New York Times Review: Rennie Harris PUREMOVEMENT

Gia Kourlas, The New York Times 1/31/14

For a Silky Hip-Hop Romeo, a Juliet of His Own Making

The beloved hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris returned to the Joyce Theater for the first time in 10 years on Tuesday night, and the two-hour program — even one frustratingly made up of older dances and excerpts — was worth the wait. The prolific Mr. Harris works like a fiend. To all the nervous producers in the world: it’s O.K. to take a chance on Mr. Harris’s sophisticated view of hip-hop. We could have handled something new, something untested.

Still, seeing so much of Mr. Harris’s handiwork in one night, especially performed by his PUREMOVEMENT company, was a gift. (It was ours, even though the occasion marked Mr. Harris’s 50th birthday.) The centerpiece was a restaging of “Rome & Jewels,” the Bessie Award-winning production by Mr. Harris that transfers “Romeo and Juliet” to the world of hip-hop, a place where Shakespeare, “West Side Story” and even “The Warriors” converge.

For this version, Mr. Harris has taken out monologues and tightened dance sections. Rodney Mason, reprising his original part, plays Rome with a wizened vulnerability that is both bracing and wistful. As before, no woman plays Jewels; in a haunting touch, she remains invisible.

When Rome first notices Jewels and tries to pick her up, he uses his hand — holding it in front of his face like a mirror — to serve as her face. As his sweet-talking grows more insistent, he leans in for a kiss only, in the end, to have his hand swirl past his face. In that instant, you realize that Jewels is a different sort of girl from what he’s used to.

While Rome’s Hip-Hop Family appears in black — the ubiquitous urban uniform — Jewels’s B-Boy Family wears red and white. That group looks like a dance team, and their unison movement, while still full of power, is more contained and less frenetic than that of the Hip-Hop Family, whose dancers seem to pull their aggression from deep in the floor and shoot it outward like sprays of fireworks.

Mr. Harris’s rendition of the “Dance at the Gym” in “West Side Story” is a battle of moves and their textural differences. This is where the story ends, with a stage littered with bodies. Here, the daring absence of a physical Jewels and what she represents becomes profound. For Rome, she is an escape from his exhausting mode of everyday survival; Mr. Harris’s parable is a timeless foray into the imagination.

In the evening’s other works, “P-Funk,” “Continuum,” “March of the Antmen” and “Students of the Asphalt Jungle,” Mr. Harris shows his razor eye for threading virtuosic moves — the back flips, the aerials, the head spins, oh my! — into a tapestry of elegantly fluid popping and locking or simple walking patterns.

The dancers, phenomenal, are so individual that it’s painful to single out only a few, but here goes: Kyle Clark, lanky and relaxed, waits for the beat and then lets it wash over him. Dinita Clark, especially in the war-inspired “March of the Antmen,” is fearless and feminine. And two winning virtuosos are Joshua Culbreath, whose headstand into a backbend — a hollow-back, when the legs reach parallel to the floor — and Shafeek Westbrook, a dancer seemingly without a semblance of gravity. Still, Mr. Harris’s choreography is never about tricks: his dances, as always, are about the spectacle of atmosphere.

See the full New York Times dance review here.

Rennie Harris PUREMOVEMENT is on stage at the Ordway on February 7 at 7:30pm.

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