Breaking b-boy boundariesRed Bull Flying Bach’s chief choreographer Vartan Bassil on a lifetime of converting skeptics and elevating his art form.
Apassionate breakdancer since the 1990s, Vartan Bassil spent his life trying to convert skeptics. First it was his parents, who moved the family from war-ravaged Lebanon to Berlin in 1983 and expected a more stable life from their first-born son. Later it was his mother-in-law, who wanted the same for the man marrying her daughter and fathering her grandchild.
But Bassil’s biggest opponent was society’s perception that his lifelong obsession was nothing more than an urban trend. So he and his partners at the Flying Steps dance crew created Flying Bach, a show that marries the music of the Baroque composer with a crew of b-boys.
What he thought would begin and end with a few gigs in Berlin in 2010 has turned into a touring show that plays in sold-out concert halls across the world. For him, breaking convention is the way forward.
THE RED BULLETIN: You forwent education to chase the artist’s life—not the typical path of the child of an immigrant family.
VARTAN BASSIL: When I look back today, I think it’s crazy the risks I took. I would never tell someone to do the same. I’d tell them to study something to fall back on. I had a lot of luck. Today I can say, “Cool, it’s all worked out.” But there were years when I thought, “Shit, I’ve screwed up my entire future.”
Did it get particularly tough?
When I became a father for the first time, that was the toughest time. Because it wasn’t just my family, it was my wife’s family saying, “Hey Vartan, we think what you’re doing is great, but financially, there is no continuity.” We lived from month to month, and I had to become responsible for my child. But there was something there. We were really good at what we did, but somehow the business model was missing.
All that happened through the push from my parents. They talked sense into me, but they also supported me. They gave me advice and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I wanted to show everybody.
You’ve created touring shows that merge breakdancing, basketball—even treadmills. How did you make the leap to classical music?
My mother-in-law, through me, was a fan of breakdancing. But she had an even better opinion of classical music and took me to concerts. I saw how important it was to her and what kind of people went to those concerts, people who would never watch or attend a breakdancing show, and I thought, “I need to reach these people.” I can only reach them if I do something with classical music, with their art.
Why was that important?
I finally wanted the acceptance. My mother-in-law told me once that my daughter was going to go to ballet class, and I said, “Why not hip-hop class?” Why do people place ballet on such a pedestal? Why not breakdancing? Why is breakdancing considered a sport rather than a real type of dance, or art? I needed to show people what unbelievable dedication is required to do the things that no ballet dancer can do.
How did the scene react?
It doesn’t really matter what the scene thinks. People are scared of change. But change doesn’t always have to be negative. You have to stay true to yourself but still be open. There have always been a lot of taboos in breakdance—can you change the style that much and still be called breakdance?—but those who had the courage to change it back then belong to those who did it right. This project is an artistic expression in a different direction, but it’s still breakdancing. The Flying Steps aren’t going to only work with classical music. The core is still urban dance.
Is your family happier with your path now?
My mom still asks me when I’m going to get a real job [laughs]. She still doesn’t get that you can earn a living from this. She’s proud of me, but she’s worried that it can be over tomorrow.