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Boldness and sorrow: Rennie Harris Puremovement.

Hiphop 4 Life
By Mae G. Banner

Rennie Harris Puremovement
The Egg, Feb. 13

The seven men of Rennie Harris Puremovement are founts of invention, steps ahead of the “cool- spotters” and MTV choreographers whose job it is to rip off original ideas from the street.

Harris, a choreographer, teacher and historian of hiphop culture, founded the group in 1992 in his home town of Philadelphia. He says hiphop is a mix of movement, music, fashion and language that the dancers use to tell a story on stage.

The story, straight from the streets of North Philly is one of boldness, creativity, physical beauty, sorrow, danger and pain. The men weave all these threads, plus touches of nonchalance and an acknowledgement of African origins, into a loose fabric that shimmers with bright designs.

In recent years, Harris has made full-evening dances, including Rome and Jewels (an all-male take on Romeo and Juliet) and Facing Mekka, a unification of African, Caribbean, and North American ways of moving. The group’s program last Friday at the Egg in Albany was drawn from their earliest repertory.

Note that the printed program always refers to the year of a dance’s “original conception,” implying that each dance keeps changing as new and old members keep inventing new moves. DJs, editors and composers are assiduously credited for their mixes, which include quotes from jazz, Latin, and classical music.

While these brief dances were less ambitious than Mekka, they were fresher. Continuum (1997) and the radio-driven P-Funk (1992) have the look of improvisation as each man steps out of the loose circle of brothers to perform his signature moves. Lumbering or rubbery, their feats are always astounding. The large audience, peppered with excited teenage kids, whooped at the display of handstands, headstands, belly- and backslides, lofting sets of cartwheels and somersaults.

Even the ensemble sequences, clearly not improvised, look spontaneous. The hiphop vocabulary of locking and popping, B-boy moves (mistakenly called break dancing), and fluid house-dancing, also takes freely from stepping, Brazilian capoeira, and the mutuality with individuality of West African dance circles.

Sweat and testosterone bind these dances together. The stories, implied or told outright, are of bands of homeboys who appreciate each other’s prowess, but are always on the watch for hostile invaders, whether those be rival gangs or the police.

Endangered Species, (1992) a solo with voice-over soliloquy, originally danced by Harris, was performed by Brandon Albright, known as Peace. Tall and powerful, he tempers his forbidding image with soft, slow, almost balletic movement. As the narrative voice tells of child molestation and early scars, Albright mimes the outrages of life in a racist society. He crashes to the floor, a child being beaten. At the word, “racism,” he points a finger to his temple like a gun. The story of abuse becomes an anti-gangsta rap that decries violence as two men enter to stand behind Albright, their arms extended like Christ on the cross. The narrator says, “I learned there are two things I can do in this world: stay black and die.” The dancer falls.

The second half of the program showed a pair of more elaborately choreographed group dances. In March of the Antmen (1992), urban guerrillas reconnoiter the stage, cradling invisible assault weapons. They step slowly, softly, wheeling, looking behind them for enemies. Another cadre crawls across the stage to the sound of a thudding bass. Slow-motion pops and locks dot passages of swaggering.

Whistles or gunshots punctuate the musical mix. A man falls. His brothers lift him to his feet and the antmen continue their soft march into the dark.

Students of the Asphalt Jungle (1992) was backed by a rap that gave credit to the inventors of specific hiphop moves, a practice that Harris has always insisted on.

The men, bare-chested and dressed alike in loose white pants, cross the stage, some from the right, others from the left. When each pair meets in the middle, they hug, partners. Students displays a spectacular array of unison moves, done to a fierce beat mixed by DJ Todd Damon and edited by composer-sound designer Darrin Ross.

We saw capoeira crouches, vigorous stepping, and group calisthenics, all fused with B-boy turns and popping pelvises. There were quick sit-downs and springing recoveries. There were leaps that created aerial pictographs.

Joyous somersaults and splits crashed in sudden falls that seemed to signify violent death. But, these dancers keep rising again, twisting, soaring, defying death.

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