Boldness and sorrow: Rennie Harris Puremovement.
By Mae G. Banner
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.