Addison Wright’s Hiplet: Because We Can is part of the Scene In Color Film Series, presented by Target, which shines a light on incredible filmmaking talent. As part of the series, three emerging filmmakers will receive mentorship from producer Will Packer, and their films are available to watch on Rotten Tomatoes, MovieClips Indie Channel, Peacock, and the NBC App.
They have the “sexy walk;” “the pretzel;” “the dougie;” “the Vivian.” These aren’t 1950s innuendoes. They’re the dance moves performed by a special Chicago-based ballet company. Founded by Homer Hans Bryant, hiplet is a combination of hip-hop and traditional ballet performed to dizzying, intoxicating effect by a collection of incredible local dancers. Director Addison Wright, another Chicago native, decided to make a film about these viral sensations after discovering the troupe on Instagram. His eight-minute documentary short, Hiplet: Because We Can, was an Official Selection at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival, later became a Vimeo Staff pick, and is now part of the Scene in Color Film Series.
Wright’s film, titled after the dance, fuses together a choreographed music video feel with a precise documentary style for a lively exploration of this new invigorating movement style. Though the performers’ movements speak for themselves — their swaggering strides texture their powerful, beautiful Black forms, mesmerizing the frame with an undaunted spirit — Wright interviews them, too. The ebullient ballerinas explain the pushback they’ve experienced in a classically white-defined world for their unique artistic identity, their varying body types, and their Blackness.
In Hiplet, Wright casts an immersive and empathetic lens toward these talented women. He demonstrates a nimbleness in his filmmaking, capturing the balletic patterns of the dancers while oscillating between striking colorful compositions and equally magnetic black-and-white filmed interviews. Hiplet is not just an exhilarating introduction to a new, evolving ballet style, but a perfect launching pad displaying Wright’s fresh, assured voice.
Here, Wright talks to Robert Daniels, a Chicago-based Tomatometer-approved Top Critic.
Robert Daniels for Rotten Tomatoes: How did you first get into filmmaking?
Addison Wright: I grew up during the ’90s, so I was glued to the TV watching MTV and BET. I’ve always been mesmerized by music videos and by directors like Hype Williams and Spike Jonze, and Little X. So early on I knew I had a passion for it. I went to Simeon High School in Chicago, where I played football all four years. I ended up getting a scholarship to Delaware State University. I played football there, and my major was TV production. I didn’t have a camera in high school or anything like that, but once I got to college I realized this was something I wanted to go after.
I ended up getting hurt around my junior year in college. So I didn’t play football, but the team would have me around so I traveled and filmed practice and the games. When there wasn’t any practice or a game, I would borrow the camera and film music videos around campus. That’s when I got into learning how to build narratives within music videos. So I was taking some of the stuff that I learned in some of my classes, and applying it to my videos. That’s where my passion started.
(Photo by Addison Wright)
Daniels: Where and when did the idea for Hiplet first form?
Wright: I was on Instagram and on my Explore page I saw these Black ballerinas doing ballet a bit differently. So I clicked on it and I heard the music and saw them in the dance studio and thought these girls are dope. I was scrolling up and began seeing them again and again. So I researched online about the Hiplet ballerinas and saw some of the commercials that they were in like Old Navy commercials and Mercedes-Benz and featured in Japan and some other places.Then I saw they were based here in Chicago and I was like, whoa this is a story that needs to be told.
Initially the concept was me doing an entire music video of them. I wanted to shoot it in Chicago’s South Shore Cultural Center because that was a white-only establishment a hundred years ago. And I want to place Black girls in this beautiful cultural center, and just let them do their thing in a place they wouldn’t have been able to a hundred years ago. But once we got the cost back for how much it was going to be to rent that space, I knew we couldn’t do that.
So we ended up finding a gym on the south side, the Grand Ballroom, which is on 64th and Cottage Grove. You won’t even notice it if you drive or walk past, but if you look up you can see the beautiful terracotta. The story grew by me going, at least once a week, to the studio to film the girls and watch them rehearse and practice just to see how they move around and to see their personalities so I would know different angles and areas to pay attention to. Homer, he’s the founder of Hiplet, and I were having a casual conversation and he told me how much these girls go through. Whenever they post something online, people are making fun of them but those same people are emulating what they do. It comes from within the dance community. People from different races look at them and see how they aren’t doing traditional ballet, so they talk about them. So I decided to give the girls the floor: We’ll film them, but we’ll also let them talk about the adversity they often face. That’s what kinda changed the path of the film being a music video. That’s what made me realize how I wanted it to be a short and a documentary, but with the feel of a music video.
Daniels: How long was the shoot?
Wright: The shoot was about a 12-hour day. We started loading around eight in the morning and we wrapped with the girls around eight o’clock at night. It was a bit longer for us, but the girls were there all day. It was a lot of rehearsing. When the girls showed up, they knew what they needed and we knew what we needed to do as far as setting up lights and blocking.
Daniels: I want to get back to the blocking. I think what’s so great about your film is you can feel the energy of the dancing. How did you get to that point where you got the right angles to bring the live energy onto camera?
Wright: My DP, Dan Frantz, and I would go to the studio where girls would be rehearsing and we would film certain parts of the performance. That was a month out before we actually filmed. We would sit down and figure out the best angle for where the camera needed to be and lighting diagrams. We also went to the ballroom and took some pictures. I knew where I wanted to place the girls. I knew some of the angles that I wanted to hit just based off of their choreography. But it was a collaboration between him and me.
We were rushing against the clock to get certain things because we only had the location for one day. But my goal was to really capture the energy of the ballerinas. Make sure they’re making eye contact. Anytime the camera came around, I made sure that I told them to interact with the camera. If it’s near you, look down at the lens, look through it just like you’re on stage and somebody makes eye contact with you in a crowd. The camera is the crowd.
Daniels: And now your film is part of the Scene in Color Film Series. How did you hear about the opportunity and what drew you to it?
Wright: It’s funny, I didn’t know anything about it until they reached out to me. And I was completely blown away. Even when I talk about it right now, I’m still in shock because it’s all just surreal. They said they saw the film and they really loved it. And I was like: Me, really? That’s dope that they love the film. About three weeks later they gave me the details and I found it incredible. I remember making the film public in February on Vimeo and it ended up becoming a Vimeo staff pick and then went viral. A month after that was when NBC reached out to speak with me.
Daniels: How are you feeling about having a producer like Will Packer as a mentor?
Wright: It’s an incredible feeling having someone who is a powerhouse within the industry and within the Black community as a mentor. Even hearing myself say that, it sounds unreal. Just to be able to have opportunities to pick his brain and to have the opportunity to ask what to do in this situation, in certain situations, or do you think this is a good idea, can only help my career in an extremely positive way. He may be able to give some insight from his experience. He may be able to point me into a direction that may give me more exposure. I’m extremely excited to be able to just chat with him.
Daniels: What guidance or advice has Will given you so far?
Wright: I asked him what’s his favorite film that he’s ever done, the one that left him with the most memories. He said Stomp the Yard. In a nutshell, he wanted to do that film to provide inspiration to people. Being able to hear that from him let me know I’m doing the right thing. My goal as a filmmaker is to inspire people through the lens. And if it can’t change the world, at least I’ll open one person’s eyes. Will also said he enjoyed the film and I was where I was supposed to be. To hear that as an up-and-coming filmmaker, as a Black filmmaker, you know, to hear from Will Packer that I’m where I’m supposed to be, it’s extremely crazy, man. It floored me. That solidified me as a filmmaker in my eyes and in my heart.
Daniels: What do you hope people take from Hiplet?
Wright: I’m born and raised in Chicago, and Chicago always gets a negative light put on us. I want people to be able to see these Black girls on TV, on their phones, and on their computers to see how, number one, beautiful they are; number two, how they’re taking ballet in a totally different direction by not changing ballet but by adding a twist to it. I want it to be motivational for Black boys and girls by seeing someone that looks like you, that’s doing something that’s changing the world of ballet by shaking things up.