A new dance show by Rennie Harris serves as a valuable response to MTV’s commercialization of hip hop.
By Debra Cash
Crazy Legs is back, though barely. The aging breakdance star from Rock Steady Crew and the Ghettoriginals makes a cameo appearance during Erykah Badu’s Grammy-winning “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)” video co-directed by Badu and Chris Robinson. Crazy Legs still looks zippy after all these years, and all those inevitable injuries, but his fast footwork on an urban rooftop doesn’t reflect the dancing in hip hop videos these days. Hip hop dance, what used to be called b-boying or breakdancing and then evolved into a slew of subspecialties, plays as nostalgia, part of Badu’s lost but not regretted teenage love affair.
To outsiders, hip hop dancing probably evokes acrobatic street moves in the presumably hard-wired, time-honored display of competitive young males on the make: guys spinning on their heads or shimmying their arms as if they had no bones. With the possible exception of Ludacris’ Monty Python-esque “Stand Up,” which features the singer morphing into a baby who has his diapers changed and a b-girl spinning in a wheelchair, a quick survey of the dancing in the current crop of hip hop videos on MTV is, at best, a glossy version of strip-club pole dancing. It’s not just sexist: it’s boring. It’s all booty, all the time, along with assorted shots of female cleavage and abs, male biceps and abs, and enough rubbing to require emergency airdrops of static cling remover.
The empty posturing slathered through commercial hip hop is hardly news. Nor is the growing resistance to the commodification of urban black culture and the corporate hip hop “industry.” “We are in the botox era of hip hop” complained an editorial posted on Allhiphop.com. Not everyone — black, brown or white– likes to get their youth culture airbrushed, packaged, and recycled to them as a consumer item. Not everyone thinks it’s a sign of progress (or a civil rights achievement) when kids walk into the neighborhood liquor store to buy cognac at 35 bucks a bottle thanks to the successful midwifery of Russell Simmons’ advertising agency and Busta Rhymes’s “Pass the Courvoisier.”
Enter Rennie Harris, self-made shaman in sneakers. Harris is an old time hip-hopper, a hardcore and perhaps conservative believer in the four hip hop elements (breakdance, rap, DJ, and graffiti). He’s turning 40 now, but at 16 Harris was in the street, a bona fide hoodlum carrying a .45. In the early ’80s, he toured in the Fresh Festival, the first hip hop tour in America, with Run-DMC and Whodini. After a quick and unsatisfying dip into commercial waters, he founded Rennie Harris PureMovement back in 1992 in his hometown ‘hood, North Philadelphia.
From all reports, dance came to Harris as naturally as breathing. Given that he grew up in a certain time and place (1970s urban Philadelphia) the style he mastered was b-boying, then hip hop. Harris calls hip hop a “contemporary indigenous form,” and since that doesn’t mean much except that it is new and developed outside any formal academy, he’s probably right. Just don’t call it folk dance.
Harris’ oft-stated goal is to explore hip hop as a dance language. Other dancers have been trying to answer the question in their own way, most notably the French-Algerian troupe Compagnie Kafig, but most have done so in terms of upping the production values and trading set choreography for improvisation. With his first full-evening work, “Rome and Jewels,” Harris proved (at the very least) that hip hop, drawing on “Romeo and Juliet” and memories of the Jerome Robbins choreography in “West Side Story,” could sustain a fully-developed narrative, a world where the real love was between the gang members The girl in question was a “conjured” ornament, a sometime thing.
“Facing Mekka,” the dance making the national rounds this year, stakes a wider claim: since hip hop is his “native” language Harris has the right, perhaps the responsibility, to build on its foundation. Harris displays real gifts: the ability to analyze movement and break it down into its components, to highlight one aspect or another by design, and keep it all moving inside a pulsating, polyrhythmic frame. Increasingly, Harris understands space as well, the way dancers can inhabit different areas of a theatre’s proscenium rectangle. He doesn’t line up the dancers as if they’re facing a studio’s mirror wall, letting imaginary camera angles and editing do the investigating and set the beat.
A number of critics have spoken of “Facing Mekka’s” evocations of black American memory. From the projected images of the Capitol dome upside down, through images of civil rights marchers doused with fire hoses and devout Muslims kneeling on endless plazas, Harris and his set designers John Abner, Theodore Harris, and Tobin Rothlein pile on the pictures. Undoubtedly, Harris is sincere about the political implications in “Facing Mekka.” But if you follow his ideas to their logical conclusions, you can’t help but wonder about their validity. Does Harris seriously want to replace the Klan with the mullahs?
Harris’ hip hop movement merges with personal memory. In “Lorenzo’s Oil,” the work’s penultimate solo, he moves in slow motion, popping with an almost arthritic, twisted deliberation, his teeth chattering in a locked jaw. You don’t need to know how the solo was triggered — Harris found a body floating in the river — to shudder at the visceral horror of the experience. If there’s an analogue to method acting in the dance world, Harris is doing it. Call it method dancing.
Perhaps because of its psychological component, “Facing Mekka” has changed since its premiere. The longer the tour goes on, the more subdued the hip hop tricks become. I’d venture to guess Harris is discovering that he doesn’t need them. Harris samples dance traditions like a DJ composing a beat from a variety of vinyl riffs. He downplays the high kicks from Brazilian capoeira, the somersaults and shoulder spins, in favor of the women’s west African-inflected performances, fronted by scrappy Alaliah Afelyone and the more inward Erica Bowen.
The message of “Facing Mekka”‘ is of personal struggle and the possibility of spiritual development. Unlike so many of hip hop’s self-satisfied “entrepreneurs” Rennie Harris isn’t trying to commodify hip hop for the masses. Nor is he trying to save hip hop from its bling bling marketing. Hip hop’s flashy display has always said “watch me.” In the hands and feet of Rennie Harris, it insists “stay and pay attention.”
Listen to an interview with Rennie Harris on The Connection