Khaled Chaabi is a chivalrous young man, with plenty of pleases and thank-yous on his lips. But after he jumps out of a lofty SUV, he zips away without offering to help down any of his fellow passengers. Why would he? In his world, everyone can fly. The 27-year-old Syria-born Chaabi, known in the B-Boy scene as KC-1, is a member of the Flying Steps, the Berlin-based breaking crew who, over the past two decades, have flipped, swiped, dropped and top-rocked their way to global fame.
Founded in 1993 by Vartan Bassil and Kadir ‘Amigo’ Memis, the Flying Steps have won four world championships, including two Red Bull Beat Battles; stunned audiences from Santiago to Singapore to Switzerland; been immortalised in B-Boy games for PlayStation; and won recognition in the Guinness Book Of World Records (the crew’s talent scout and choreographer, Benny Kimoto, once held the record for head spinning).
All that came before 2010, when the Flying Steps decided to try something so odd that few other crews have attempted it: performing to classical music. “The normal-people show is not enough for us,” says their artist manager and choreographer, the 37-year-old German Michael Rosemann (B-Boy name: Mikel). “We must do something really special.” The result: Red Bull Flying Bach, an evening of furiously masterful moves set to one of the world’s great works of classical music, Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Now in its fourth year, the show has proven to more than 210,000 spectators in 21 countries that in the right hands (and feet and heads), breaking and Bach go together as deliciously as champagne and cheeseburgers.
Red Bull Flying Bach visits New Zealand for the first time in September with performances at the Aotea Centre in Auckland on September 4, 5 and 6.
As well as entertaining international audiences, the show has also helped break barriers between cultures. “Breakdance is no longer a street dance,” says Mikel. “It’s an artful dance, with basics like all other dance styles.” Before a performance in Chicago, Mikel, KC-1 and their fellow Flying Stepper, Gengis Ademoski, a 22-year-old Macedonian also known as Lil Ceng, rehearse with Anna Holmström, 23, a contemporary dancer and former gymnast from Sweden who joined the cast of Red Bull Flying Bach last year. All of them are dressed in jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies; none show signs of having stepped off a plane from Austria the night before.
When KC-1 floats all four limbs in the air and spins like a human top on his curly head, the watching throng gasps. When Lil Ceng flips from palm to palm as easily as if he were jumping from foot to foot, they gasp again. But the dancers pay no attention, not when the applause comes, and especially not on this slippery temporary dancefloor. You don’t defy gravity by letting your focus wander.
Holmström, the only woman in the show, leaps across the room from leg to leg, to KC-1, who lifts her skyward, as elegantly vertical as if they were members of the Bolshoi Ballet. But no Bolshoi ballerina would likely do what she does next: flip over KC-1’s back, duck to avoid the leg he whips over her head, and start top-rocking like a bona-fide B-Girl. “I’m getting bruises everywhere,” she says, panting. But two minutes later she’s ready to go again: “We try? One time?” Given the moves in Red Bull Flying Bach, it’s a wonder the entire cast isn’t one big bruise. During performances, when he’s not on stage, Mikel loves to lurk out of sight behind the curtain and listen for the audience’s reaction to particularly aerodynamic manoeuvres: “This is not possible! They can’t do that!”
Red Bull Flying Bach got its start when Vartan Bassil had the idea of creating a show set to classical music. He turned for help to Christoph Hagel, an internationally renowned opera and concert conductor. Trained by Leonard Bernstein, Hagel is best known for staging musical performances in non-traditional venues such as subway stations. Though unfamiliar with breaking at the time, the German was taken with the passion and power of the Flying Steps’ work, and promised to give them a call. “Normally this means, ‘Go home, my friends,’” Mikel laughs. “But two weeks later, we got a call.”
Hagel suggested Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, an 18th-century collection of preludes and fugues, each of which explores a different musical key. With Hagel on board as musical director and pianist, Bassil and Japanese choreographer Yui Kawaguchi created a show loosely centred on the narrative of the emotional ups-and-downs of a dance crew as it rehearses for a big performance. Background visuals by VJ, art director, producer and set designer Marco Moo include a short film that shows the crew’s fastest, most visually intense movements in slow motion to explain to audiences what’s going on.
As for Mikel and the rest of the Red Bull Flying Bach crew – a global bunch consisting of KC-1, Lil Ceng, Holmström, Aldo Style (Alan da Silva) of Brazil, and the Frenchmen Nono (Nordine Dany Grimah), Yamine Manaa, and Punisher (Pierre Bleriot) – they found themselves taken with, but a bit stymied by, Bach’s work. “Normally we dance to funk music. You have beats, you dance the beats,” says KC-1. “Classical music has melody.”
Adding electronic beats helped, but it was listening to the music over and over again that really got the dancers in the groove. “We felt a little bit lost at the beginning, but for me, now it sounds different,” says Mikel. “When we understood the music, it was easy.”
Audiences immediately took to the 70-minute show: a sold-out run in Germany in 2010 was followed by a European tour the following year and worldwide tours in 2012 and 2013.
This year’s tour includes first-time stops in Singapore, Qatar and New Zealand and along the way the Flying Steps are helping to spread the gospel of breaking.In a studio at Columbia College before their Chicago show, KC-1 and Lil Ceng limber up in front of a group of eager but anxious dance students. KC-1 puts on The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight – nothing like keeping it old-school – and starts top-rocking as the students do their best to keep up. When he casually suggests they practise full-body flips, the students look at each other and laugh nervously, so he thoughtfully demonstrates something simpler by sinking to the floor and whirling on one foot like a gyroscope. A chorus of mystified “Whaaaaaat?” fills the air, and he looks up apologetically. “Too hard?” he asks politely. “We’ll try something different.”