By Rachel Levin
June 18, 2003
How do you listen to the body?
This seems to be the central question of acclaimed hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris' latest touring dance piece, "Facing Mekka."
Commercial hip-hop has been bringing the noise, so to speak, to mainstream audiences now for over twenty years. Increasingly, loud-mouthed rappers and flashy acrobatic dancers dominate our visual and aural perceptions of hip-hop.
But it wasn't always like this. Harris, 38, who founded the Puremovement Dance Company in his hometown of Philadelphia, reminds us that it used to be the dancers, not the MCs, that were out front in hip-hop performances.
In "Facing Mekka," Harris has endeavored to steer hip-hop back to its calmer spiritual and African roots, in which dance is always a sacred expression to the gods. The performance, which opened in April on the West Coast and continues to make its way to the East, gives audiences the opportunity to truly listen to the body.
Whereas commercial hip-hop dance is all too often a kind of party of energetic movement with the aim to entertain, what Harris calls a "celebration without knowledge," "Facing Mekka" begins on a more inward, spiritual note. As the title suggests, every performance opens facing the holy Muslim city of Mecca. This orientation toward Mecca is a challenge for the dancers, since the direction of all the choreography changes depending on which way each theater is situated.
The first group of dancers is all women, dressed in Adidas-inspired sportswear in earthy dark green and orange, a clever cross between hip-hop fashion and African native dress. The colors of their costumes augment the earthward orientation of their movement, an inseparable fusion of urban American street dance and African spiritual dance. Each twist and turn of the dancers' hips is small but powerful, reminding the audience that big and showy is not always better—and not always hip-hop.
While each dancer executes approximately the same movement at the same time, each individual looks different. This is not an 'NSync video in which the dancers are coordinated with military precision. Harris reminds us that true hip-hop dancers are choreographers in their own right: first they are self-trained, and only then do they learn how to dance with an ensemble. Commercial hip-hop dance that de-emphasizes each dancer's individuality veers completely from the essence of hip-hop.
As the women's opening piece ends, a black box of netting descends from above, and the women are caught in its clutches. This representation of working within limits and boundaries is accompanied by the mechanical sounds of factories and machines, a reminder that the spirituality of Africa has given way to the difficulties of African dispersion and modern industrial experience. The combination of these two worlds, after all, has yielded the sounds of hip-hop music: African rhythms combined with mechanized beats and drums, a response to social limitations within a culture historically hostile to African Americans.
The next group of dancers to enter is all male: shirtless with baggy pants and bandana head wraps. They swagger in with a decided gangsta lean, in painstakingly slow motion, like animated characters. Their specialty is b-boying (which is often incorrectly labeled break dancing): a display of acrobatic head spinning and other gravity-defying moves. The background music is haunting, and a live singer punctuates it with Arabic chants. This is no mindless party.
The groups of dancers alternate between all men and all women; rarely do the two genders appear on stage together, and they never interact. Harris explained that when choreographing the piece, he thought of the men as the support for the energy of the show—as the tires of this hip-hop vehicle—and the women as the drivers. For them to dance together would have changed the dynamics of the piece. Although his classes in Philadelphia are dominated by women, directing women in one of his performances was new for Harris. His last touring piece, "Rome and Jewels," a hip-hop adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, included no female dancers…not even Jewels. The Jewels character never appeared on stage; her presence was conjured out of thin air by Rome. Harris defended his male-dominated past performances as providing positive role models for boys, who need to know that it is OK for men to be up there dancing.
Harris performs his own solo in "Facing Mekka," a piece he calls "Lorenzo's Oil." It is a combination of popping, locking, and Butoh-like dancing. Oddly, Harris' solo is the most showy and energetic of the whole performance, which seems contradictory to his goals of showcasing smaller movements divorced from mere spectacle. Still, the interior spirituality of Harris' character is convincingly communicated; you get the sense of an individual spontaneously struggling with himself.
One of the highlights of the show was not a dancer at all, but a singer: human beat-boxer Kenny Muhammad. His manipulation of lips, tongue, teeth, and throat yielded a delightful and surprising array of sounds that one would only assume possible by an electronic drum machine. Once again, "Facing Mekka" distills hip-hop to its purest human element.
"Facing Mekka" seems to come at precisely the right time, just when hip-hop is really being defined. Too often lately, Harris says, hip-hop movement is equated with Fosse-style jazz, and both the origins of hip-hop movement and the pioneers who created it are not being properly acknowledged. In the service of remembering, Harris' Puremovement company puts on the annual hip-hop dance festival, Illadelph Legends Tribute, every summer in Philly. The festival includes classes with the masters, in every style under the umbrella of hip-hop from electric boogaloo to b-boying.
If you can't make it all the way to Philly, then be sure not to miss "Facing Mekka" when it comes through your hometown. All you have to do is listen.
For details/touring schedule, see the Puremovement website at www.puremovement.net