Ariel Ross: Welcome. This is Expert Open Radio. I'm Ariel Ross and I'm part of the content creation team at TEDxAsburyPark. Today we're here with John Barrella and Jessica Totaro, who are part of the Redef Dance Movement. They are scheduled at this year's TEDxAsburyPark conference on May 18th. Welcome John and Jessica.
Jessica Totaro: Thank you.
John Barrella: Thank you for having us.
Ariel Ross: So how did the Redef group assemble?
John Barrella: The Redef Movement assembled 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 the way we educate. And so that developed actually with younger dancers, and it turned into a professional dance company as it evolved, where we started taking dancers like Jessica, and a whole bunch of other ones that were interested in all these different areas of the arts. And so it pretty much assembled based on the idea that we wanted a professional vibe with a redefined way of looking at how we perform, how we succeed, how we approach new projects and things like that.
Ariel Ross: And how do you recruit dancers?
John Barrella: I recruit dancers based on heart. We were actually just talking about this the other day. We were talking about how, when we put our work together, we want to get as close to the element of hip hop as possible. And I look at dancers who I always ... I give them everything. 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. So for me, 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? 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: Right now we have a dozen. 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: Okay, cool. So I was gonna ask “Where is everyone from?” So how did everyone come together?
Jessica Totaro: I currently live in Asbury Park, and I teach over at a studio in Brielle that's how John and I met. So 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: Awesome. Okay, and what is your training and background in dancing.
John Barrella: I have a funny story when it comes to training. 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, "Yeah, 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. So I actually spent a long time doing just that. My initial background was a very different approach. I was in a performing arts high school, and in that performing arts high school, it gave me a chance to look at dance a completely different way.
John Barrella: So 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 these different aspects, theater, musical theater, etc. So 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. A lot of it comes 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.
John Barrella: 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 like this jazzy hip hop. So I happened to have a teacher who really appreciated and valued real hip hop. So that introduced me to other people who valued it and I was able to take in this authentic version of hip hop, and fuse it with my appreciation for dance as an art form. And 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.
John Barrella: 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: Right, 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'm similar to John, I went to a performing arts high school in Howell where I was a dance major there. And then from there, I went to Rutgers and I received a BFA in dance and that's where my passion of choreography and improvisation and I did a lot of modern. It was five days a week ballet, modern choreography and all of that. So that's like my deep training, where I'm rooted and then after college, after I graduated, I started teaching and then creating different programs of choreography and improvisation. And now hip hop, I've been training hip hop with John and the Redef Movement for about six years now-
John Barrella: Seven years.
Jessica Totaro: Six, seven years now. So yeah, that's like, just as deeply rooted into my training and what I believe in as a dancer now too along with modern. So it's really cool as a dancer, to be training in one style for so long and believing in it for so long with modern and being able to learn a completely new style at its roots and learning about the history of hip hop and the history of breakdancing, hip hopping and locking and all the funk styles and having a clear understanding, and a clear passion for that just as much as I do for modern...taking dance history in kinesiology and all those important classes as a dancer. So those two worlds fused together has just heightened me as a performer as a dancer as a teacher and as a teaching artist.
Ariel Ross: Alright so who choreographs the dances? Both of you?
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 and I also like to make sure that it helps my dancers add to their resumes as well. So I am the choreographer, I put together the concepts and the ideas but sometimes when there's room to play, I'll say here's your section, here's where you can mess around, here's where you can do what you want. And actually some of the things that we've been doing more recently involve a lot more improv. I'll give something that has a lot of direction where we’ll say for this bit you need to be picking up this bag and taking it across the room and that's actually something that Jess had to do, the way she chose to do it was completely up to her. 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: And what inspired you to become a choreographer?
John Barrella: You know what? Since I was young, I think I'm just very stubborn because I knew that I wanted it. And the truth is, I didn't have an easy childhood. And because of the kind of life that I had, I put on headphones. I'd just listen to music, 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, I guess. And a lot of it was like superhero stuff. When I was really little, I'd think about being a superhero. And then as I got older, it morphed, and I started to look at artists, I started looking at Michael Jackson and all these different people who perform I'd say, "That looks powerful."
John Barrella: So 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 at, and I'm going to figure it out. And I always tell people that too, if you want to pursue the arts, if you want to be an artist for a living, you have to be willing to ... You have to want it 110%. And I don't mean it like the cliche 110%. I mean, like that extra 10% is going to carry you through those days where you're not figuring it out.
John Barrella: Those months where you're not making enough money, or you're not figuring it out or people are criticizing your work, any of that stuff...you need to love it so much that it's... that you're going to say no no no, I'm going to keep going. So for me, I've just always wanted it until I figured out how to make like the Redef Movement, and all this stuff work, I just powered through.
Ariel Ross: That's great that you know what you want 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: Well, 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 a person next to me, but I knew that my heart was kicking as high, if not higher than the person next to me. And I think if I give any advice any of my students or anyone who wants to pursue the arts, the arts, 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 was 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.
Jessica Totaro: 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, and it's something that, if this makes me feel good then I'm going to want to work 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 or best week or best month 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 and sweating together and staying in rehearsal until 11:30 at night because we want to, because we need to be there and yeah 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 guys prepare for performance?
John Barrella: There's many ways that we prepare for performance. I mean, we spend a long time on each of our pieces. Sometimes we spend like a day on one of our pieces depending on what kind of concept it is. So in terms of the process of creating there's a long, long process. I mean, on the way over here, we were creating just by listening to the music and figuring out what we wanted to do next with it. So, in terms of preparing our work there, there's so many different processes. Our inspiration comes from art. Our inspiration comes from photography and theater and things that we see. I mean, some of the things that we've been doing lately have a lot of inspiration from vaudeville and slapstick humor and old school hip hop and all these different areas of interest.
John Barrella: 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 can't like be out partying and eating and drinking and doing ever what you want until Wednesday and then Thursday is the show...you need to be working and eating and thinking on Monday like you have a performance on Thursday. So for us, it's about getting into that mindset and getting into that mode and not showing up all stressed out the day of. So the week of a performance is always very important. Always Always very important. We want the dancers to know.
John Barrella: And I'm pretty lenient with my dancers. There's a very different vibe to what we have that's why everybody I think 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 all 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 you're a performer.
Ariel Ross: It can be stressful if you wing it. One person in the group wings in and then they show up on Wednesday or Thursday when the performance is 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, it's how you take care of yourself is how you're going to take care of anyone else too as they come into the rehearsal. So 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 before because maybe somebody else needs that, that extra uplift before performance too and, I think that 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 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. Schedules are a big challenge. That's one of the things that I've learned over the years. I've added a lot of rules to the company over the years, as I've learned what doesn't work. So I think some of the biggest challenges being a group of dancers is making sure that everyone's on the same page, and everybody understands the same kind of commitment. That way, we don't have these places where, dancers feel like they're working hard, and they're not getting what they deserve, or vice versa, that somebody's not pulling their weight. So I think the biggest challenges are figuring out what rules are fair, yet the right thing to do for dance professional enough, there's a line that we have to draw between me wanting to be kind to my dancers, and making sure that we're still functioning as a professional group.
John Barrella: So sometimes, you'll have dancers who need to learn that a little bit and I don't mind teaching that as a company director, but it's always important to know that when I have to put my foot down a little bit, it's nothing personal this is how we're going to get this done. Schedules can be a thing, figuring out, everyone pulling their weight and having taking responsibility the right way.
John Barrella: I would definitely say or what do you think? I mean, schedules are probably the biggest thing. 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 ... I always say that if I don't see you for a week, you should be a week better at whatever I left you with. It shouldn't be a week to take off and not think about what I gave you. So if you have a breakdancing phrase that you have to do, and I see you a week later, did you spend that week forgetting about it? Or are you improving? Are you getting better? That's always a big thing for me.
Ariel Ross: Practice makes perfect.
John Barrella: Yeah.
Ariel Ross: So what is your role on May 18 at TEDxAsburyPark?
John Barrella: We're gonna be presenting a very different kind of thing. So the name of the company is the Redef Movement, but we kind of 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 because we start ... we have a very playful atmosphere, we have a very good and healthy and fun atmosphere and we started to absorb that. And we started with this bit that we called Stupid Humans, it was like a seven minute dance and it actually turned into a full on show that we ended up doing.
John Barrella: So we've done it for the last few years where we put on like an hour and a half show and it's just a whole bunch of different ridiculous performances, something that you wouldn't expect. Like if you go to a dance show, you expect choreography, curtains, choreography, curtains, and that's it. 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...has to do with ruining little things that people are familiar with. Whatever you expect, how can we like pull the rug out from under us.
John Barrella: We're going to apply our Stupid Humans concepts, by using those familiar elements and kind of putting together sort of a medley of some of our favorite moments and creating a brand new storyline for the show. So 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. And I think what's most fun about it is that ... and it's another thing that we had discussed in the company the other day...is that I think what we get to share with our audience that's more important that 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. That's what rehearsal tonight will be like, that's what rehearsal on Wednesday will be like, that's what it's going to be like so we want to share that feeling with the audience too.
Jessica Totaro: With this chaos theme once John told the Redef Movement, once he told us that we were part of this TEDxAsburyPark event and that the theme is chaos, we're like, "Oh man this is what we've been working on for like years now." These exact Stupid Humans concepts and we do a lot of prop work and we've been studying different comedians like Buster Keaton-
John Barrella: Buster Keaton’s major.
Jessica Totaro: Yeah, Charlie Chaplin and just seeing what props that we used. How we can make them different. And how can we incorporate the body? How can we incorporate our technique too behind it, which I think is super interesting. For me as a dancer, it's being able to create chaos and showing 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, for the performance is just getting the laughs and being able to share this comedy that we've been working on for so long with, with everybody so...
John Barrella: It's been, it's been so much fun to do this work just because we have a blast in the studio making it and, again, using our inspirations. If you take someone like Buster Keaton, he was such a pioneer for what... what you can do on screen and you know, if you were to study up on what he does his whole thing was how many of those ... If you look at those black and white movies, the title card would come up and show text and show the dialogue. And his goal was, how much of that dialogue can we get rid of? Meaning what can we do with our bodies to show it instead of having to say it on the title cards, and eliminating that element was part of his job. So he did just a ton of physical stuff.
John Barrella: So if you watch his work, it became such a big influence on us. So I mean, we'll spend hours in rehearsal going, does your body say what you think it says, so that we can like make those adjustments and that kind of work has just been so much fun, because we want to share that with the audience. We want to share our perspective and how we can do that with hip hop especially.
Ariel Ross: So how did you come across this 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, allow ourselves to just be ridiculous and think way outside the box. I've always had a comedy itch that I've wanted to scratch for so long. I've always wanted to have the opportunity to make people laugh, and I wanted to flex that muscle by continuing to observe and just pick on things that I see and all that stuff. And one of the original numbers that we did was 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 and turning it into a show has just been awesome because it has arguably given us more attention than just us as the Redef Movement.
John Barrella: As the Redef Movement we've been able to build a ton of respect for us 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. That was a great opportunity. We got to work with some of the pioneers of hip hop. And so that was great. 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 really do. And I just love that so we've just like taking that idea of allowing ourselves to think freely and go nuts and feel fun and ridiculous and turn it into a show.
Ariel Ross: It sounds very interesting.
Jessica Totaro: A lot of the times we're in rehearsal we’re pretty adamant on, we need to kind of have thicker skin because we love to make fun of each other so much in rehearsal.
John Barrella: Actually, yeah, that's a good point.
Jessica Totaro: Part of his interview process, whenever he's interviewing dancers is how is your sense of humor, because we'll point and laugh and hopefully we’re laughing with you and not at you...in rehearsal...we're not putting each other down, but the comedy and being able to just feel comfortable and not take yourself so seriously, as a dancer. That's really important being a part of the Redef Movement and then especially moving forward with Stupid Human stuff and like being in the modern and ballet dance world...we can be pretty serious and you know, take yourself really seriously and everything that you do is really important, and we still hold on to that concept of everything that you're doing with your body is important, but we mess up and we look kind of stupid doing certain things. And we decided to make that into a complete show. That complete concept
John Barrella: I'll actually follow that up with the fact that I made an entire number...and it was the closing act of our last Stupid Humans show... because I was standing backstage watching dancers get ready to go on stage, and they had to use an umbrella. And they were struggling to get the umbrella open. They couldn't do it. And they were panicking on the side of the stage. Now the audience they're seeing this perfect performance, and the dancers are trying to get the umbrella and I mean, they are panicking on the side of the stage. And it's my choreography, and I am laughing. I am laughing and I'm saying, "The audience should see this." So we did a dance about what it looks like backstage for a show.
Ariel Ross: Chaos backstage.
John Barrella: Yeah, and it was so much fun. It looks so cool. That was probably my favorite number we did this year was just showing that so like 75% of the stage was the show...was what the audience saw...but right here on the side you saw chaos... people trying to like fix their props...somebody passes out like ... just chaos... and then every time they got up they were like tired they were stressed they were yelling at each other and then they come on stage with a big smile on their face. It was so much fun.
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, website?
John Barrella: Yeah, absolutely. So our website is TheRedefMovement.com. 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 on john_comix, c-o-m-i-x. And Jess?
Jessica Totaro: I'm @Jessitotes, j-e-s-s-i-t-o-t-e-s and it's all dancing and art.
John Barrella: Tons of art.
Jessica Totaro: Everything that we do.
John Barrella: Yeah. 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. We have a page on our Stupid Humans work. We have a page about traveling out 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. It's in the end of July-
John Barrella: July 29. 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. So it's going to be a week's worth of learning breakdancing and popping and locking and hip hop, but also learning how we create our Stupid Humans work. So that's going to be a big deal as well.
Jessica Totaro: And with that workshop, we're also looking for opportunities for some dancers to be part of our end of Summer huge showcase that we do. We do a big performance at the end of ... This will be our third Summer-
John Barrella: This will be our third Stupid Humans show.
Jessica Totaro: And we usually incorporate ... John has two hip hop crews at the dance studio that we teach. A younger group of dancers called junior crew and an older group called senior crew. And they're usually involved with our show. So we're hoping for this intensive coming up at the end of July that will be able to pull in some of those dancers and get to feature them... even you, you guys can come in too.
John Barrella: If you want to be in the show, come on in...we love having guests.
Jessica Totaro: 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 on Saturday, May 18 2019 and you'll have an opportunity to watch the Redef Movement perform.