Brian Henry is a dancer of biblical proportions. It’s not just that he’s commandingly large and muscular, with a Moses-like beard. His dancing, though rooted in the street style called krump, has an ancient gravity. Standing in profile with his chest angled forward, he could be an Assyrian sculpture. Breathing like a dragon and then opening his eyes, he could be inspirited clay, the first man.
Or that’s how he appears in “song,” a solo he made in collaboration with the choreographer Andrea Miller that he’s performing this week during her dance company’s 15th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater.
For Henry, 34, a self-described street dancer who has become the face of krump in New York, performing in a concert dance setting is an opportunity to show that krump “is a dance form to be held on the same level,” he said recently.
But Henry, also known as HallowDreamz, isn’t altering how he dances. “Because I’m telling a different story doesn’t mean I have to step outside of my process,” he said. It’s just that he’s used to people perceiving him one way before he dances and another way after.
Henry was speaking in Herbert Von King Park in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, not far from where he lives and where he spent most of his youth. Most but not all. He lived in every borough of New York City. “My mom was on drugs, and I was born with drugs in my system,” he said. He was put into foster care. Later, his mother regained custody, only to lose it again because of her addiction. When he was 9 or 10, he was reunited with her in Bed-Stuy.
In 2004, he discovered krump online. The form had been established just a few years earlier in Los Angeles. It’s an improvisational, in-your-face, battle-based style that mixes intense pantomime with stomping, chest-popping and emphatic arm swinging.
For Henry, the connection was instant. “It was men that looked like me,” he said, “men that were aggressive, masculine, doing movements that looked like fighting. Fighting was one of the first things I learned to do, to defend myself on the walk to school and on the playground. I felt the fight, the struggle, the pain.”
At the same time, he added, “it was a bunch of guys gathering for something that’s positive. It was born out of gang culture but channeled in a way that was more spiritual, more healing. It just felt like home, but a better version.”
Krump became an obsession, an escape, a discipline. Learning from online videos and DVDs, Henry worked as hard as he could to improve. And others began to notice.
“People started looking at me differently,” Henry said. “I wasn’t perceived as just a hoodlum. I was the dancer kid. It showed people I could be disciplined, that I could be good at something.” This was exciting — “doors were opening, I started being welcomed into spaces where I wasn’t welcomed before” — but also bittersweet. It made him realize how others had seen him before.
Henry found a few friends interested in krump, like Joshua Staton, called Nightmare, who gave him his dance name. (“He’s Nightmare, I might as well be Dreamz.”) Together, they started to build a krump scene in New York. Some West Coast krump dancers questioned their authenticity and skill. But, Henry said, “hard-working dancers on the East Coast, like myself, have proven that we’re better than a lot of the best in the West.”
“My roots,” he added, “are the same” as the originators of krump. But he said he valued the time when he “didn’t know exactly what krump was,” the years when he on his own, copying from videos and inventing, because that experimentation “made the sauce that makes me different.”
Henry’s greatest affirmation came at an audition for a Madonna video around 2015, when he met Jo’Artis Ratti, known as Big Mijo, who was one of those originators — the one whose dancing people were always saying Henry’s resembled. “Mijo was like ‘Bro, I’ve been following you, I love your work, you’re Little Mijo.’” Henry said.
Whether in Los Angeles or New York, there wasn’t exactly a career path for a krump dancer. Henry had to part the waters for himself. He made a name competing in dance battles but also as a teacher. “I taught everywhere, even ballet schools,” he said. (He also worked nights as a security guard and still works as a personal trainer.)
This, he said, is how he became the best-known krump dancer in New York, the go-to guy: “If you see a younger dancer, they took my class or took from a student of mine.”
As for performing jobs outside the battle scene, there were lots of auditions and lots of rejection. “I just had to keep going to find where I fit,” he said. He was hired for “Bitch, I’m Madonna” and other music videos. He gave a TED Talk. He created and collaborated on shows for Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum. He’s had cameos in projects at the Park Avenue Armory and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the choreographer Bill T. Jones, who described him as “one of those unsung treasures, people who should be cynical but are not.”
And now comes the collaboration with Miller. When she first encountered Henry at a benefit performance, she felt she was “in the presence of lighting and thunder,” she said during a rehearsal at Juilliard. But she also felt a kinship: “We dance because it’s part of our survival system.” She wanted to work with him but worried that bringing in a street dancer could seem like a gimmick or exploitative — “cringy, I’ve seen it so much.”
Henry said he’s had plenty of experiences like that. “They just put me next to someone doing pirouettes,” he said. “Or people try to fit me into a box. And if they don’t fit me into the box, I don’t get to dance.” His work with Miller, though, has been “an actual collaboration.”
Miller agreed. “He’s a thought partner, and his creativity is unlimited,” she said. Much of what Miller supplied was a concept, an idea about the prehistoric origins of art, a frequent topic for her. While she doesn’t put Henry in a box, she does frame him with wooden boards — to help viewers see what she calls his “micro-movements” and also as a canvas for the artist Sharone Halevy, who paints on the boards during the performance.
But more than framing distinguishes “song” from Henry’s previous token appearances. Those, he said, were “all they gave of me.” This one is “all of me.”
And who is that? A devoted father of two teenagers. A mentor who creates “a safe space where men can express ourselves emotionally” and who helps teach others to “navigate through the chaos.” A person who believes his most important mission is “extending what I know in life to reduce the hurt and turmoil that my people go through” — most important, that is, “next to the dance form being done damn right.”