Identical twins Billy and Bobby McClain, known onstage as the Wondertwins, built their dance careers out of love and talent for upbeat broadway hip-hop. Yet last Sunday at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Wondertwins used their talents to shed light on a different movement: the fight against police brutality.
The dance duo performed their politically charged dance, titled “BLACK,” a documentary-style work about the effects of police brutality on the black community, at the ICA’s Dance UP feature Sunday.
Dance UP is a program sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts that showcased diverse dancers and choreographers throughout New England, according to the show’s playbill.
The McClains said “BLACK” was mainly improvisational, and they danced to a background of music, poetry and videos of violent arrests, court testimonies and viral videos in order to portray outrage and grief among black communities.
Debra Cash, executive director of the Boston Dance Alliance, said the McClains are Boston natives who have been dancing together since they were young.
At 10 years old, the Wondertwins were recruited to join Boston’s first professional street dance crew, The Funk Affects. By their teen years, the McClains broke off to become the Wondertwins, touring as the duo that would soon be performing on stages all over the world.
Offstage, the McClains are active throughout Boston communities. According to an interview with the twins published in WBUR in 2014, the duo have taught dance in Boston public schools for over 20 years and are directors for Project RISE, “a nonprofit performing arts summer camp where they work with children of low-income families from Massachusetts.”
In “BLACK,” the Wondertwins breakdanced to loud and sharp music. There were two white chalk outlines of bodies on the floor of the stage, where the twins fell once the videos of violence began to play. They lied still as the music, poetry and videos told the performance’s story.
The last poem featured in the video, Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” played aloud as the twins rose slowly from the chalk outlines. They stood seemingly exhausted, facing a projection of falling rain. The twins raised their arms, their silhouettes presenting as dark outlines in the falling rain.
Pausing for a moment, they then turned slowly to face the crowd. The audience then rose for a standing ovation.
The Wondertwins are known for their dignified approach to hip-hop and street dance, the McClains said in an interview with The Daily Free Press. As African American men, they said they object to the negative overtones that permeate the culture of hip-hop.
In a pre-performance talk, Cash discussed how the twins avoid references to “drugs, gangs, gratuitous violence and objectification of women.”
According to the McClains,“BLACK” contrasts starkly to their usual routine of lively pop culture performances. “BLACK” followed their first performance in the show titled “That’s Entertainment” — an homage to vaudeville, Broadway, hip-hop and Las Vegas entertainment, according to the show’s playbill.
The performance’s music blared hip-hop beats mixed with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, soundbites from films like “The Wizard of Oz” and viral songs mixed into a medley of pop culture. Similarly, the Wondertwins performed in combination of many styles of dance during “That’s Entertainment.”
The contrast between “BLACK” and “That’s Entertainment” was jarring for the audience, but even more so for the Wondertwins themselves, the McClains said.
“We say a prayer in between sets,” Billy McClain said. “We also have a completely different dressing room, so that when we go back to change, we don’t bring any of the energy from the first performance into the second.”
“BLACK” is heavy, emotional and difficult for the McClains to handle with composure, the twins said.
“We do cry onstage,” Billy McClain said.
Jason Harburger, of Newton, said he is a friend of the McClains and was in the audience for the ICA show.
Reactions from the audience to “BLACK” varied “based on how far along individuals are in understanding the concepts of white privilege and systematic racism,” Harburger said.
“Some white people will walk away having ‘enjoyed a fascinating night of dance theater,’ possibly feeling their lives are distant from the stories depicted,” Harburger said. “Others will see the enormity and leave the theater more resolute as an ally in words and actions.”
Harburger said “BLACK” made him feel sad and appreciative.
“Sad for the devastation and inequity we heard from victims of police violence. Sad for the scarce and skewed media coverage when victims of police and gun violence happen to be black,” Harburger said. “Appreciative for Billy and Bobby’s courage and skill to create this work.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article , as well as a version printed on Jan. 31, 2019, stated the Dance UP program is sponsored by the Boston Dance Alliance. In fact, the program is sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts. The online version reflects this change, and readers should note the error in print.