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Praying to the Beat 

Rennie Harris assembled Facing Mekka from the spiritual shards of a diaspora

Thursday, Apr 17 2003
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Photo courtesy UCLA Live

The last time hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris came to Los Angeles, the beat blew the lid right off UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall. The walls and floors vibrated with it. Harris’ Puremovement crew kicked and rapped to it. DJs spun, scratched and sampled; VJs mixed a psychedelic rush of projections spontaneously to it. An SRO crowd of 500 breathed and pulsed as one inside it. The beat was inescapable. The beat was a force to be reckoned with.

Part urban griot, part groundbreaking contemporary artist, Harris has similarly blown the lid off the concert-dance world over the past 12 years by flipping the script on those who think they know what hip-hop dance is and can be. Since founding his Philadelphia-based dance company in the early 1990s, Harris has shown that the raw energy of the street and the improvisational wizardry of club battles could safely transition to a high-art setting without pandering to the preconception that hip-hop is all flashy acrobatic tricks. Harris doesn’t discount that high-flying athletic moves are part of his mix of house, hip-hop proper, b-boying, Campbell-locking and popping — he just tries to downplay that side of it in his work. Instead, he focuses on the deep expressiveness of a dance form typically relegated to mere background booty-shaking in some music video.

With his 1994 autobiographical solo Endangered Species, Harris made it immediately clear that he was doing something unlike anything seen before. Following a voice-over narration detailing a childhood marked by too much violence and too few choices, Harris moved through a popping sequence — his specialty — slowed down to a freeze-frame soliloquy of spare gestures and deconstructed moves that bore scant resemblance to their street origins. Layered with the sound of labored breathing, Harris’ disembodied voice questioned a world that requires only that he “be black and die,” while simultaneously articulating a physical vulnerability to debunk the hypermasculine warrior image of hip-hop dancers projected in the media.

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Then, six years later, in his postmodern hip-hopera Rome & Jewels, Harris proved that hip-hop culture could go toe to toe with Shakespeare. Incorporating a rhapsodic fusion of Elizabethan prose and hip-hop-ese, Harris sampled Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story to create a ghetto bildungsroman in which Juliet is a metaphoric shaft of light representing Rome’s shifting world-view. Like Endangered Species, though, R&J ends in death, with Rome unable to step over into a better world.

From the start, audiences and dance critics, club cats and grayheads alike sat up and took notice. But with Rome & Jewels, as dance critic and scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild wrote shortly after its premiere, we all knew we were watching dance history being made.

 

Harris returns to UCLA next week with a new production, Facing Mekka, which promises to be both as riveting as Rome & Jewels and quite different. When I interviewed Harris in 2000, he said that he himself was Rome, mired in the conditions of his life. Unlike Rome, however, Harris ultimately managed the transition “from having one foot in the street and one in the universe to having both feet in the universe”; with Mekka, he has established himself firmly in a larger universe of possibility.

Leaving behind the stories of the street that framed much of Puremovement’s early repertory, Mekka celebrates cross-diasporic connections between contemporary Africanist/black culture and traditional African culture in a loosely woven suite. The piece furthers the theatrical fusion Harris achieved in Rome & Jewels, incorporating a video collage — once again mixed live — and an eclectic range of percussion, vocal and instrumental musicians share the stage with DJ Evil Tracy and a cast of 11 dancers.

At a January preview in New York, one observer described Mekka as a prayer. After its premiere in Easton, Pennsylvania, a few weeks ago, a local reviewer wrote that it was about “the ongoing search of African-Americans to assemble a whole self from the splinters of a communal history.” Another critic described it as an “incantatory” ritual of healing that moves from mourning and catharsis to celebration.

Harris, however, was more elliptical when I caught up with him by telephone after Mekka opened. He insisted that it’s not “about” anything. No themes. No messages. What, then, did he hope audiences would take away from the evening? “Whatever they want. The work I do isn’t about other people. It’s about my spiritual journey. Going somewhere to be entertained is a little egotistical; you go to the theater to share an experience.” So what experience is he sharing in Mekka? “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Twenty-three-year-old cast member Nina Kamala Flagg laughed when I told her this story. “Yeah, that’s Rennie,” she said. A Los Angeles–based hip-hop and modern dancer (and daughter of well-known teacher and choreographer Karen McDonald), Flagg is one of five women in Mekka, all of whom are proficient in African dance as well as hip-hop. Harris has had few women in his company through the years — in Rome & Jewels, one had to squint to find them sprinkled in among the predominantly male gangs. This time, though, Harris held a workshop exclusively for the women before bringing in the men. According to Flagg, he also taught the women low-to-the-ground and inverted moves traditionally considered masculine.

Harris is very specific about what he’s looking for, but the cast is still trying to grasp what he wants. “We’ve sat down and had conversations with him about the piece,” Flagg said, “because most of us come from a dance tradition where we need everything to be black and white. We’re used to the choreographer telling us what it’s about, and then we try to express that through the movement. Rennie’s not like that. He told us, ‘It’s whatever you think it’s about.’ At first we stood there with our mouths open. But he also said that ‘facing Mekka’ means facing yourself. For everybody in the cast that’s going to be something different.”

The prayer analogy is apt, Flagg said. Once she heard it, Rennie’s coaching started to make sense. “I started asking myself, ‘How would I move through a prayer?’ Even when I wasn’t dancing, just in my life as I moved through the day — doing the dishes, whatever. You need to stop thinking about the movement. You have to let it get into you deeply.”

Moving from this internal state is central to Harris’ creative enterprise. “In the everyday communing of black culture,” Harris says, “there’s always a sense of spirituality. So when we’re talking about honoring the spirit of hip-hop, we’re really talking about honoring black culture. The hybrid that’s being projected for us — what’s on MTV — is not hip-hop. I say this as the voice for a lot of hip-hop dancers and MCs and rappers. People only see the dynamic acrobatics, and they really don’t understand that it’s not about that. Yes, you can stand on one hand, but how did you get to that point? You have to understand the subtleties of gravity and weight. Your mind has to be so focused that you’re completely one with yourself.

“In a battle, one guy can do a flip but another guy can come out and totally take this guy out of the pocket, even though he didn’t flip, and the reason why is because he commanded and demanded the time.”

Harris was raised a Roman Catholic, but his church has always been on the streets and in the clubs. He started out as a step dancer at the tail end of the craze in the early ’70s, later adding to his repertoire moves culled from Soul Train. When he was 12, he was asked to captain the Scanner Boys, a crew that backed such acts as Run-DMC until it disbanded in 1992, a year after Harris founded Puremovement. At 13 he choreographed his first piece, and at 14 the Smithsonian Institution paid him to perform and “explain what it was I was doing.”

He and his dancers remain regulars on the Philly club scene. According to Dixon Gottschild, “That’s where the real stuff comes from, the raw material he shapes for the stage, that kind of sensual energy that you get from the circle. Rennie once told me that the way he’d like to die is dancing on the dance floor. He didn’t mean the concert-dance stage.”

 

RENNIE HARRIS PUREMOVEMENT: Facing Mekka | At FREUD PLAYHOUSE, UCLA | April 23–26, 8 p.m.; April 27, 7 p.m.

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