In red gloves and dark glasses, popping and locking, the Wondertwins are both imposing humans and robotic objects, organic and mechanical reproduction.
By Debra Cash
Billy and Bobby McClain are superheroes, and if you don’t believe me, just ask their mother.
After all, only about three in a thousand embryos split into identical twins. Fewer take on the same profession, live together as adults, are voted “most stylish” for their award-winning outfits, or manage to get the same teaching awards. But when you’re a couple of superheroes, anything is possible.
This summer, the Roxbury-born, Dorchester-bred and South Boston-cohabiting McClain brothers, who bill themselves as the Wondertwins, have finally reached critical mass in their home region. Talented hip hop dancers, they are featured on Jacob’s Pillow’s exclusive Unreal Hip Hop engagement this coming week, have been developing new works as artists in residence at The Yard in Chilmark, where they’ll be part of the July 2-12 Tap the Yard festival, and will be at the First Annual New Haven Hip Hop Conference on July 19.
Although some Boston audiences outside the hip hop circuit have seen them featured in Tony Williams’ Urban Nutcracker, they perform more regularly at The Apollo in New York and whipping up routines for commercial videos than they do within driving distance of Boston.
Billy (and no, I can’t tell them apart just by looking) explains that by the time the boys were at the Joseph Lee School, they were putting on monthly shows. At ten they were asked to join The Funk Affects, the city’s first professional street dance crew.
In high school they were accepted to the METCO program at Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School where dance took a back seat to basketball for a while. No wonder there. Their mother, who had played basketball and danced herself before embarking on a career as a social worker, raised an athletically gifted clan. Of her five sons and one daughter, the eldest, Al was the all-time leading scorer in University of New Hampshire history, drafted into the NBA by the Houston Rockets, while sister Amanda was 4- time basketball Most Valuable Player at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School. (The remaining McClain siblings, Bryant and Wes, have made their careers as visual artists.)
The Wondertwins’ dancing is a spectacle of precision dressed in gentlemanly demeanor. Inspired as much by tap’s class acts, such as the Nicholas and Hines Brothers, as by the traditions of old school hip hop, they make discipline serve as both form and content. Billy admires the standards set by mimes and great physical comedians: Marceau Marceau, Charlie Chaplin, Tony Montanaro and David Traylor who performs in Italy as Mr. Zed. In red gloves and dark glasses, popping and locking, the Wondertwins are both imposing humans and robotic objects, organic and mechanical reproduction.
As significant as their current performing is to the development of their dance career, Billy and Bobby have also acted as a unified voice against commercial hip hop’s strains of misogyny and disparagement. They’ve both worked in the Boston public schools for 16 years (Billy McClain’s Facebook profile lists him as Administrator/Disciplinarian/Advisor at Josiah Quincy Upper School) and as directors for the performing arts summer camp Project RISE, which was founded in 1993 by their brother Al’s former basketball teammate Robin Dixon.
“It’s always been important to us to be role models for the youth, especially boys,” Billy explains. “We know that a positive male figure can change how young boys [see themselves] just as the negative images do. Hip hop is the only art form today that won’t allow one to mature. It wasn’t always like this. What many [people] don’t seem to understand is that hip hop without the title is simply ‘the way of life of black people.'”
“Hip hop dance promotes the interaction of bodies and the music being played. If the music is of low quality, the dance is also of low quality and that’s where we are at today. The music of the early years wasn’t super clean either, but we had a choice when we listened to the radio and they weren’t playing gangsta rap on the radio or negative hip hop like they do today. The dance is a reflection of the music and the music is a reflection of the dance. The heart and the beat. The soul of hip hop dance is at risk.”
At hip hop festivals, familiar music takes precedence; at places like Jacob’s Pillow and The Yard, dance is the draw. But for the Wondertwins, combining them in rich ways is all in a day’s work.
“The stance of the superhero has always been something we’ve been drawn to, so we have incorporated that stance in our choreography,” says Billy McClain. “It stands for respect, longevity, patience, fearlessness.”
Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts and cultural venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she is a two-time winner of the Creative Arts Award for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and will return to the 2014 Bates Dance Festival as Scholar in Residence.
c 2014 Debra Cash