Rewriting histories

Rennie Harris and Rebecca Rice
By DEBRA CASH  |  May 12, 2006


RENNIE HARRIS: Modern dance that’s not in Kansas anymore

Family histories are inextricably political. Rennie Harris knows the only two certainties of his life are that he has to “stay black and die.” Distinct fates flow from those two stark facts, whether you’re from the mean streets of Philadelphia, as he is, or you’re caught in the New Orleans Superdome without food, water, or a government that’s paying attention.

That’s why it makes sense — painful, smart, artistic, furious sense — that he’s now working on a project to expand the autobiographical solo Lorenzo’s Oil and elements of “Endangered Species” from his 2003 evening-length Facing Mekka. Prince Scare Krow’s Road to the Emerald City is threaded with scrapbook light-heartedness: projected photos of Harris as a seven- or eight-year-old flashing a peace sign; as a buff, sexy teen; and in a homemade video goofing with his buddies in a blaxploitation version of the opening sequence from his beloved West Side Story.

But the smiles fade when Harris begins his solo, trudging on stage as if pulled by one shuddering hand. The word “racism” is a knuckle gun blasting through his head. He uses every popping isolation in his arsenal to trace the path of a bullet ricocheting through the muscles, bones, and organs of a teenage victim. Harris’s grimaces are as extreme as the faces of a kabuki actor. They are also as intimate and immediate as the looks of fear and rage glimpsed on the faces of Katrina’s desperate survivors. Harris crafts a near-narrative dance language, fulfilling his aspiration to make hip-hop technique subtle enough to handle human meaning. It’s not clear what direction Prince Scare Krow will take as he amplifies his storytelling over time, but it’s safe to predict that the punch line will echo the immortal observation “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

There’s a similar if less compelling realism behind March of the Antmen, which was conceived at the conclusion of Bush père’s Gulf War and is now dismayingly pertinent to his son’s debacle in Iraq. Deployed troops, street gangs, and hip-hop crews share many similarities: tough-guy demeanor, fierce loyalty, and the awareness that at any random moment someone’s life could end. Here, Harris’s message is more obvious: war, and especially a war overwhelmingly fought by poor men of color, is hell. Nonetheless, Antmen is full of acute details: one grunt rolling a joint; the rhythmic precision of a foxhole crawl; agitated cursing from the men squashed into the cab of a Humvee.

Rennie Harris Puremovement teeters between Harris’s choreographic explorations and the kind of feel-good, virtuosic hip-hop show some audiences expect. (Might World Music’s CRASHarts have attracted fuller houses, even on one of the busiest dance weekends of the season, if it had explained that Harris wasn’t merely showcasing “traditional” hip-hop display but extending it with his political commitments?) P-Funk and Continuum represent that other side, with the Puremovement crew (Brady Hill, Rodney S. Hill, Sha-chon Kasey, Ryan Cliett, and the amazing Ron Wood) moving from top-rocking to capoeira-based power moves, showing style, having fun, and not incidentally making goofball jokes at one another’s expense. Puremovement presents hip-hop dancers who are grown men, not teenage phenoms — skilled professionals, not street geniuses. But the pleasures of Puremovement are that youth and the street are never left completely behind.

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