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Flash Review 1, 5-22: Poetry in Motion
Harris in 'Mekka'

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Carrying forward the tradition of theatricalizing folk dance on stage: African, Capoeira, classical ballet, Rennie Harris has adopted hip-hop dance in its sundry styles as his vocabulary and turned it into more than just entertainment. His troupe of dancers and musicians from Philadelphia, PureMovement, burned up the stage at the Joyce, May 13-18.

After the success of his last evening-length work, "Rome and Jewels," based on Shakespeare's classic, which explored the narrative possibilities of hip-hop, Harris has turned to the spiritual in his new "Facing Mekka." It begins with a brief exposition of African motifs that shows their relationship to the acrobatics of modern break dancing. Harris, a canny director with a keen sense of theatricality, shapes the crab-like floor spins, shoulder-wrenching backbends, and squat kicks into higher expression by his expert use of space, rhythm, and speed.

Jorge Cousineau's set features a series of upstage panels, which rotate for dancers to enter and exit between. A video collage projected on the panels adds texture to the stage environment, and David Szlasa pierces his shadowy lighting with sharp beams highlighting individuals and events. Five musicians sit upstage to our left. Downstage center a four-by-eight-foot patch of white flooring represents a kind of altar, which serves as a base for a shaft of back mesh fabric that periodically descends from above, confining a dancer inside. Harris, a hulking man with long dreadlocks, lumbers slowly across the stage, hunched menacingly, among the dimly lit dancers. Then the women burst into African-inspired dancing: flapping forearms, vibrating hips, and jumping bent-legged into the air like springboks, while the men slither on their hands and feet, low to the ground, twisting and rolling in moves that require thighs of steel and equally powerful upper bodies. They are shirtless, so we can appreciate their beautiful muscularity.

The pulsating percussion rhythms and sinuous motion pull us into the realm of hip-hop, and Harris's skillful modulation of his material keeps us eager to remain there with him. The women are given equal status as the men here, and men and women trade energies: sometimes the men get lyrical, and the women, tough. In Tania Isaac's adagio solo on the white floor panel she places her head on the floor and slowly walks around it, going from back bend to forward crouch. Done with such control it becomes expressive rather than purely physical. It also requires more strength to do than if it were done fast as it normally would.

Compact Ron Wood's solo is the most overtly virtuosic: he launches into a series of aerial back flips and slides six-feet balanced on his dread-locked head. There's virtuosity to spare, but Harris doesn't underscore the tricks; he puts them in a context that raises them to the level of poetry. Josh Ortiz does a head spin for what seems like a full minute while bending himself into pretzel shapes; he ends with a blistering upside down scratch spin -- like the finish of a skater's Olympic routines. Still, he's located upstage of a group of guys rippling on the floor down front. Ortiz's phenomenal feat is seen as part of a whole stage picture, not as a stage-center trick.

Each of the musicians gets to solo; Grisha Coleman, who also plays cello, sings a robust chant. Percussionist Lenny Seidman virtually talks with his congas. And Kenny Muhammad a.k.a. "The human Orchestra" creates a whole rhythm section with just his mouth and a microphone. Interweaving with the live music is Darrin M. Ross's atmospheric sound design.

Harris's specialty is pop-locking, and his solo is a fitting climax to the work. His tall, broad physique twitches and ripples, as if small animals were running riot inside his body. He's possessed, rooted to the earth, aspiring to a higher spirit. When his gyrations reach a frantic pace, the mesh cage descends over him, and he vanishes, apparently achieving apotheosis.

The other amazing dancers, dressed in coordinated workout wear by Onome Ekeh, include Afaliah Afelyone, Brandon Albright, Dave Austin, Erica Bowen, James P. Colter, Nina Kamala Flagg, Joel Martinez, Princess Mhoon Cooper, Duane Lee Holland Jr, Keith Stallworth, Richie Soto, Shayla Tribune, Makeda Thomas, and Tracy Thomas.

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