Hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris makes dances as celebration of the human spirit. Puremovement, his 10-member company just ended a two-weekend run at On the Boards. When Harris walked onto the stage to introduce himself, he became a symbol too, of all the recent turmoil at OTB. Artistic director Mark Murphy (who usually plays the host), along with managing director Sara Pasti, were fired two weeks ago for reasons the board of directors still refuses to divulge. Since then, Murphy's national and local supporters have been waging passionate campaigns to reinstate him. On Harris' opening night, a boisterous rally of close to 100 supporters marched around OTB's entrance with drums, whistles, and signs. The band not only handed out campaign information, they also unwittingly set the stage for Harris' brand of passionate dance performance.
Rennie Harris Puremovement
On the Boards, May 6-16
The evening began with Rome and Jewels, Harris' reinterpretation of the traditional ballet Romeo and Juliet. In some form or another, Shakespeare's romantic tale of two star-crossed lovers exists in the repertory of nearly every major ballet company. Although the first recorded version appeared in 1811, many contemporary interpretations (more than 80) are based on Leonid Lavrosky's romantic, mime-laden Romeo I Dzhulietta, choreographed for the Kirov Ballet in 1940. Yet stylistic interpretations of the Bard's late-16th-century tale vary. British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan's version is restrained and private; German-born John Neumeier forayed into budding sexuality; French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj deconstructed the tale as a savage take on the modern police state; Francis Patrelle's Romeo highlights children as victims of family feuds and social clashes; and in June, Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform Kent Stowell's religious rendition.
Harris' is the first hip-hop version, told through rival street gangs in "Killadelphia." The 40-minute work-in-progress excerpt, which Harris plans to premiere as an evening-length piece next year, references a collage of Shakespeare, West Side Story, and the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. The Montagues wear army fatigues and break-dance. The Capulets wear skullcaps and execute hip-hop moves based on martial arts, Brazilian and Angolan capoeira—complete with head spins, flips, scissor-kicks, and horizontal tours.
We never see Jewels. Harris begins and ends his story with the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. Well, actually the piece begins and ends with a black-and-white silent film about two cursing cowboys—an entertaining yet forgettable gimmick. But the intervening drama, composed of monologues, a mugging, and all-too-sporadic dancing, doesn't build tension—it castrates it with a stilted adherence to narrative. Rome and Jewels appears hamstrung by formality. Harris doesn't seem to completely trust hip-hop's inherently high-voltage, competitive, acrobatic, and violent style. These superb dancers can kick, torque, and perform hand-springs like machines, yet, with the exception of Clyde Evans Jr. in the role of Rome, they speak like lost kittens. We end up noticing the jolt of shifting gears rather than being swept along in the thrill of the ride.
Perhaps Harris isn't interested in suspending our disbelief with smoothly crafted theater. The dancers aren't metaphors or tools for an abstract vision; they dance about, running from cops or dying in street fights. Still, poetry exists in their incredible, physics-defying stunts and in the gestures of gratitude and solidarity they display before and after each solo. They kiss the floor, make the sign of the cross, and look heavenward in supplication. At the end of Rome and Jewels, Rome strips off his nylon jacket to reveal a "Reinstate Mark Murphy" T-shirt. To a standing ovation, the entire company wore this emblem of solidarity during its final bows.