Martial Awe

Witness a Nebellen performance, and it becomes alarmingly clear that the troupe's young dancers have little or no regard for the laws of gravity, inertia or human anatomy (namely, the concept of the head being positioned above the feet).

This weekend, the nonprofit dance company continues its quest to bring underground styles to the traditional dance concert format. Rocking the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, The Fourth Nebellen sets the moves of the troupe's dancers, ages 17 to 27, to DJ Solomon's electronica and hip-hop beats.

While showcasing the creative club dancing for which the group is known -- house, hip-hop, liquid, b-boy and rave styles -- Nebellen's fourth annual showcase offers a twist: a choreographic collaboration with local martial arts expert Kenny Perez, a three-time U.S. Wu Shu team member who holds black belts in five styles of martial arts.

"We always had a martial arts aspect, and we wanted to take it to the next level," explains Nebellen co-artistic director and ASU dance major Benjamin Howe, who, with Ballet Arizona dancer Ellen Rath, founded Nebellen in 2000. The group's interest in Eastern disciplines swelled last year, when, at the invitation of the Chinese Minister of Culture, Nebellen embarked on a 10-day performance tour of mainland China.

This amplified emphasis on martial arts pumps up the athleticism in Nebellen's already high-flying show. In one routine mixing dance, martial arts and acrobatics, a young man in a satin jumpsuit sprints to center stage, dives into a 360-degree horizontal spin and lands -- all grace, no grimace -- in the splits.

Indeed, these dancers have no fear. In the concert's freestyle finale, one dancer after another hits center stage to bust out a minute or two of improvised movement, each outdoing the last in feats of strength, flexibility and sheer guts. When b-boy Antonio Berumen whirls a "look ma, no hands" spin, only his head makes contact with the floor. In a spot-on tribute to Dirty Dancing, Xavier Prep dance teacher Kelly Martell takes a running start, leaps and lands on the upstretched hands of Robert Lopez, a teacher at Skyline West. And demonstrating blatant disregard for the integrity of his bones, a young man wearing a strategically placed armband dives and slides, on his bent forearm, across the length of the stage.

While the discipline -- and daring -- of the dancers is apparent, Nebellen performances embrace the silly as well. "Super Heroes" sees four sturdy guys in stocking hats and homemade capes turn Tchaikovsky upside down, spinning handstands to the kind of music more readily associated with ballet.

This kind of innovation makes it easy to believe co-artistic director Rath's claim that no other troupe in the country is doing what Nebellen does. "There are hip-hop companies, but they just do hip-hop, and there are jazz companies . . ." she says. "But there's no company that combines all the styles of club dancing the way we do."