April 21, 2005
It’s 8:30 on a Wednesday night, and Nebellen Dance Company performers are waiting for rehearsal to begin at Phoenix Dance Academy.
They chat, stretch, experiment with new break dancing moves and hold handstand competitions.
The dancers sport dreadlocks, head scarves, messy ponytails and various shades of dyed hair. They have tattoos and piercings. Some wear boxer shorts and tanks; others, baggy pants and T-shirts. Some are classically trained in ballet; others learned to dance on the street, in clubs and at raves.
Together, they make up Nebellen, an 23-person modern dance company.
Nebellen co-director Ben Howe arrives carrying a golf bag filled with swords. He calls the dancers together and starts the music. The rhythmic, fast-paced thumps of club music instantly fill the space, and dancers begin to fly across the room, performing leaps, turns, back flips and spins.
Nebellen is preparing for “Once Upon a Beat,” a cutting-edge performance incorporating elements of break dance (known by the slang terms “b-boying” and “b-girling”), salsa, freestyle (improvisation), martial arts and ballet. While the company has a reputation for its diverse staff and breadth of dance styles, this two-part show reveals a new side to Nebellen: The art of storytelling through dance.
“Basically, we're still doing the same style of dance. If what they like about Nebellen is hip-hop, or that we blend different styles together, that will still be there,” says company co-director Ellen Rath. “The only difference is, now it's sort of wrapped up into short stories.”
‘Once Upon a Beat’
The first part of the show, “Heartbeat,” explores different aspects of relationships between men and women. It’s an artistic window into the lives of six couples — how they relate and try to maintain their individual identity while being part of a unit.
Howe says the theme of relationships is universal: “Since there are no words or hugely dramatic parts, it's kind of left up to audience interpretation.”
The show opens with the spunky, upbeat song “Do Your Thing,” which has dancers running around the room in frenzied circles, in all different directions.
“It's kind of catchy, and it's saying, 'Do your thing, Be yourself,'” says Rath, who choreographed most of the songs with Howe, her fiance.
“I think that's something that's kind of important in relationships, to make sure that you keep yourself and not lose yourself,” she says.
Another piece in “Heartbeat” is inspired by the opera “Carmen” and involves a woman pursued by two lovers, whom she rejects, only to be rejected herself by the man she loves.
The second part of the show, “A Rhythm Far, Far Away,” is about the bond between three friends who take a journey into a fantasy world of mystical creatures. It was inspired by “The Book of Five Rings” by 17th-century Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. The opening piece called “Wind” puts swords into the dancers' hands, creating the scenario of a martial-arts class. After class, one of the students is cleaning up and is hit on the head.
“From then on, it becomes a dream,” Howe says. The main character, danced by Howe, enters an imaginary world in which he and two close friends encounter ninjas, fairies and demons.
The first Nebellen
When Howe met Ballet Arizona dancer and rave enthusiast Ellen Rath in 2000, it was a match made in dance heaven.
“Ellen was dancing at (now defunct) Club Insomnia in Scottsdale,” Howe says. “I knew the DJ, and I met her in that way.
“We started dating and dancing together, then, a month after, putting the show together.’’
Rath was club dancing on Saturday nights as a way to earn extra money. At the time, Ballet Arizona was in the midst of director turnover — between the leadership of Michael Uthoff and current artistic director Ib Anderson, she recalls.
“The company was really shaky, and basically, all the repetition we were doing was old; we weren't doing anything new,” Rath says. “I was just sort of frustrated by being in a ballet company and not having enough artistic freedom as a ballet dancer.”
Rath knew some amazing dancers within the club and rave scene, and she'd seen hip-hop dancer Howe with two friends in their own troupe. She proposed the idea of creating their own show.
The two jointly choreographed their inaugural performance, “The First Nebellen,” with 15 of their friends. It premiered on May 27, 2000, at Kerr Cultural Center in Scottsdale.
The show sold out and drew standing ovations. It inspired the pair to create a nonprofit dance company. They named it "Nebellen" by combining their first names, turning Ben backwards and adding Ellen.
The company has since performed at venues across Arizona and nationally. They have twice performed in China.
“I'm proud of what Nebellen has become, and I know it's not just me wanting to become a hero,” Howe says. “Hopefully, everyone will see that this is possible. Your dreams can come true if you work hard.”
Velaine Jolle and Allison Miller glide gracefully across the room while practicing the dance "Water Fairies" for “Once Upon a Beat's” second half. They wave their arms in liquid motion, with flowing movements that appear seamless, and hold imaginary glow sticks in their hands.
"It takes a lot of thinking, and you have to stay on your count," says Jolle, 28, a part-time graphic designer for a Valley magazine. She auditioned for the company two years ago, at the same time as Miller, 20, a meteorology student at ASU.
For these women, the hardest part of dancing with Nebellen is freestyling — something that wasn't a part of the classical ballet they studied through childhood.
“We're used to someone telling us to do at every moment,” Miller says, laughing.
Dancers Nico Rivas and Malika McCoy say the most difficult aspect of dancing in the current show is what is known as “partnering,” when dancers pair off for lifts, holds and sword fights.
“Partnering is the hardest, because you have to really trust each other,” says Rivas, 22. “When you're lifting each other, you really have to be confident in your partner.”
Most of the company's dancers have outside jobs or go to school, says Howe, who graduated with his dance degree from ASU in 2004 and focuses on the business aspects of running Nebellen.
“Our dancers all have varied backgrounds; that's kind of what sets Nebellen apart from any other dance company,” Rath says.
Nebellen's “Once Upon a Beat”
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Where: Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 E. Second St.
Information: (480) 994-2787