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Flash Review 1, 9-27: Hip-hop is in the HOUUUUUSE
Harris and Crue Show the Dance World What Time of Day It Is

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

When Rennie Harris stepped onto the stage of the Joyce Theater with the mic before "Rome & Jewels," I was a little skeptical. Homey don't play that! When he shared that last night was his first night stepping into the Universe, I was like, "Yo, what's up with that!?" Well check it, G: I'm here to represent that this Old School B-Boy walks, as we used to say back in the day, the talk. With his hip-hop dance-drama-DJ take on "Romeo & Juliet" (sort of), Harris -- and crue, props to them! -- succeeds where many (including Harris, on previous attempts) before have failed, and earns hip-hop its place at not only the concert dance, but the narrative concert dance table. And, not incidentally, shows the Joyce and its aging audience what time of day it is, dance-wise.

Harris, in his intro, advised us to let go of any expectations. Being a somewhat hardened NYC critic, I was skeptical about this remark, too; "What, are you saying don't believe the hype?" But after seeing the piece, I'd go further and suggest one specific expectation, the dropping of which might help you proceed quicker than I did to seeing this show on its own terms. Here, hip-hop doesn't so much serve the story of "Romeo & Juliet," as Shakespeare and his tale serve to provide a much-needed fresh way to tell the by-now broken record story of the gangsta paradise: One-time homeys come to blows, someone dies, much weeping and remorse at the funeral, until the next time.

But first, some background: Hip-hop's attempts to go Concert Dance are usually marked by awkward -- and to my view unnecessary -- attempts at a plot line. (Ooh, the reference to Concert Dance just gave me a Flashback: To 1996 and a Dance Magazine proofreader not knowing what House music is. :D ) To my mind, hip-hop dance on its own terms deserves to be seen in concert. It thrills; when at its best it demands technical brilliance and fit bodies; it expresses personality; it can even be spiritual; and you can't get much more kinetic than spinning on your head, suddenly freezing with your legs in the air, knees bent but legs still, then switching the legs while still balancing on your head. Then there are the flips as athletic and unbelievable as any produced by years of Peking Opera training. Seems like enough, no? If the Judsonites can pick pedestrians up from the streets, plop them down on stage to walk across it and call it Dance, then the B-Boys and B-Girls, who have earned their props actually performing in the streets, can sure enough win an audience performing on a proscenium.

And yet, the few hip-hop artists I've seen who bring their dance to the concert stage somehow feel the need to frame this virtuosity with a Story. Happened with Jam on the Groove, a company made up of some of the original Ghetto Jam crue; Akim Funk Buddah, who made his debut at P.S. 122 last year (the actual dance was killer, particularly a tap-martial arts-hip hop one-off between Buddah and a kimono and clog wearing woman named Cat); and even Harris in an earlier incarnation. The story always seemed like something the B-Boys and Girls thought they had to do. But tho they had the physical props, they didn't have the dramatic chops, and thus we had the unfortunate result of a dance form in which, in fact, the performers had been working on their dancing since they were youngsters and had it finely honed, nonetheless appearing like amateurs because of the scripts.

Enter Rennie Harris, with an able assist from Will Shakespeare, the dramaturg and narrator Ozzie Jones, a KILLER and TIGHT DJ trio of DJ Miz, DJ Cisum, and DJ Evil Tracy who had the Joyce audience rocking during the musical break, and an able group of dancers many of whom are as able at declaiming slam-style poetry and Shakespeare as they are at locking, popping, and spinning. "I bet you didn't think I was going to go there," Rodney Mason, as Rome, tells the audience in an early aside, after he's quoted verbatim from Shakespeare. Smoove! Throughout, the actor-dancers mix easily between the rich original and an almost as rich Slam-Street style poetry, their sampling as smooth as the DJs mixing. The result is that the Shakespeare and the street poetry equally contribute a certain heft -- and it ALL seems natural, as does the blending. The street poetry seems equal in poetry to the Shakespeare (okay, almost!), and the dancer-actors make the Shakespeare their own. (By the way, this is not a patronizing, "Oh, they're from the streets and they can speak proper English" remark; any actor not specifically trained in Shakespeare has difficulty keeping it real.)

One of the things I was skeptical about, going in, was whether Harris could make of the hip-hop vocabulary a language whose phrases speak specifically to the situation at hand. As, for instance, at the same time last night about forty blocks uptown, the Birmingham Royal Ballet was doing in David Bintley's choreography for "Edward II." A grisly tale, that -- but all told with the existing, actually ballet vocabulary. After last night's viewing, I'd have to say the verdict is still up in the air as to whether anyone has so utilized hip-hop.

However, what we can say is that Harris has succeeded, hip-hop into narrative dance phrase-wise, on at least one count -- using the hip-hop movement style to express character. This happens most notably in the clowning of Clyde Evans, Jr. as Mercutio (loved the MC Hammer oldie but goodie, G!); and in one moment where Rome, upon meeting Jewels and convincing her to walk with him, suddenly slumps, one shoulder lower than the other, arms sanctifying, inna hip hop mode.

Did I say upon meeting Jewels? Well, not actually. Harris's idea is to have Jewels actually only indicated by Rome -- she is as seen by him. (Think Harvey the rabbit!) In general, with the notable exception of Jules Urich in the Capulet Crew and another woman unidentified in the program, this is a man's world, G! And yes, part of that seems to be that terms like "ho" flow freely. (Example: Sabela Grimes's Ben V./Benvolio tells Mercutio that Jewels is Rome's "Special Ho.") However, my female dancer companion of last night said this slackness didn't bother her because, indeed, the world being portrayed was a man's world, from a man's point of view. Or rather, that this particular slice of the hip-hop world, especially the saga of gangs and turf battles, is.

My companion also noted an aspect in which these dancers stood out from much dance: They were very connected with the earth; their movement, she said, seemed to come from it rather than take place above it. This seemed almost literally to be the case with the spinning of the Capulets, led by the virtuosic and legendary Ron Wood, a.k.a. Zen One. (At one point, Jones, throwing a party to which he'll invite both crews, tells Wood he should 'Come by and do your spinning thing,' in such a nonchalant manner that the audience laughed at its off-handedness.)

Where the dance truly seemed, for the first time I've seen in any hip-hop piece, to be part of the story, is in the penultimate confrontation between the two squads. Dudes, this square-off makes the Jets-Sharks rumble of "West Side Story" look like child's play. Again, in the past, the one-upsmanship in these one-offs has not seemed particularly dangerous to me -- I didn't get a sense that either side seriously thought anything was at stake. In this face off, however, well, it's more than just a one-off -- it's not just competitive, but aggressive, so that we're not surprised when it suddenly escalates to a fight, with the time-honored result: Mercutio and then Tybalt are killed. The way Harris has Evans's Mercutio take leave of Rome is poignant and real. We get your slow-mo (a bit over-used in general in this ballet, as is the dry ice or chalk), the usual business of Mercutio pretending it's just a scratch, and then he suddenly eludes Rome's circled arms, but the arms stay circled; the impression is that the figure we see is really Mercutio's released ghost. To hear Evans's pained "A pox on both your houses," which Harris changes to "all" your houses, is under the circumstances chilling, and played so by Evans.

And then....then the story stops. That's right. No sleeping potion, no denouement of Romeo killing himself because he thinks she's dead, and then her doing the same upon awakening and finding him there. The closing speech, from Shakespeare, delivered by Jones. Some more slow-mo squirming by the players. And then lights.

It's at this point where I figured that, as mentioned above, Harris was using this story as a new way to explore what's become a very old story about gangsta life. (Rather than giving a full hip-hop visualization of the play.) And that the many divergences from the old story -- into poetry and sometimes dance having to do with that life in general -- suddenly made sense. As did Harris and posse's achievements. B-girls and B--boys, hip-hop is definitely in the concert dance HOUUUUUUSE. And props to Linda Shelton and Martin Wechsler, director and chief programmer of the Joyce, as well. In past years, they might have berthed Rennie Harris Puremovement in their Altogether Different festival for a couple of seasons first, banking only on the company getting its niche following in the house. Instead, they've opened their first full season of the new millennium with him. This relatively mainstream theater has checked its watches and its clocks, and they definitely know what time of day it is now!

Rennie Harris Puremovement plays at the Joyce Theater through Sunday. For more info, please visit the Joyce web site.

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