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Dancing of the Street
By Mae G. Banner

Rennie Harris, Facing Mekka
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Mass., July 20

Rennie Harris dances unspeak-able anger and pain.

In his newest full-length work, Facing Mekka, presented last week at Jacob’s Pillow, Harris brings together multiple elements of hiphop culture: B-boy and house dancers, capoeiristas, and a world-music ensemble that includes congas, tabla, cello, and DJ scratches and beats—all part of an unending journey that traces the African diaspora, yet seeks a present connection with the music and movement of many cultures.

The procession of song and dance unreels before a screen on which scenes of sadness and horror are dimly projected: marching soldiers, a burning house, an African woman with one tear like a giant raindrop rolling down her cheek. The starting and ending image, a bitter logo, is a photo of the White House, upside down. These images don’t distract from the dancing, but deepen the emotions the action arouses.

Harris, now 39, began dancing as a youth on the streets of his native Philadelphia. He has become a champion of hiphop culture, founding Rennie Harris Puremovement in 1992 to preserve and disseminate the culture through teaching, workshops and performance.

He is convinced that “street” dancing can be reshaped as a powerful theatrical experience without losing its spontaneity or its urgency.

A few years ago, Harris’s dancers and rappers—all men—performed at the Egg in Albany. Their work was a fierce mourning for young men shot down on the streets of Philadelphia. Harris went on to make Rome and Jewels, a hiphop restatement of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, that focused on the gang war between the Caps and the Monster Q’s. Still, no women took the stage. Instead, the beloved Jewels was treated as an ideal in Rome’s mind.

Facing Mekka includes a group of five women dancers in red. They served as soul coolers, calming the waters after passages of valiant action by solo male dancers. Almost invariably, the women danced as a unit, their African-based moves clearly choreographed. In one lovely section, their undulating torsos are matched by what sounds like water music, while flowing water is projected on the screen behind them.

In contrast to the women’s patterned ensemble sections, the men strike out one by one, each performing improvised feats: barrel turns in the air, cartwheels, spins on their heads or on one shoulder. One man moved through on his back, using his hands to slide across the stage.

Dave Austin, the house dancer, was a long, lean viper in red, keeping low to the ground, dancing on his belly or his back, while the women held the center stage with jump-turns.

A pair of capoeiristas met, grasped hands in formal battle, and touched each other’s shoulders to part.

Solo turns were not limited to the dancers. Singer-cellist Grisha Coleman sang of deep sorrow, her voice diverted through the synthesizer of DJ Evil Tracy (Tracy Thomas). Philip Hamilton, who often composes music for modern-dance troupes, performed a tour de force of mouth music, hissing and hawking into the microphone. This was fervent preaching with throat-locked sounds, not words—a prophetic warning of disaster.

Tabla player Lenny Seidman soothed the air with a delicate, polyrhythmic solo on a set of five or six tuned drums, using his fingers, elbows and the side of his hand to vary the textures, and singing the beats in East Indian fashion.

The form of Facing Mekka, a string of self-contained passages that mostly moved horizontally across the stage, might be a distant cousin of a nightclub variety show. What makes it theater is its serious subject and the intensity of the performers’ common focus.

Harris himself appears, acting as a thread that binds together the disparate actions. We see him as an old man in white robes, moving slowly behind the dancers or standing solemnly to observe them.

In his final solo, called Lorenzo’s Oil, Harris is a grieving monster. Bent-backed, and now in black, he creeps and stumbles through a dancing group, his head hanging, his long dreadlocks covering his face.

Dancing before projections of a burning house, Harris’ body shrieks. His robotic spasms (popping, but stretched into Japanese Butoh-like freezes) speak of unspeakable pain. He kneels, then gets to his feet, bedeviled, shuddering, sobbing, looking right at us.

We hear a traditional song, “Sun, Come and Wash Away the Rain.” We see the upside-down White House next to an image of an African youth wearing a breathing mask. Harris paces and sobs. There is no redemption, yet.

Great Lakes

New York City Ballet
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 15-19

It takes a big company to do Swan Lake. The New York City Ballet—with 88 dancers, a 79-piece orchestra, and ambition to spare—is one of the few companies in the world that could mount this monumental story dance.

Swan Lake dominated week two of NYCB’s current run at SPAC. The biggest and best-known of Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous ballet scores, it drew the largest audiences so far this season: about 2500 people last Wednesday (July 16) and nearly as many on Thursday. Peter Martins restaged the 19th-century Russian classic, compressing its four acts into two, yet managing to retain original choreographic elements from Marius Petipa (the lake scenes) and Lev Ivanov (the palace revels), as well as passages from George Balanchine’s distillation of the encounter between the prince and Odette.

Martins’ staging premiered at the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996 and then at Lincoln Center and SPAC in 1999. We haven’t seen it since then.

The essentials are here, including the devilish set of fouettes (whipping steps) by Odile and the adorable dance of the four baby swans, done well on Wednesday and perfectly on Thursday.

Clipped, the story gains in intensity. Maria Kowroski, stepping in for the slightly injured Wendy Whelan, ruled the stage Wednesday in the double role of Odette/Odile. As the white swan, under a sorcerer’s spell that can be lifted only when a prince swears true love, Kowroski was proud, with big, bold extensions. She was magnificent even in her fearfulness, and poignant in her sorrow when Prince Siegfried betrayed her.

As the black swan Odile, Kowroski was cold and dangerous, a seductive deceiver. Where Odette’s bourees were delicate, Odile’s were strong, and led unerringly to her powerful execution of the famous fouettes that stirred a deep current across the stage.

Philip Neal, replacing Damian Woetzel on Wednesday, was a complex Siegfried. He conveyed a range of emotions through pure dance and gesture, never emoting and always clear. He is one of NYCB’s most polished and intelligent dancers and an ideal partner who deserves to be better recognized.

In his romantic duet with Odette, Neal devours the stage with side leg-beats and jump turns. He lifts her high, as if proclaiming her the love of his life.

Later, at his birthday celebration in the palace ballroom, the prince is duped by the sorcerer Von Rotbart (a menacing Albert Evans in a fiery orange cloak) who passes off his seductive daughter Odile as Odette. Smitten with the black swan, the prince swears his love to her. Instantly, to thunderous music, he sees a vision of Odette and realizes his disastrous mistake.

He rushes to the lake. Together, he and Odette face down Von Rotbart, who falls, vanquished. But, it is too late to break the spell. Odette will remain a swan forever. The prince sinks to the ground, desolate.

On Thursday night, Jennie Somogyi triumphed as Odette/Odile, winning cries of “brava” for her passionate performance. In the second-act divertissements, Yvonne Boree and Albert Evans gave the Russian dance an orgasmic intensity that out-seethed the sensuous Hungarian czardas danced in black boots by Rachel Rutherford and Jason Fowler.

Tom Gold was a nimble, comedic jester on Wednesday. Thursday’s Daniel Ulbricht was not as funny, but jumped much higher. In what served as a controlled experiment, Benjamin Millepied and Sebastien Marcovici, both exciting dancers, traded roles as the prince’s friend Benno and leader of the sparkling second-act quartet. Slim-hipped Millepied, built like an inverted triangle, made a perfect leader of the quartet, while Marcovici, chunkier, with thicker thighs, looked best as Benno.

When Swan Lake wasn’t thrilling the crowds, the SPAC audience enjoyed Balanchine’s bubbly Donizetti Variations, (1960) a harmonious frolic led by Miranda Weese and Damian Woetzel, and the master choreographer’s Symphony in Three Movements, (1972) an athletic visualization of Stravinsky’s music with an elastic central duet by Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto. Both dances were refreshing antidotes to the lushness of the blockbuster narrative dance—Donizetti for its effervescence and Symphony for its mix of Olympian prowess and Broadway pizzazz.

The Ballet Gala on Saturday (July 19) featured the only appearance this season by Kyra Nichols, who led Balanchine’s forceful Walpurgisnacht (1980) with Neal as her dynamic partner. Nichols, the doyenne of the company, danced with her usual aplomb, making every phrase count.

We also saw two Saratoga premieres: Liturgy, Christopher Wheeldon’s fluid, faux-Egyptian duet for Whelan and Soto, set to spare music of Arvo Part; and Martins’ Thou Swell, a tasteless but lavishly costumed ballroom contest for four couples in an Art Deco club, where the women are flung about to a dozen songs by Rodgers and Hart.

Wheeldon, NYCB’s resident choreographer, creates shapes that look like hieroglyphs as seen through the eyes of a Victorian-era British explorer. He keeps the dance contained, almost polite, working in an orderly way through a set of evermore complex moves for arms, hands, and heads, and finally, for enwrapped bodies. At one point, Whelan stretches out across Soto’s knees like a length of rolled dough on a table, then bends at the waist to fold exactly in half. Finally, they stand where they began, rooted at center stage, Soto close behind Whelan. They tilt their heads, bend their elbows in to make a V, and, with flexed wrists, cup their chins with their hands. It’s exotic, but tamed.

For a dance, Thou Swell was a great fashion show. The expensive-looking women’s ballgowns by Julius Lumsden and shoes by Manolo Blahnik mirrored the party clothes of the Gala audience.

But, oh, the choreography. Peter Martins put four couples through some awkward, even agonizing lifts and gropes, making the best dancers look tacky. You would think, with the smooth and sparkling models of showbiz and ballroom-style ballets in NYCB’s repertory (Balanchine’s Who Cares? to Gershwin; Jerome Robbins’ I’m Old Fashioned, a gloss on Fred Astaire), that Martins might have learned how it’s done. Not so.

There were redeeming passages, notably Kowroski’s long-legged duets with Charles Askegard, James Fayette’s caring partnership with a choreographically maligned Jenifer Ringer, and a romantic duet by Soto and Darci Kistler to “Falling in Love with Love.”

A three-piece onstage jazz combo and two excellent but over-miked singers provided the music, but couldn’t save the dance. Maybe the company could retire it and have a benefit auction of the dresses.

—Mae G. Banner


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