Ebnflōh’s “La Probabilité du Néant” uses hip-hop to preach the importance of getting involved

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      Forget, for a second, about the big unanswerable question—where do we go when we die?—and La Probabilité du Néant (The Probability of Nothingness) still asks something profound: “What are you willing to do as a witness during your time on planet Earth?”

      Reached in her hometown of Montreal, Quebec choreographer Alexandra “Spicey” Landé acknowledges that, in a world where Black Lives Matter has become a huge social movement, many people look at that question through the lens of race. Might the likes of George Floyd have lived if someone had intervened rather than standing there filming on a cellphone?

      And as she talks about her defiantly street-indebted hip-hop dance piece La Probabilité du Néant (The Probability of Nothingness), Landé stresses that the act of being a witness comes with a responsibility, whether one realizes it or not.

      “One of the biggest concepts for the work is the bystander effect,” she says. “I really like the idea of witnessing, and the whole show stands on that. When you witness, you are probably the person with the most power. Everything is a ‘maybe’ with the witness.”

      She suggests a dramatic example: “Somebody is attacking somebody else. The person who is attacking—their intentions are clear. The victim is receiving all of that energy, so it’s clear what the victim is going through. But the witness is the one who can change the whole situation, because they can choose to act or not to act. Based on that alone, that position is so powerful.”

      At the root of that often-unspoken-of power is the ability for affecting change.

      “The witness can choose to intervene, or choose sides,” Landé opines. “What I find interesting about the bystander effect is that it makes me think of the void. That fact that we often don’t act or speak up or stand for anything. It keeps us in this unbalanced state of uncertainty because, as people, we don’t stand for things.”

      The choreographer is no stranger to taking a position on things that are important to her, including her decision to crash a modern dance world that once had no idea what to make of her.

      Landé got her start in classic hip-hop, falling in love with it as a kid glued to MuchMusic. As she started building her career, the genre stayed her passion, and she founded Quebec’s Bust a Move Festival in 2005.

      By the mid-2000s, Landé began looking to build an audience beyond the hard-core hip-hop community, only to meet endless resistance by the gatekeepers of the traditional dance world.

      “I was starting to dig into telling stories, but in a profound way that was very rooted in street dance,” she says. “And I had several styles. It wasn’t just hip-hop dance—it was breaking and popping and waacking, all these different street dance styles. And at the time, I mean the resistance to that kind of work was insane. We had the Regroupement Québécois de la Danse going, ‘Street dance is not a genre—you can’t be a member because it’s not considered professional.’ ”

      Melika Dez.

      If hip-hop scared the establishment, it was with good reason. Dating right back to its beginnings on the street corners of New York, the movement has always been about pushing for social change and giving a voice to those who’ve often been on the outside looking in. As a choreographer, Landé has remained obsessed with the original revolutionary spirit of breakdancing; she refuses to sanitize or water things down for mainstream consumption.

      La Probabilité du Néant (The Probability of Nothingness) has her working with six breakdancers and two pop-and-lock aces, all with an undying love of what’s become the most dominant musical genre on the planet. Providing the live sonic backdrop for the multimedia production—which includes video—is Montreal beatmaker Richard “Shash’U” St-Aubin.

      Reflecting on her journey, Landé  says that after years of dealing with barriers, she watched as terms like “diversity” and “inclusion” started to slowly gain traction in the mainstream. Forming the hip-hop Ebnflōh Dance Company in 2015, she slowly found there was a place at the table for those willing to challenge the status quo on their own terms.

      “I’d been focussing on my community and teaching, doing a bit of work, but not much of it,” Landé remembers. “Then I started Ebnflōh. As an artist, I’d been growing—opening my mind to the question, ‘How do I bring hip-hop to a different stage?’ I understood the resistance, but dance should be universal. It shouldn’t be, ‘You don’t push in that direction,’ or, ‘I don’t think your work is valid.’ ”

      Part of her personal journey was educating herself about the world that she was trying to find a place in.

      “I started trying to understand what contemporary dance was, because I didn’t even know,” Landé admits. “I didn’t understand it, so I started going to shows. It was very strange—I went through years of, ‘What is going on?’ and, ‘Why are they doing this?’ It was torturous in the beginning, because of the unknown. But the one thing that contemporary dance did for me was open my mind to my own art, and my own creativity. I didn’t need permission, but I feel it gave me permission as an artist to do what I want to see onstage: using hip-hop culture—the dance and the form—as a tool to create. Contemporary dance opened my mind to the idea of: you can go wherever you want to go.”

      A big part of that is not being afraid to ask questions. On the subject of bearing witness, Landé stresses that there are all kinds of ways one can affect change, from Black Lives Matter to the fact that the planet is burning up thanks to climate change. You either stand on the sidelines, or you get involved.

      The message of La Probabilité du Néant (The Probability of Nothingness) is that—as preached by a long list of hip-hop giants from Chuck D. to Kendrick Lamar—we should all be focussing on doing something to make the world more just for everyone.

      As for why this is important, that’s a little more complicated—as hinted by the title of the piece.

      You want a couple of big questions? How about, “Why are we here, and what happens after we’re gone?” The choreographer acknowledges that she doesn’t have all the answers, which is okay. It’s the act of asking that’s important.

      “It all comes to language,” she offers. “My boyfriend is Anglo-Francphone, but mostly Anglophone. I’m Francophone—my first language is French. In French, La Probabilité du Néant makes perfect sense—you don’t totally know what it means, but you understand it. Translated, it was hell. My boyfriend, who studies literature, was like, ‘The Probability of Nothingness’ makes no sense. So I talked to a friend, and she was like, ‘It sounds like the prospect of the void.’ That title makes sense when you seen the show.”

      The idea that there’s nothing but a void after we go is, of course, somehow terrifying. But maybe a way to turn that into something positive is to embrace the idea that, during our time here, we can be more than witnesses.

      “For me, it’s all about the ‘prospect’ where we’re not sure of anything,” Landé says. “We live in the between, where it’s, ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’ That’s what I like about the concept of the show—the idea of possibility.” 

      Ebnflōh Dance Company’s La Probabilité du Néant is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from December 7 to 9