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Rewriting histories

Rennie Harris and Rebecca Rice
By DEBRA CASH  |  May 12, 2006

RENNIE HARRIS: Modern dance that’s not in Kansas anymore

Family histories are inextricably political. Rennie Harris knows the only two certainties of his life are that he has to “stay black and die.” Distinct fates flow from those two stark facts, whether you’re from the mean streets of Philadelphia, as he is, or you’re caught in the New Orleans Superdome without food, water, or a government that’s paying attention.

That’s why it makes sense — painful, smart, artistic, furious sense — that he’s now working on a project to expand the autobiographical solo Lorenzo’s Oil and elements of “Endangered Species” from his 2003 evening-length Facing Mekka. Prince Scare Krow’s Road to the Emerald City is threaded with scrapbook light-heartedness: projected photos of Harris as a seven- or eight-year-old flashing a peace sign; as a buff, sexy teen; and in a homemade video goofing with his buddies in a blaxploitation version of the opening sequence from his beloved West Side Story.

But the smiles fade when Harris begins his solo, trudging on stage as if pulled by one shuddering hand. The word “racism” is a knuckle gun blasting through his head. He uses every popping isolation in his arsenal to trace the path of a bullet ricocheting through the muscles, bones, and organs of a teenage victim. Harris’s grimaces are as extreme as the faces of a kabuki actor. They are also as intimate and immediate as the looks of fear and rage glimpsed on the faces of Katrina’s desperate survivors. Harris crafts a near-narrative dance language, fulfilling his aspiration to make hip-hop technique subtle enough to handle human meaning. It’s not clear what direction Prince Scare Krow will take as he amplifies his storytelling over time, but it’s safe to predict that the punch line will echo the immortal observation “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

There’s a similar if less compelling realism behind March of the Antmen, which was conceived at the conclusion of Bush père’s Gulf War and is now dismayingly pertinent to his son’s debacle in Iraq. Deployed troops, street gangs, and hip-hop crews share many similarities: tough-guy demeanor, fierce loyalty, and the awareness that at any random moment someone’s life could end. Here, Harris’s message is more obvious: war, and especially a war overwhelmingly fought by poor men of color, is hell. Nonetheless, Antmen is full of acute details: one grunt rolling a joint; the rhythmic precision of a foxhole crawl; agitated cursing from the men squashed into the cab of a Humvee.

Rennie Harris Puremovement teeters between Harris’s choreographic explorations and the kind of feel-good, virtuosic hip-hop show some audiences expect. (Might World Music’s CRASHarts have attracted fuller houses, even on one of the busiest dance weekends of the season, if it had explained that Harris wasn’t merely showcasing “traditional” hip-hop display but extending it with his political commitments?) P-Funk and Continuum represent that other side, with the Puremovement crew (Brady Hill, Rodney S. Hill, Sha-chon Kasey, Ryan Cliett, and the amazing Ron Wood) moving from top-rocking to capoeira-based power moves, showing style, having fun, and not incidentally making goofball jokes at one another’s expense. Puremovement presents hip-hop dancers who are grown men, not teenage phenoms — skilled professionals, not street geniuses. But the pleasures of Puremovement are that youth and the street are never left completely behind.

REBECCA RICE: Firmly anchored in the mid 20th century.

Rebecca Rice is a Boston-based choreographer with a very different personal history. Her grandmother, Marion Rice, performed with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in the early years of the 20th century, when the couple were inventing an American modernism ripe with mythic appropriation. Rice also studied with Bill Evans in Utah, at the Limón School, and with Cunningham dancer Viola Farber. Her aunt is Carolyn Brown, a famous Cunningham dancer of the same ’60s generation as Farber, and photographs of Brown (a dancer I never saw live) convey clarity and passion.

Rice’s Bank of America Celebrity Series performance at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center — a plum, and a gift the series gives back to the local dance community by showcasing the work of local artists alongside its A-list attractions — presented a repertory spanning almost 30 years. The earliest piece was from 1978; everything else was choreographed after 2000.

Rice’s æsthetic is firmly anchored in the mid 20th century. Her dancers are poised, not messy. Dissonance is a chance to indulge in some post-Balanchine foot flexing. Fall and recovery, the action at the center of Humphrey/Limón technique, creates a steady, metronomic pulse that pulls the dancers into some unspecified state of delight. Rice’s choreographic strategy is at its most refreshing when she throws in inversions — turns that go inward instead of out, arabesques that impel the dancers backward — but her repeated happy skips and smoothed-over turns grew eye-glazingly similar over the course of the evening.

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