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Inside the Music

Breaking and Beethoven

BRKFST Dance Company | Photo by Adam Adolphus

The Minnesota Orchestra has given thousands of performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music beginning with our third concert in January 1904, but the upcoming performances on July 28 and 29 will be among the most innovative—merging the Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Grosse fuge with live onstage breaking by the Twin Cities-based BRKFST Dance Company. The dancers and choreographers of BRKFST have devised a new work to accompany Grosse fuge, widely known to be one of the famed composer’s most eccentric and sonically complex works.

Criticized as “incomprehensible” when it was first performed in 1825, Grosse fuge eventually would be embraced by later generations of composers and audiences; its proponents included Igor Stravinsky, who called it “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” In a recent interview, BRKFST’s founder and Artistic Director Lisa ‘MonaLisa’ Berman and co-founder Joseph ‘MN Joe’ Tran described the ensemble’s origins and explained their process of bringing this forever contemporary work to life in an entirely new way.

Q&A with BRKFST’s Lisa ‘MonaLisa’ Berman and Joseph ‘MN Joe’ Tran

What is BRKFST Dance Company, and how did the ensemble get its start?

Founded in 2014, BRKFST Dance Company is a collaborative ensemble of breaking choreographers based in the Twin Cities. We wanted to bring together all the dancers we had connections with through the breaking and hip-hop scene into one group because we felt that we could utilize our skills to say something meaningful with our movement outside of the battle scene. There were no breaking companies in Minnesota at the time and so, in order to have performance opportunities, we had to create them. 

What is breaking, and where does the dance form originate?

The word itself comes from dancers getting down to the break in the music (an instrumental or percussive section in a song). Breaking is the first and original hip-hop dance form pioneered by the Black and brown communities, originating in 1973 in the Bronx, New York. Breaking was spawned as a form of creative expression and also a reclaiming of power and identity through movement in response to gang violence and blatant disregard by the government for the livelihoods and prosperity of BIPOC individuals.

Tell us more about the other members of the group—who is part of BRKFST and how did you come together?

BRKFST started as a group of six friends who formed relationships over a decade through the breaking scene. We and fellow founding members Travis 'Seqal' Johnson, Renée Copeland, Wealthy Phonseya, Cheng 'Technica' Xiong are akin to what a crew is, more than a “company.” In breaking, when you are in a crew, you are expected to be loyal, trusting, and unabashedly proud of what your crew represents. These principles are only formed in community—when people build real relationships over time through many hardships. We’ve all battled against each other, with each other and have suffered many losses and celebrated many victories together.

To leave your mark in the breaking culture means to not only master the form but to contribute by adding your own individuality, flavor and originality to the dance—these values are the cornerstones of what makes breaking and hip-hop so empowering. It is also the essence and richness of what BRKFST brings as a dance crew. Before we began, each member had built a reputation and approach to dance on their own accord and our unique perspectives are carved through real-world experience. After decades of representing our styles in the battle scene, we came together to not only represent breaking on the theater stage but to model longevity and sustainability with the dance form.

What else can you share about BRKSFT’s choreographic process?

We believe in having an egalitarian and non-hierarchical structure for the creation of our work. The beauty of BRKFST is that we value the individuality of each member and what they bring to the table. Because we value everyone’s opinions and perspectives, creating work takes a massive amount of time—we must discuss and negotiate each and every idea until a collective decision is made. Since we are all in the process, we record each section created, review it together and decide what we like and don’t like as a group. Not only do we create stage work collaboratively, but we teach as a collective as well.

We incorporate abstract, narrative and pedestrian-driven movement into our work by combining breaking with contemporary dance vernacular. BRKFST utilizes the lived experience of this collective—with working class, queer, femme and BIPOC identities—which inform our compositions and contribute to the egalitarian process of creation. 

Has the ensemble ever worked with classical music before? How is it different from what you normally do, and how is it similar?

This is the first time we as a company have worked with classical music. It is extremely different from our normal approach. Company member Renée Copeland doubles as both movement collaborator and composer; she has created original sound scores for every previous production BRKFST has created, which gives us the flexibility to coordinate movement and music in real time. Working with a set score is much more unforgiving. In addition, choreographing to classical music has proven to be challenging in emphasizing the nuance of each instrumental accent—as well as the overall tempo—since we are used to having a steady beat to aid in keeping our movement in sync.

Can you tell us specifically about your approach to interpreting Beethoven’s Grosse fuge?

While researching about Beethoven's creation of Grosse fuge, we discovered that this work was made at the height of his hearing loss. Imagining his state of mind led us to thinking about “fugue” as a term in psychology when referring to a “fugue state” as a dissociative episode, which can exhibit as feelings of chaos, fear and confusion. These emotions served as movement prompts in creating our choreography.

For those who have never seen dance like this—why should they check out BRKFST’s performance with the Minnesota Orchestra?

BRKFST will be presenting a work that has never been done before in Minnesota. Combining a live orchestra with a breaking company exploring new and exciting modes of expression through movement will be an event you don't want to miss!

The Minnesota Orchestra and BRKFST perform Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge on July 28 and 29 at Orchestra Hall. The concert, conducted by Yue Bao of the Houston Symphony, also features Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In addition, prior to both concerts, BRKFST will collaborate with Minnesota Orchestra violinists Rebecca Corruccini and Milana Elise Reiche in an interdisciplinary performance as BRKFST dancers perform a new original piece to the musicians’ world premiere of Yaz Lancaster’s Potential Utility for two violins and fixed media. Those performances, which are free and open to the public, take place on Thursday, July 28, at 10:40 a.m., and Friday, July 29, at 7:40 p.m., in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium.