written by Steven Woodruff
While it was a disappointment not to have seen the Brazilian street dance company, Companhia Urbana de Dança (originally scheduled at the Carpenter Center last Saturday) their last minute replacement, Philadelphia’s Rennie Harris RHAW, proved to be a revealing and riveting look into the crucible of that city’s current street dance scene. The company’s Artistic Director, now Dr. Rennie Harris (he was presented with an honorary degree from Bates College in 2010) is something of an elder statesman for the street dance and hip hop crowd. This second generation company, founded in 2007, carries on with the work of Rennie Harris Puremovement as the next iteration, bringing his compelling street dance philosophy and ethos to wider exposure.
The company of 13 draws heavily on dancers born and raised, and now working in Philadelphia. The talented cast of breakers, pop lockers and funk freestylers includes four exceptional women. On Saturday they played to a small house offering a rich, expansive program. Dancing on a bare stage with minimal lighting, the company wound its way through a loosely structured series of works mostly choreographed by Harris. The evening had no overriding theme or through story line. Perhaps the only real story was RHAW’s vibrant and personal cast of dancers themselves. This is not a crew fussing with fusion tactics or even pushing for equal status on the concert dance circuit. But what they brought to this performance was a vibrant feeling for movement itself, a sense of extroverted free styling, and a palpable sense of an on stage community. The program was staged and directed by Harris. Most of the works were originally choreographed in 2010.
In the past, Harris has brought programs to the stage with unified themes (Rome and Jewels, 100 Naked Locks) but the works on this program spooled out as a repertory concert held together by sometimes unusual choices in music, including George Benson, Queen, and DJ mixes. In Act I, the two part choreography for Three B-boys and Girl channeled Eastern ethnic grooves in a vignette of unison movement and solos. The music of Queen provided the music for three works, one of them, Under Pressure, a casual street story scenario, added the music of David Bowie to the mix. Act I opened and closed with the familiar cipher, the dancers grouped around a down pool of light, taking solo turns before finally exiting the stage.
The program takes a mostly positive outlook on street life and youthful, emotional liaisons. The urban tale turns edgier in Act II in Peace and Love, with the additions of D. Sabela Grimes, whose urban poetry introduced darker images of conflict. Grimes is well known here in Los Angles for collaborations with the Groovaloos. His I walk around with a bullet on my tongue monologue played as somber leavening to the generally upbeat, athletic movement on stage. He spoke from a downstage gobo of light, adding to the poetry his personal brand of loose limbed gesture. Also effective was the slow motion choreography for the ballad excerpt from Harris’ Bohemian Rhapsody set to music by Queen. It was the one piece that offered a temporary oasis among the pulsing dance grooves and percussive scores that dominated the evening’s works.
The Act II ensemble piece 110th Street (concept by Rodney Hill) begins with a long preamble of street and traffic sounds. The dancers cross the stage feigning chance encounters before the score launches into Bobby Womack’s music from the iconic 70’s era film, Across 110thStreet. The choreography played out in a series of solos and unison sections. RHAW’s dancers proved remarkable in these sections, reigning in the frantic footwork and making it understandable. Technical problems with the sound made for false starts for the last two pieces in Act II. The program closed with the high spirits of R.H.A.W. Hip Hop, set to Michael Jackson’s JAM. The collaborative choreography was by Harris, Rodney Hill, Brian Newby and Brandyn Harris.
This is a company with broad appeal. Harris reaches beyond stand-alone concert work with his respect for the hip hop culture and his mission to give his company a sense of place, history and a role in education. They also happen to be phenomenal dancers. Dominating much of the action on Saturday was Shafeek Westbrook who remained juiced and charmed the audience all evening long with extraordinary speed and athleticism. The evening’s final statement was left to Peter Rodriguez who closes Jam spinning on his head before whipping the turns and collapsing as the stage goes dark. It was a fitting metaphor for RHAW, who had danced tirelessly in 11 works, and wound out their saga on the big stage. In the end, there was nothing more to say.
(Rennie Harris RHAW will be performing at The New Victory Theater in New York, May 17th through the 26th. Check The New Victory Theater website for tickets and details. Please scroll to May for the calendar listing.)
1st photo by Brian Mangini