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Johann, dude!

IT'S NOT often you get classical music lovers feasting at the same musical banquet as hip-hop fans. Especially when the bill of fare happens to be J. S. Bach. The curly-wigged maestro with the florid, grave countenance and unerring devotion to God surely has little relevance to a break-dance fan more concerned with the street than the sky. Or does he?

Bach is as significant to the youth of today as he was 300 years ago, says Christoph Hagel, artistic director of German break-dance show Red Bull Flying Bach, which lands on these shores next month. The maestro's legendary passion, energy and vitality could easily match that of today's hip-hop movement. In short, the man from Leipzig rocks.

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Flying Bach

In the ultimate clash of cultures, Red Bull Flying Bach fuses breakdance crew, Flying Steps and their unrestricted and explosive dance style with the elegant music of visionary 18th century composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.

In a 70-minute show, world champion break-dance troupe Flying Steps puts the ''yo'' in Johann, combining head spins, power moves and freezes with the beat of 12 of Bach's preludes and fugues from his seminal work, The Well-Tempered Clavier, part one.

It's a clash of cultures dreamt up by the group in the hope of getting break-dancing recognised as serious art. As spokesman Vartan Bassil laments: ''People don't understand that we are real dancers. We came to the idea that we needed to perform our work to special music from high culture so that maybe the audience can see that this is art.''

If it's tough convincing the audience, Bassil had an equally hard job persuading his parents, who were horrified when their son, who had grown up hooked on Michael Jackson videos and the moves of MC Hammer, told them he wanted to be a professional break-dancer. ''They said, 'No, you cannot do this, get a proper job!' But then they could see how passionate I was. Now they are proud of me.''

Bassil, who formed Flying Steps in the '90s, approached Hagel, a renowned international conductor of opera, for help because of his reputation in Germany for producing quirky, left-of-centre adaptations [he once staged Don Giovanni in Berlin's E-Werk, a former electrical sub-station, and The Magic Flute in the city's underground railway.] He was, however, initially dubious when Hagel came up with Bach for the soundtrack - Bassil's experience of classical music was limited to a couple of childhood concerts that he found boring. ''Even then I thought there was something missing, like some nice dancing.''


The terminologies were not encouraging. The dreaded word ''fugue'' conjures all that is baffling about classical music and ''Prelude in C Sharp Major'' doesn't really rock as a title. But any misgivings were dispelled when Hagel sat the boys down and explained it all.

In a fugue, contrapuntal lines spar with each other, creating a tension and excitement, and best of all, like the preludes, they are all only a few minutes long - about the length of a YouTube clip. In fact, the words ''prelude'' and ''fugue'' are merely umbrella terms for a huge variety of fiery toccatas, quick and slow dances, ceremonial entrances, operatic arias and tragic dramas.

''They are exactly the right length of time to expose one style of break-dance, just as Bach needed that length of time to expose one musical idea,'' says Hagel, who decided to take on the boys after being impressed by one of their performances. ''So in the show, each one of them has a 'voice', which is a line from a fugue, and puts a dance to it. There are very clear voices for different scenes.''

Hagel also chose Bach because of its lack of romance, which he felt corresponded perfectly with break-dance. Saying that, the show tells a story that does involve a love interest in the shape of female Japanese contemporary dancer Yui Kawaguchi. The theme, however, is more to do with breaking down barriers and prejudices between dance and music genres rather than the classic boy-meets-girl stuff.

Bach composed the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722 as a collection of pedagogic aids, not for the concert hall. Each prelude and fugue that progresses chromatically up the scale is, in essence, a determined exploration of its own tonal universe: mathematical and exact, but still emanating an incredible sense of beauty.

During the concert, the music will be performed by Hagel on piano and yes, there will even be a harpsichord mixed with electronic beats, as past and present come together. Hagel says: ''Break-dancers give Bach a new vitality and youth and, in turn, Bach gives break-dancers a kind of eternity. It is an exchange that works.''

Flying Bach is at the Arts Centre, Melbourne (Hamer Hall), March 13-16. redbull.com.au