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."

At 15, she left home to attend the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, the country's only tuition-free boarding school for young dancers.

At 17, Rath began auditioning for ballet companies and, instead of returning to Harid for her senior year, moved to Phoenix. She found an apartment, finished high school through correspondence classes, and devoted her days to dancing with Ballet Arizona.

"It was a little scary, but also really exciting," she says. "I was really excited to be with a ballet company."

Her parents traveled across the country for every performance and eventually relocated to the Valley. After one year as a trainee and another as an apprentice, Rath was promoted to company dancer.

She had officially succeeded in the highly competitive arena of ballet. But . . . there was a but. "I've always been more strongly drawn to modern dance," Rath admits. Very modern dance -- cutting-edge styles being devised on the street, even as Nebellen perfects this Sunday's routines.

A white girl from Minnesota may be the last person you'd expect to see freestyling in a hip-hop routine rivaling the moves in You Got Served, a street dance movie recently released on DVD. But the kids who dance with Rath will tell you otherwise.

As will Howe, Rath's partner on and off stage. While Rath's dance background is in the studio, Howe's is on the streets of Cleveland, where he discovered "hyper hip-hop" in high school. Howe earned a dance degree from ASU last month, and has guested in Ballet Arizona productions of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

The two met while shaking their respective groove things at Tempe's defunct Insomnia nightclub. As they got to know each other, Rath, already four seasons into a career with Ballet Arizona, propositioned Howe.

"I just asked Ben one day if he wanted to make a dance show, and he said yes without really knowing what that was," she explains. "He always thought dancers were just back-up for singers or opening acts. He didn't know there were professional dance companies where people got paid full-time to dance."

"Dance, to me, was videos and concerts, and that's all," Howe says. "That's all that inner-city kids know."

"So we found a cheap place that would let us do a show without having insurance, and started rehearsing," Rath continues. "The First Nebellen was made up completely of friends and acquaintances from clubs and raves."

The show, which went down at Scottsdale's Kerr Cultural Center, sold out. Rath's mother, Kathy, helped the kids fill out some paperwork. And the nonprofit Nebellen Dance Company was born.

Nebellen, if you haven't figured it out, is a combination of Howe's and Rath's first names.

Though Rath is a no-nonsense leader -- "I know you need to talk to your partners," she chastises the group, "but shh!" -- she laughs loudly and often.

A dancer rips the seat of his pants. Another, explaining a partner lift, instructs, "Girls, on your knees." The room dissolves in laughter.

And then it's back to work.

The collective attitude, surprisingly, is neither competitive nor cocky. A kid in cargo pants politely raises his hand to ask a question. Dancers shout props and applaud wildly and take time to help each other master moves. They hug.

Like a track coach, Rath leads Nebellen through drills, hoping that repetition will help the dancers nail a tricky sideways jump. She then asks the dancers to shimmy their shoulders as they sidestep across the room. The exercise is both sexy and strenuous.

"I definitely use my ballet background and training when working on dancers' lines and picking out small details to make certain moves look better," Rath explains. "Ballet really trained me to have a very critical eye, which is what helps Nebellen look good."

But ballet isn't the only ingredient in Nebellen's success.

When Howe takes the rehearsal reins, he ups the comic relief.

"I'm Neb," he introduces himself to new members. He's given to clowning and exaggeration, both in his dancing and his delivery: "If there's something that hurts, don't do it," he announces. "Tell us. We're not here to kill people."

Breakin' is Howe's strong suit, and he leads the group through a poppin' and lockin' routine (there are no G's in hip-hop). Rather than leading with "one, two, three, four," he teaches the steps to "ba ba ba ba, uh uh uh uh," and his joints move like well-oiled hinges. In contrast, some of the white girls look, well, white -- their moves robotic and unnatural. But with five practices a week -- up to four hours at a stretch -- the kinks will be worked out in no time.

Though hip-hop is Nebellen's main gig, Rath and Howe like to maintain a well-rounded group. Each week, a different member leads a Nebellen company class, teaching a style of dance he or she finds particularly interesting.

On a Sunday in early March, Robert Lopez, 24, introduces his troupe mates to mambo, salsa and merengue -- and some very hip-hop interpretations result. The students master the basic steps in minutes, so Lopez kicks it up a notch -- and it becomes clear that this isn't your senior center Latin dance class. A horn solo wails from the boom box as Lopez caps a high-speed move by dropping his partner into the splits. He demonstrates a tricky sequence -- it's all about the timing -- wherein the man, by gently cueing his partner with his feet, repeatedly changes the direction of her spin.

Howe and Rath salsa like old pros, and he lowers her into a dip that won't die; she bends farther and farther back, eventually crawling through the other side of his legs.

The studio is a blur of laughter and movement. Class has given way to chaos. Such is Nebellen's creative process.

Nebellen gets no more than a sniff from Ib Andersen, Rath's boss at Ballet Arizona.

Andersen saw Nebellen's 2003 summer showcase and believes that Rath brings a discernible ballet influence to the troupe. He also believes that hip-hop, as an art form, leaves a lot to be desired.

"It's a very limited vocabulary," Andersen says. "And if it's going to be something you can actually watch with interest for a whole evening . . . if it's going to survive as an art form, it will need to evolve quite a bit more.

"I've also seen the real thing in hip-hop," he continues. "And this ain't the real thing.

"It's not inventive."

Helena Saraydarian disagrees. A dance teacher and choreographer, she saw The First Nebellen and invited the troupe to perform in the next Celebration of Dance, the annual showcase of the Valley's best movers. For each of the last three years, she has cast Nebellen in the closing slot -- and this year, Saraydarian, who produces the show, had more than 90 pieces to choose from.

Saraydarian hails from Los Angeles, where she worked in the dance industry for two decades; for 10 years, she taught hip-hop and choreographed music videos.

"I've only been in Arizona 10 years, so I don't want to insult the dance community . . . but I think it's about time that we get something fresh, and I think Nebellen breaks the barriers.

"They're doing all the latest things. And they're innovative, and they're artistic.

"And they're reaching people who might not normally see dance. Why not create interest among a new generation?"

Rath knows that Nebellen doesn't have a fan in Andersen. "It's not his thing," she says. "He really thinks dance should be to classical music."

Andersen's reaction to The Fourth Nebellen? "He hated the music," Rath says. "He hated the lighting. And that was about all he had to say."

"I think it's great that she's doing it, what can I say?" Andersen counters. "And obviously, there's a following. A very young following.

"And who knows where it will go? She's very young."

E-mail jill.koch@newtimes.com

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