in a Name?
Rennie Harris calls his group of hip-hop artists "Rennie Harris Puremovement," and the name implies that that is what we'll see—pure movement performed without history or context. But I would argue that the compilation of pieces conceived and re-worked by Harris over the last decade and presented in the Doris Duke Studio Theater last week is much more than a simple display of virtuoso movement. Harris uses his street-bred vernacular to take on some of the biggest themes we've got—war, death, survival and salvation—and when most successful, presents them with a riveting raw immediacy. This is movement as combat, but more importantly, as catharsis.
Don't get me wrong. In pieces such as "Continuum" and "Students of the Asphalt Jungle," there's plenty of jaw-dropping, did-I-just-see-that-guy-do-that, kind of movement. Harris's dancers do all the requisite flashy moves with style; spinning effortlessly on their heads, rippling along the floor like snagged fish, stopping in one-armed hand stands with legs impossibly akimbo, and executing isolations so extreme a chiropractor could learn a thing or two. The beat, the posturing, the competitive one-upmanship—everything we've come to expect from pop culture hip-hop—is here with sweaty, in-your-face abandon. But, what's also here—and ultimately what's more compelling than the impressive gymnastics—is theater; real theater expressed via a hip-hop sensibility.
In "March of the Antmen" and "Endangered Species," Harris creates physical tone poems that evoke the frightening, volatile world of the African-American male growing up poor. He modifies the fiercely individualistic struts and shudders of hip-hop movement into a vocabulary that can be choreographed while retaining the roughness and raw energy of the original style. This means that when the dancers move in unison we are taken by surprise—it's evidence of structure. It also means we are able to accept the legitimacy of a dance form that is improvisational at its core, but has been refined by Harris into something that can be edited and controlled.
But Harris isn't content to craft flamboyant movement into palatable dances, he wants us to feel something when these men move, something akin to an understanding of the environment from which hip hop emerged. At one point in "March of the Antmen," a piece originally conceived in 1992, the dancers are grouped loosely as though riding in a vehicle—they could be cruising through north Phily, or rumbling along in an unarmoured Hummer in Iraq—either scenario works, but we know, for all their bravado, they're vulnerable. Sure enough, as the dancers use their bodies to gesticulate silently to one another—a toothy laugh here, a friendly elbow jab there—suddenly, one is down, dead. This image conveys with unexpected force the reality that in north Phily, the south Bronx, or indeed in Iraq, you or your buddy can end up dead just like that—just because, at that moment, you represent the enemy. Watching Harris's dancers, we feel the frustration; the explosive fury that exclusion has fostered in a group in which a disproportionate number will end up shot, jailed or dead before the age of 24. (Getting this point home at Jacob's Pillow is no small achievement when, as far as I could tell, 98% of the audience was well-heeled white folks.)
Harris's imagery is buoyed up further by intelligent mixes of music and rhythmic spoken poetry. Rodney Mason in particular is captivating in two separate sequences as he electrifies rap flavored verses with jittery, irrepressible movement. Modulating his voice from whisper to snarl in a second, and commenting ironically on his own text with an open-mouthed, bug-eyed miming of what-the-f---?, he manages to show us, as much as tell us what he has to say. It's rare for a dancer to be this verbally expressive and exciting.
"Endangered Species," a solo piece performed by Harris, relies more heavily on spoken text to capture the anguish and anger of a black boy growing up amongst violence and abuse. Certain moments, however, such as when Harris jerks his lower jaw back and forth while moving his head from side to side, and small fluttering movements beginning in the shoulders and working down through the arm to the hands and fingers (a severely curtailed and slowed down popping and locking motion really) are especially effective illustrations of a creature caged by extreme and terrible circumstance. This is a deeply felt personal statement of one man's struggle to survive.
Harris isn't proselytizing, however. He's using straightforward hip hop movement, as well as subtle reinterpretations of that movement to express a particular experience of the world, an experience in which the possibility exists, to use the words of Darrin Ross and Grisha Coleman spoken during "March of the Antmen," that "death will be my birth." This statement reveals a view of life as hell, and hip hop, as presented by Harris and his terrific dancers, has the gritty power to tell that story in movement that's as potent as it is pure.
Keith Stallworth in "P-Funk." Photo: Robert Day.