Underground Movement

Local hip-hop troupe Nebellen makes a break for the big time

The central Phoenix dance studio has all the charm of a prison cell -- with ugly curtains -- but it pulses with sex and sass and sweat. Bass shakes the floor as Ellen Rath takes the lead, pounding out a routine to Missy Elliott's "Pass That Dutch."

Their tight bodies turning in unison, the 21 dancers stomp and strut and jump. They lean back -- waaay back -- in slow motion, like they're filming The Matrix: The Musical.

The members of the dance troupe are white, black, Hispanic and Asian, but it hardly matters: Skin is merely canvas for tattoos. The skull caps, low-slung trousers and facial piercings add up to a cool that could cause frostbite.

Nebellen's founders and co-artistic directors, Ben Howe and Ellen Rath.
Nebellen's founders and co-artistic directors, Ben Howe and Ellen Rath.
Flipping for Nebellen: Robert Lopez and Antonio Berumen.
Flipping for Nebellen: Robert Lopez and Antonio Berumen.

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Photography by Jeff Newton

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The music may be current, but, because these kids are hip to what's hot, they're dressed like it's the early '80s: multicolored sneakers, holey jeans, sunglasses at night.

Make no mistake. They may be cool, but they're focused. When Rath demonstrates a move, the dancers mirror it immediately. She calls out instructions rapid fire, asking for a jump, a turn, a handstand, an arabesque.

That last request gets confused looks. Rath giggles, "I use ballet terms sometimes. Sorry."

Rath leads a hip-hop troupe, Nebellen, and it's on the verge of wild success. But the company's still broke, so Rath pays the bills with a day job that's also a dream job.

Ellen Rath is a real live ballerina, a company dancer for Ballet Arizona. On this February night, she's come straight from a Sunday matinee of Valentine's Winter Treat, trading her tutu for track pants, her arabesques for some urban attitude.

Crammed with ballet rehearsals five days a week and Nebellen rehearsals five nights a week, Rath's life is an exercise in contrasts. Pliés and poppin'. Toe shoes and trucker hats. Mozart and Missy Elliott. An up-and-coming ballet company seeking recognition in a community that struggles to support the arts. An up-and-coming hip-hop company seeking recognition in a community that has preconceived ideas of what "the arts" should be.

But ballet and breaking aren't entirely different. Stretched budgets. Pulled muscles. Hard bodies. Hard work.

"Ballet is more competitive than Nebellen. It's more structured," Rath says, adding that some dancers are with the ballet because they love it; for others, it's just a job.

"Nebellen's more like a family. Everyone's there because they love dancing. They really want to be there."

They'd have to, seeing as how a Nebellen dancer makes about 50 bucks between February and October -- peanuts compared to the regular, albeit modest, salary of a ballet dancer.

"I used to be here because I love it," Rath says of the ballet, where she's nearing the end of her eighth season. "Now, I'm here more because it's my job."

Rath says that Ib Andersen, Ballet Arizona's artistic director and her boss, senses her waning passion.

"He wants me to decide what I really want next year," says the 25-year-old, who must decide this month whether to renew her contract.

"But what I want can't happen yet."

The vision she shares with Ben Howe, 27, her fiancé and co-artistic director -- Nebellen as a full-time job, with regular touring, a teaching studio, and a salary for every dancer -- may not be far off.

Nebellen may not have the name recognition or cultural cred of the Valley's more established dance companies, but with swelling nationwide tour dates -- and a killer rehearsal schedule -- the hip-hop troupe is ready to break out.

Since its formation four years ago, the company has come a long way, both artistically and geographically. Two performance tours of China. An opening gig for an off-Broadway production at ASU's Gammage Auditorium. A guest spot with the Phoenix Symphony. Collaborations with local DJs, musical groups and martial arts schools.

This past April, Nebellen pulled off its first paid performance outside of Arizona -- at Huntsville, Alabama's Panoply Arts Festival -- and has signed with Top Entertainment, an Atlanta-based booking agency. Its leaders hope the troupe is on its way to continuous national touring -- and regular income. The calendar is filling: Performances in Iowa, Illinois, Utah, New Hampshire and Maine. A two-week residency in the Quad Cities. Potential gigs in Idaho and Kentucky.

Valley audiences can see the company in motion this Sunday, June 13, when its fifth annual showcase, Pure Nebellen, hits the stage at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. The troupe's 15 members and six apprentices, ranging from 17 to 29 years old, will demonstrate the dance styles -- hip-hop, house, liquid, b-boy, rave -- that, while rarely recognized in the stuffy mainstream arts community, are earning Nebellen national attention.

And shortly after Sunday's performance, Ellen Rath will have to make her big decision.

Growing up in the Twin Cities, Ellen Rath started gymnastics lessons at age 5. By 6, she was training five days a week, her eyes on Olympic competition. At the suggestion of her coaches, Rath added ballet lessons at age 8 to improve her floor routine; a year later, she abandoned gymnastics to focus on ballet.

"The stress of my gymnastics was so overwhelming for such a young child," she says, "and dance was so fun."

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