Rennie Harris Puremovement
by Stephanie Rieke
If pluralism is the enlightened catchword in this post-9/11 era of cultural and geopolitical conflict, concert dance may be the ideal art form to do it justice. In Facing Mekka Rennie Harris has mapped a profound and profoundly watchable empathic journey that tries to make sense of our shared struggles and fears.
Just past forty, Harris is a force field in hip-hop culture. Early on, he toured with superstars Run-DMC and Whodini, among others, and in the last few years, in his hometown of Philadelphia, he has annually produced Illadelph Legends, an outrageously thrilling showcase of break-dance pioneers and virtuosic youngsters in good-humored competition. In 1992 Harris founded his Rennie Harris Puremovement in order to expand hip-hop's range and meaning beyond the commercial stereotypes.
Harris made a name for himself by theatricalizing hip-hop with such works as the harrowing chase solo Endangered Species (1992) and Rome & Jewels (2000) an ambitious adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, performed in Ann Arbor in 2002. He broadened his artistic portfolio further with Facing Mekka, and made his career.
Like Rome & Jewels, Facing Mekka (2003) is an evening-length piece incorporating live music and dance. Unlike Rome & Jewels, though, Mekka avoids straight narrative. Meaning is oblique references are shaded and fused. The onstage band including a DJ, vocalists, a percussion section, and a cellist performs overlapping rhythms and evocative sonorities from around the globe, with special emphasis on Africa and Asia. The movement style is equally encompassing.
Once Mekka begins, you notice another crucial departure from Harris's earlier work: nearly half of the dancers are female. In one early section, the focus shifts entirely to the five women. In a manner reminiscent of a ceremonial water dance, wavy arms and fluid t'ai-chi accentuations give way to staccato head snaps and swivel turns. Later, in a heart-stopping evolutionary solo, a dancer emerges from the ground, as from a chrysalis. Accompanied by amplified breaths and creaks,
she learns to crawl one leg through the other and eventually to stand. Finally she assumes the pose, arms crossed with attitude in a low crouch: a break-dancer is born.
In an extended coda dubbed Lorenzo's Oil Harris's given name is Lorenzo Harris brilliantly melds a decelerated version of hip-hop popping with Japanese butoh, an often painfully slow, expressionistic form of modern dance forged in the wake of World War II.
In his director's note to Rome & Jewels, Harris writes, "I am tired of understanding everything I watch. I want to be challenged. . . . My last words to you are, don't worry about whether you like it or not. Just have the experience, absorb it, and move on. . . . And when in doubt, try to imagine what silence looks like."
The University Musical Society presents Facing Mekka Friday and Saturday, February 11 and 12, at the Power Center.
[Originally published in February, 2005.]