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Fighting for Life

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Rennie Harris PureMovement

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, February 26-March 1

By Laura Molzahn

When the members of Rennie Harris Pure-Movement dance, they're preparing for battle. This isn't metaphor but plain fact, given the history and current circumstances of hip-hop dance. But fortunately the dancers aren't locked into a narrow, militaristic mind-set. Rather, because they define martial preparedness so broadly, they can give their dancing humor, femininity, and deep humility--qualities not usually associated with the army.

You can see the warlike roots of hip-hop in the dancer's very stance: legs wide, arms pushed and pulled or extended to make the body as big as possible, transforming it into a giant X. The rhythmic pumping of the legs from side to side or front to back establishes the dancer's control and strength, as well as his stamina in maintaining a demanding pace. Hopping and leapfrogging push-ups might have come directly from boot camp, though they're probably too difficult for most recruits. Moving the feet in complicated rhythms shows mental and physical agility. And some movements come directly from earlier African or African-American forms: windmill arms as the legs drive hard into the floor and rebound come from Senegal, while a motion in which the knee is brought up, then jerked to the side, is common in Afro-Caribbean dance.

But the most obvious predecessor of hip-hop is the Brazilian martial-arts form capoeira, in which the dancer-warrior proves his strength and agility with slow-motion dives into the floor, flips, somersaults, and other seemingly magical inversions of the usual upright posture. When a hip-hop dancer twirls on his shoulders or head, he's imitating the style and underlying impulse, if not the exact form, of capoeira. The point seems to be to fuck with observers' minds--perfectly natural if you're trying to impress them with your superhuman powers.

Mind fucking also seems to lie behind the feints and jabs of hip-hop dance, as a stance with the feet close together and arms pulled in--a parody of prissy self-containment--explodes into a somersault or other athletic feat. Hip thrusts and pelvic undulations that might be interpreted as feminine establish the dancer's flexibility, control, and sexual potency, the source of his strength and energy. Facial expressions and gestures that silently beg for applause and approval come across as comic largesse from athletes talented and confident enough to make themselves slightly ridiculous. And sometimes Harris and his dancers just seem to be having fun, as when Harris, exiting with a line of other dancers, hauls himself offstage with a hand-over-hand motion on an invisible rope.

More deeply buried in hip-hop is humility based on belief in a higher power. Behind all the preening and showing off lies the knowledge that one's gifts and actions are God given. When it comes time for one dancer in the program's final piece, Students of the Asphalt Jungle, to undertake a gravity-defying whirl on his head, he first kisses the earth and sky, asking for the divine blessing he needs for this feat. When Harris performs a solo during the evening's second piece, Endangered Species, his vibrating, robotic motions recall not only the strobe lights and cinematic violence of modern times but also the way a dancer in African and African-American rites is possessed by the gods. Harris is no longer himself, just as his text for this piece--which covers a wide range of viewpoints and experiences--is not just about him.

The serious underpinnings of this sometimes lighthearted form have been trivialized, however, by commercial exploitation, as hip-hop has been used to sell everything from rock stars to clothing. So it's not surprising that PureMovement's evening of dance is laden with somewhat heavy-handed reminders of this style's grim context: the life-threatening conditions of urban ghettos. Slides, monologues, videotape, music, and mimed gunfights hammer home the fact that a warlike setting gave birth to this form, explaining its martial origins and justifying its continuation. Unfortunately PureMovement's characterization of life in the inner city is overly familiar: people who are abused abuse others, the gun culture is so pervasive as to be inescapable, gangs provide a dangerous refuge of sorts. No new insights here. The alternately spoken and recorded commentary is also all over the map: the wide-ranging sensibilities that enliven the dancing sometimes make the text seem disconnected and incoherent.

Of course PureMovement's implicit message is that violence--especially black-on-black violence--must cease. And it's hard to disagree with either their assessment of inner-city life or their humanistic conclusion without sounding like a hard-core racist. Still, there's too much celebration in the company's dancing for us to completely buy the idea that it's a by-product of a culture that must be eliminated. In fact PureMovement's cliche-ridden, culturally specific message flattens the dancing and muddies the universality of its impact. It's as if liberal white culture--a culture perhaps epitomized by the Museum of Contemporary Art and the MacArthur Foundation, which underwrote this production--has infected PureMovement with its do-good zeal. Why must we have a sociological reason to put hip-hop onstage? The whole thing smacks of the cleaned-up "entertainments" slaves put on at the big house at the master's request.

Celebration lies at the core of hip-hop dance and gives it its vitality. That's why audiences of all races love to watch it--or do it, if they can. What PureMovement, the MCA, and the MacArthur Foundation forget is that suffering is not confined to the ghetto. Death stalks all of us. And in that sense the warriors of Rennie Harris PureMovement are symbolic: we all need our champions, our strong, cheerful, buoyant young soldiers--our charms against human weakness and untimely death.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Bob Emmott.

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