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Poppin' and Lockin'

Phoenix-based Nebellen Dance Company takes club dance to the concert stage


Ben Howe is a dancing dictionary of hip-hop.

One-half of the artistic team that created Nebellen Dance Company four years ago in Phoenix ("Neb" is "Ben" backwards and "Ellen" is for partner Ellen Rath), Howe can give rapid-fire definitions of the rave dance forms Nebellen has rescued from the clubs and upgraded to the concert stage.

I give him a whirl, reading the names of dances from the press release for Nebellen's show this Saturday night at Pima College West Center for the Arts.

"What's 'poppin'?" I ask.

"'Poppin' is an isolated movement, staccato," Howe promptly replies. "You can pop your right arm up, and none of the rest of your body moves."

"OK," I say. "What's liquid?"

"Liquid is a fluid movement, like the wave," he says. "It's part of house culture and uses electronic movement."

"And lockin'?"

"It came from poppin'," he explains. "It's a different way to hit the beat."

Lockin', poppin', glow sticking and breaking, 10 Nebellen dancers will hit the beat in any number of ways in the concert of 14 choreographed dances, all derived from the improvised moves of late-night clubs. Called The Fifth Nebellen, to mark the troupe's fifth season, the concert romps through as many musical styles, from techno to Tchaikovsky. One piece, "Superheroes vs. Supervillains," is done to a "medley of classical music," Howe reports, "including the 'Russian Dance' from The Nutcracker."

Rath is intimately familiar with The Nutcracker strains: She's a full-time ballerina with Ballet Arizona. She club-dances in her off hours, which is how she met veteran club-dancer Howe. The two started Nebellen; they dance with the troupe and choreograph most of the pieces. It's not easy balancing the growing success of Nebellen with a Ballet Arizona gig.

"Ballet Arizona started this week, and they're having crazy rehearsals," Howe says. "It's hard," especially since Nebellen's Tucson date kicks off a fall concert tour that will take its dancers to five different cities.

Nebellen recently returned from its second tour to China, where Howe and six other dancers did some lockin' and poppin' at the Happy Valley Kingdom amusement park in Shenzhen.

"They loved it!" Howe says. "I was concerned about terrorism and so on, but they totally embraced us. They love American culture."

Tucson has been taking a liking to the energetic troupe, too, with teens and clubbers who don't usually pay to see dance showing up to buy a Nebellen ticket. On the troupe's second stop in Tucson, last year, Howe says, "our audience doubled over the first year."


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