“Beyond Babel” a Riveting Hip Hop Romeo and Juliet

Keone and Mari. Photo: Carlo Aranda

For those who insist on drawing a line between artistic and commercial dance, Keone and Mari Madrid would land solidly on the commercial side. The husband-wife hip hop team has credits including the “World of Dance” television series and a Justin Bieber music video. Their YouTube videos have 1.5 billion views.

But line-drawers might be confounded by some of the Madrids’ work, like a deeply felt piece about immigrants and an e-book, “Ruth,” with text, illustrations, and dance video.

Interestingly, a major theme of the duo’s new production, “Beyond Babel,” is the arbitrariness of borders. The evening-length piece, which premiered last weekend, features emotionally rich performances, an inventive set covered with crochet, and thrilling dance.

Keone and Mari lead a 12-member cast in a story that draws on Romeo and Juliet. The two meet and fall in love in numbers that show how meltingly tender their West Coast Urban style can be. Keone in particular has a vividly expressive face and knife-sharp isolations. Mari combines strength (she’s got insanely toned arms) and delicacy.

They’re menaced by a man in a metallic-looking mask (powerful Fabian Tucker, going into deep, supple crouches), whom I thought of as the Enforcer. In a riveting section, they struggle with him to Mumford & Sons’ impassioned “Babel,” as sections of chain link fence on Brandon Aril’s set become a wall separating them.

The fence sections, on wheels, can be a cheerful backdrop, a wall, or a prison. In one song, Keone, Tucker, and Mikey Ruiz do acrobatic poses on the fence like Spiderman.

Group numbers have the kind of tight unison you see on “So You Think You Can Dance,” with the dramatic heft of being part of an extended creative vision. And the deftly paced emotional narrative covers a lot of ground, from sweet first love to slashing, combative rage to grief.

Keone and Mari, who live in Carlsbad, developed the show in collaboration with Brooklyn-based Hideaway Circus, and they thought big. They transformed a former boxing gym on Imperial Avenue into a 120-seat theater. And they invited London Kaye, who has turned crochet into a hip art form, to create crocheted pieces woven onto the chain link fence onstage. It’s a stunning juxtaposition, the soft, cheery crochet against the chain links.

“Beyond Babel” is billed as an “immersive dance show,” I guess because the entire bank of seats can move forward and back. Sometimes you’re rolled closer for an intimate moment, and then the mechanism lurches you back again. Yawn. The Madrids and Hideaway Circus collaborated previously on “Slumber,” a New York show where the audience ultimately decided who lived and who died. Now, that sounds immersive.

Immersive or not, “Beyond Babel” offers powerful, heartfelt dance. And, in a departure from most dance performances—which often end after a weekend—the show runs through November 18.

The theater is at 2625 Imperial Avenue. Tickets and information here.

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