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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
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
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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