John Barrella, Jessica Totaro, and TEDxAsburyPark intern Ariel Ross talk about The Redef Movement and their performance piece Stupid Humans, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019.
The following is an excerpt from the interview. To read and hear the full interview, CLICK HERE
Ariel Ross: Welcome. This is Expert Open Radio. I'm Ariel Ross and I'm an intern at TEDxAsburyPark. Today, we're here with John Barrella and Jessica Totaro, who are part of The Redef Dance Movement. They are scheduled to perform at this year's TEDxAsburyPark conference on May 18th. Welcome, John and Jessica.
John Barrella: Thank you for having us.
Ariel Ross: How did The Redef group assemble?
John Barrella: The Redef Movement assembled a little over a decade ago. I formed it to give dancers an opportunity to learn in a space that was safe and comfortable and one where we can promote real hip hop and authentic movement and take a very different approach to the way we perform and educate. It developed, actually, with younger dancers, and it turned into a professional dance company as it evolved, where we started taking dancers like Jessica, and others who were interested in all these different areas of the arts. It pretty much started based on the idea that we wanted a professional vibe with a re-defined way of looking at how we perform, how we succeed, and how we approach new projects.
Ariel Ross: And how do you recruit dancers?
John Barrella: I recruit dancers based on heart. I look at dancers and I give them everything that I know, I give them every exercise that helps them understand hip hop and street dance and art the way that I understand it. They're going to get every opportunity I get, they're going to get every chance to do things sooner than I ever did. So my big question when I'm auditioning dancers is, do I feel they've earned that? And it really comes down to heart. Are you passionate? Are you loyal to this idea? Do you want to push through? Do I feel that I can trust you with this work form?
Ariel Ross: And how many members of the dance group are there?
John Barrella: We have 11 members who are full time and then we have one part-time member who's over in Washington right now.
Ariel Ross: Where is everyone from?
Jessica Totaro: I currently live in Asbury Park, and I teach at a studio in Brielle... that's how John and I met. When I first started teaching, I saw John teaching his hip hop class and I peeked in, and I'm like, they're doing breakdancing, they're doing popping stuff that I know about, but I actually never trained in because I'm more of a modern dancer. When John and I became closer as friends and as teachers I started asking more questions about the hip hop company and I just trickled my way into the back of the classroom and started learning a little bit more, and then he developed an adult version of this company early on called O2Crew. And since then, since Redef Movement and O2Crew grew, it just turned into one big company called The Redef Movement.
Ariel Ross: Great. And what is your training and background in dancing, John?
John Barrella: I actually was tricked into joining a real performing arts program. I auditioned with a friend of mine as hip hop dancers. And they took us in and they said, "Yes,, there's going to be hip hop," And there turned out to be no hip hop. So I ended up in a performing arts program where we were learning ballet, modern, jazz, all these different things. I actually spent a long time doing just that. My initial background was very different. I was in a performing arts high school and it gave me a chance to look at dance in a completely different way.
When I was learning dance, I was learning about human anatomy. I was learning about dance history, I was learning all these different things: choreography, creation, the importance of improv, the importance of all of these different aspects--theater, musical theater, etc. By the time I was able to pursue hip hop, I had that stuff in my head. Once I started to pursue hip hop, most of my training came from New York...from teachers who were based in New York or who have trained in New York themselves, and I was very fortunate because I happened to come across a group of people who led me to the next group of people who had the idea for authentic hip hop. And that's very rare.
If you grew up in a dance studio, you know that most of the time that hip hop isn't really actually going to be hip hop, it's going to be ‘jazzy’ hip hop. I happened to have a teacher who really appreciated and valued real hip hop. That introduced me to other people who valued it and I was able to take in this authentic version and fuse it with my appreciation for dance as an art form. In putting that together, that kind of training just kept leading me down a path where I just wanted to dig further and further into what it means to be an artist in hip hop, not just an entertainer. My continued training doesn't necessarily even just come from hip hop. It comes from conversations with people who were like pioneers in hip hop, learning what the history of it was really like, and taking it from there.
Ariel Ross: And experience too, all the people you meet, all the dancers you meet, people you teach… And Jessica, what is your training and background in dancing?
Jessica Totaro: I went to a performing arts high school in Howell, NJ, where I was a dance major. From there, I went to Rutgers and I received a BFA in dance; that's where my passion for choreography and improvisation started, and I did a lot of modern. It was five days a week of ballet, modern choreography, and all of that. So that's my deep training, where I'm rooted. After I graduated, I started teaching and then creating different programs of choreography and improvisation. I've been training in hip hop with John and The Redef Movement for six or seven years now. That's just as deeply rooted into my training and what I believe in as a dancer now, along with modern. It’s really cool, as a dancer, to be training in one style for so long and believing in it for so long and then be able to learn a completely new style at its roots. I’ve learned learn about the history of hip hop and breakdancing, hip hopping and locking and all the funk styles, and now have a clear understanding and a clear passion for that just as much as I do for modern. Those two worlds fused together have just heightened me as a performer, as a dancer, as a teacher, and as a teaching artist.
Ariel Ross: Who choreographs the dances?
John Barrella: I choreograph the dancers, but I give a lot of room for play for many reasons. I want the dancers to experience what it's like to create on their own, and I also like that everybody has a little bit of themselves in the movement I put together the concepts and the ideas but sometimes, when there's room to play, I'll say “Here's where you can do what you want.” And I'll come back and I might give little tips like, "All right, here's what I want visually," but they get a lot of room to play as well.
Ariel Ross: What inspired you to become a choreographer?
John Barrella: Since I was young, I knew that I wanted it. I didn't have an easy childhood, and because of the kind of life that I had, I put on headphones and I got lost in this world where music allowed me to daydream--and daydreaming allowed me to think about ways that I'd feel powerful. Once I decided that that's what I wanted to do, from 13 on I just was like, no matter what I'm going to be a choreographer, I'm going to be a dancer, I'm going to do what I want to do, and I'm going to figure it out. And I always tell people that if you want to pursue the arts, if you want to be an artist for a living, you have to want it 110%. That extra 10% is going to carry you through those days where you're not figuring it out…those months where you're not making enough money, or people are criticizing your work. You need to love it so much that you're going to say no, no, no--I'm going to keep going. For me, I've just always wanted it. Until I figured out how to make The Redef Movement and all of this stuff work, I just powered through.
Ariel Ross: That's great that you knew what you wanted to do, and you had your goal set, and you did whatever it took to get here. And Jessica, what inspired you to become a dancer?
Jessica Totaro: When I was really little, it was my sister. I did everything that she did, so seeing her in a dance class, I wanted to be in a dance class...but pushing forward, it wasn’t something that I ever had to think about. Dancing and performing and being in the arts, it was something-
Ariel Ross: It just came to you naturally?
Jessica Totaro: Yeah. I shouldn't even say that the technique came to me naturally because I always felt like my leg wasn't kicking as high as the person next to me, but I knew that my heart was kicking as high, if not higher, than the person next to me. If I give any advice to any of my students or anyone who wants to pursue the arts, it’s that they need people who want to work, they need people who love it, who want to take care of it, and take care of the next generation of artists. And that's something that I've always believed in as a dancer...that I wanted to work for it, and I wanted to learn more about it. And it wasn't something that was so stressful for me to think about at a young age.
I remember having a conversation with my mom, she was picking me up after rehearsal in Howell and I said, "Mom, I think I'm going to do this the rest of my life." And she took a deep breath, and she said, "Okay, it's gonna be hard. You have to work hard at it." And I said, "I know, but I want to work hard at it and I want to learn more, and I want to educate myself more, and I want to keep pushing myself forward because it makes me feel good.” It's something that, if this makes me feel good, then I'm going to want to work at it 110%, like John said, every single day. And I think constantly being inspired and surrounding yourself with people who have that same mindset is extremely important and that's something that I keep holding on to more and more as I get older. It's let me surround myself with people who are just as passionate as I am, and we keep lifting each other up...
Ariel Ross: Motivating each other?
Jessica Totaro: Yeah, every rehearsal we have people who come in, who work all day, who maybe have had not the best day but every time they come into that room it's all left at the door and we're just there lifting each other up, helping each other out because we want to, because we need to be there, and it’s good energy that we leave inside of the studio and we carry it with us throughout our day. So being a dancer or being an artist, it's about that constant inspiration and just loving it. Loving what you do.
Ariel Ross: So how do you prepare for performances?
John Barrella: We spend a long time on each of our pieces. In terms of preparing our work, there are so many different processes. Our inspiration comes from art, from photography and theater, and other things that we see. Some of the things that we've been doing lately have been inspired by vaudeville, slapstick humor, and old-school hip hop and all these different areas of interest.
When it comes to actually preparing, the week of a performance, we're in the studio and we're focused. I always tell my dancers when we have a big show, your week has to reflect the fact that you have a big show...you need to be working and eating and thinking on Monday like you have a performance on Thursday. For us, it's about getting into that mindset and getting into that mode and not showing up all stressed out the day of the event. So the week of a performance is always very important.
I'm pretty lenient with my dancers. There's a very different vibe to what we have; that's why I think everybody feels very comfortable when we have rehearsals, because I do allow everybody to have their lives. We're dance teachers, but many of the people in the company, they're also dance teachers, and some of them are in college and some of them are working at different kinds of jobs. So I try to make it as little stress as possible when it comes to how to balance your life with what you do as a performer, but the week of a performance, you're a performer.
Ariel Ross: It can be stressful if you wing it. One person in the group wings it and then they show up on Wednesday or Thursday when the performance is happening, and that can be stressful for you and them.
John Barrella: Absolutely.
Jessica Totaro: I think, being in a company too, especially a dance company, how you take care of yourself is how you're going to take care of anyone else as they come into the rehearsal. I could be having the best week ever and if someone comes in a little bit more stressed out, or maybe they're not mentally prepared, it's important that we take care of our minds and our bodies, because maybe somebody else needs that extra uplift before performance too. I think that the idea of being in a company is truly working together to make sure that you put on the best possible performance ever, because things could go wrong, and you don't know if they're going to go wrong. So you just hope that most of the things go right. So when those little moments do go wrong, or something is a little off-kilter, that we're there to just lift each other up every single time.
Ariel Ross: What are some of the biggest challenges of being a dance group?
John Barrella: Schedules are a big challenge. Figuring out that everyone gets there and puts in their hours and does what I need them to do. Not just in rehearsal, but outside of rehearsal. Making sure that by the time you come back ... are you improving? Are you getting better?
Ariel Ross: So what is your role on May 18th at TEDxAsburyPark?
John Barrella: We're gonna be presenting a very different kind of performance. The name of the company is The Redef Movement, but we kind of have an alter ego called Stupid Humans. And Stupid Humans is a completely different take on performance. It's something that we've been very interested in for a while now. It started as a seven-minute dance and it actually turned into a full-on show that we ended up doing.
We've done it for the last few years it's just a whole bunch of different ridiculous performances, something that you wouldn't expect. We interact with the audience, we pull people on stage, we make them dance, be part of the performance in ways that they have no idea they're going to be part of the performance. Our main goal with that is to make the audience laugh, and we've been using that concept so much and a lot of that concept has to do with chaos… it has to do with ruining little things that people are familiar with. Whatever you expect, how can we pull the rug out from under us?
We're going to apply our Stupid Humans concepts by using those familiar elements and putting together a medley of some of our favorite moments and creating a brand new storyline for the show. We're going to reflect chaos by having our Stupid Humans characters disrupt what you would see as normal choreography... as a normal hip hop performance. I think what we get to share with our audience that's more important than our choreography is that people feel what we feel. We want people to laugh the day of the show watching us perform, but they're not just laughing at that performance, they're laughing with us for the last two months. We want to share that feeling with the audience too.
Jessica Totaro: When John told The Redef Movement that we were part of this TEDxAsburyPark event and that the theme is chaos... we were like, "Oh man, this is what we've been working on for years now." These exact Stupid Humans concepts. For me as a dancer, it's being able to create chaos and show real technique and real rehearsal time, real choreography, but make it look so authentic in the sense where it feels like it's actually happening in that moment. What I'm excited for in this performance is just getting the laughs and being able to share this comedy that we've been working on for so long, with everybody.
John Barrella: It's been so much fun to do this work just because we have a blast in the studio making it.
Ariel Ross: So how did you come up with the idea of Stupid Humans?
John Barrella: I think it really came from just kind of horsing around in the studio. It comes from the fact that we allow ourselves to be creative, to just be ridiculous, and to think way outside the box. I've always wanted to have the opportunity to make people laugh. And in one of the original numbers that we did, we just came up with a bunch of props and we just started to play. A couple of our dancers just do these weird things with their bodies and said, “That would be funny if we did that with this. And that would be funny if we messed with that. And let's create this illusion…” and all of a sudden, we had a number and it sold so well that we just had to turn it into a full show. Turning it into a show has just been awesome because it has arguably given us more attention than just us as The Redef Movement.
As The Redef Movement, we've been able to build a ton of respect as a company through hip hop dancers in the hip hop community...we got to do this awesome thing called Battle of the Boroughs out in the Bronx. That was amazing and it was a great opportunity. We got to work with some of the pioneers of hip hop. And then as educators, we get to do a lot of things for the dance community. Dance New Jersey, Dance to Learn, so we're involved in a lot of these different things as straightforward teachers and dancers, but Stupid Humans has given us this opportunity to stand out in a way that people don't generally do. And I just love that, so we've just taken that idea of allowing ourselves to think freely and go nuts and feel fun and ridiculous and turn it into a show.
Ariel Ross: If audience members want to become more engaged with either yourself or The Redef Dance Movement, how might they do that? Do you have social media accounts? A website?
John Barrella: Our website is TheRedefMovement.com and there's tons of information on us there. On Instagram we are @ReDefMovement, so it's just @ReDefMovement no “The” on that one. I personally am on social media as @john_comix
Jessica Totaro: And I'm @Jessitotes and it's all dancing and art.
John Barrella: And when it comes to anyone who wants to reach out to us and see anything that we do, the website is always the best place to check. We have a page on our Stupid Humans work. We have a page about traveling and doing choreography teaching. I mean anything that you need to know is right on the website.
Jessica Totaro: And we also have a Summer intensive coming up.
John Barrella: It’s July 29th. It's going to be a week long, and it's going to be an opportunity for dancers to come and learn the secrets to how we create our work. It's going to be a week's worth of learning breakdancing, popping and locking, and hip hop, but also learning how we create our Stupid Humans work.
Ariel Ross: Well, John and Jessica, thank you so much for being with us today. You've been listening to Expert Open Radio, here's a reminder to get your tickets for the largest, highest-rated TEDx conference on the east coast. It's TEDxAsburyPark and on Saturday, May 18 2019 you'll have an opportunity to watch The Redef Movement perform as Stupid Humans.
Read more about The Redef Movement here.