the same time. The use of time and space, the syncopation of the body, the structural formation of the ensemble are all expertly employed. The only problem is that watching so many teams follow that same winning formula begins to blur the distinction between the various groups. After a few hours, everything begins to look and sound the same.

Hip-hop music has long been celebrated by the masses and ridiculed by the mainstream press for some of its language and messages. And yes, there was some of that misogyny alive and well onstage, such as scantily clad women being thrown around by tough-acting guys. But there was also a surprising amount of subversive gender-role undertones within several of the performances, for instance, guys and gals performing the same sexy movements without a tongue-in-cheek sense of parody that might have accompanied a similar idea a few years ago.

But beside that, I have to say that much of the dancing itself didn’t feel like it had evolved much in the half-decade since I last found myself at Fusion. The dance structure stayed the same, the music choices were still the same, though of course updated to reflect the current hits and trends, and the same hit songs were heard multiple times throughout the night as well.

But is that really a fair complaint? Can hip-hop dance in this style ever be truly divorced from hip-hop music? Perhaps not. But there was one performance in particular that really blew me away; it took hip-hop to a different level, where it had something to say and said it pretty dramatically.

CADC, comprised of dancersfrom the University of California, Irvine, presented a work that was a modern spin on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. The ensemble was dressed like wolves, or what Michael Jackson would wear if he were to suggest wolf attire, save for Little Red, who was decked out in her eponymous color and strutting her stuff like a pole dancer. But this fairy tale moved to the present day and Little Redwas not to be messed with. She manipulated the wolves, commanded the stage with confidence, and owned her sexuality.

The dancing was impeccable. But dancing aside, CADC showed me a different side to hip-hop dance. In breaking with tradition and presenting a loose narrative, re-interpreting a fairy tale classic, and choreographing characters with solos into their work, which was a big departure for the mostly unison choreogrpahy that pervaded the rest of the evening, they gave hip-hop dance a voice that made is as potent and relevant a dance form as any other. And when Little Red picked up a rifle and massacred the wolves, saving the last bullet for the Big Bad one, it was shocking and disturbing – I mean, almost a year to the day of the Virginia Tech massacre, you can’t watch a scene like that and not get chills. But that’s what felt so powerful about this work; it was referencing real life, reflecting and commenting on our society and flipping our bed-time stories on their heads.

Of course, what do I know? CADC came in third place in the competition. But for me, they stood out for what I perceived as a new direction for hip-hop dance – a vibrant, versatile, and thoroughly engaging form of dance that has the potential to be more than the music that inspires it. Those issues aside, Fusion still pulled together a corps of incredibly talented performers and put on a polished, exciting show. Next year celebrates their 10th anniversary and I won’t be able to wait another five years before going back.