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Hip-Hop's Dynamic New Stage

Harris, Joseph Meld Spoken-Word, Dance Into a Fresh, if Raw, Art Form

By Clare Croft
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page N05

The line between social and concert dance has never been firm. Modern choreographer Helen Tamiris borrowed from African American culture to create her 1927 "Negro Spirituals." Russian-born George Balanchine incorporated elements of western square dancing into his 1957 ballet "Square Dance." Only late in the 20th century did the practitioners of social dance forms get frequent opportunities to bring their own art to the stage rather than having their dances interpreted by others. Now, social and ritual dance forms share space on stages usually reserved for ballet and Shakespeare. Hip-hop has benefited tremendously from this shift. Prominent presenters such as the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts Society include hip-hop artists in their programming.

In the coming weeks, Rennie Harris, 40, a founding father of hip-hop dance for the stage, will visit Washington twice; an emerging star, spoken-word poet and dancer Marc Bamuthi Joseph, 29, returns, having been featured in Dance Africa DC festivals. Next weekend WPAS presents Joseph in his "Word Becomes Flesh" at Dance Place, and on May 7 it will bring Harris's company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, to George Mason University's Center for the Arts to perform "Facing Mekka." April 23 at the Kennedy Center, Harris performs his solo "Endangered Species" as part of the Masters of African American Choreography series.

Members of Rennie Harris Puremovement in "Facing Mekka." The troupe will perform May 7 at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. (Bob Emmott -- Rennie Harris Puremovement)

Hip-hop in performance is not quite the same as its hallmarks in everyday culture: rapper 50 Cent on the radio and baggy pants on teenagers. Hip-hop theatrical artists strive to put other images of urban life alongside more commercial ones.

Most hip-hop on commercial radio "is meant for the kind of repetition and easy assimilation of very simple language that perpetuates the worst pillars of American sexism, classism and racism," says Joseph. "Hip-hop is so much broader than that. For those of us who grew up in and around hip-hop, hip-hop theater is an amazing avenue to speak to and about hip-hop in its language and to speak more insightfully about something other than the [night] club." Both Joseph and Harris tackle complex ideas in their works. Harris is best known for "Rome and Jewels," his retelling of "Romeo and Juliet." "Facing Mekka" -- originally conceived as a sequel to "Rome and Jewels," according to collaborator Darrin Ross -- loosely tells the story of a spiritual journey by setting a melange of street dance styles to live music, incorporating Middle Eastern and African sounds and a human beatbox. Joseph's "Word Becomes Flesh" also draws from several mediums, bringing together spoken word, tap, African and modern dance, and a live band. The work began as poems written by Joseph to his unborn son, exploring pregnancy from a father's perspective, but was expanded to include other issues concerning men: Joseph's relationship with his father and a year of unprecedented homicides among black men in Oakland, Calif., where Joseph lives.

"I kept wondering how many of those men left children behind," he says, "and how many of those men grew up without fathers themselves."

Hip-hop has always taken an unblinking look at its urban environs. At its inception in the Bronx in the early 1970s, on sidewalks and in city parks groups of breakdancers, known as b-boys, challenged other crews to battle, and DJs fought to outdo their peers' latest record-scratching wizardry. In the years after a 1971 gang truce, DJs such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash rose to prominence alongside b-boy crews, the most famous among them the Rock Steady crew, formed in 1977 as breakdancing reached new heights.

The dancers' public performances and subway cars covered in graffiti took hip-hop's message to the rest of the city. Championed by downtown artists, then featured in movies and on radio, hip-hop quickly became a global phenomenon.

Paralleling the rise of hip-hop has been its migration from the street to the stage, a shift led in dance by Harris. Raised in Philadelphia, Harris first drew attention at 14 as part of a Smithsonian Institution project documenting hip-hop as folklore. Moving into the professional dance realm with a group of other teenagers, he danced at local gigs, eventually opening for rap groups Run-DMC and the Fat Boys. Until 1991, he remained in the commercial arena, including working on the TV show "Dance Party USA." Then a seemingly random offer of $1,500 turned him toward theater.

"I wasn't getting no work, and someone called out of the blue with $1,500 for a commission," remembers Harris. "I created the repertory of Rennie Harris Puremovement as more or less a response."

"Endangered Species" was part of that response. In the solo, Harris, dressed in black and seen only in a dim spotlight, moves his limbs as though suffering isolated seizures all over his body. His recorded voice tells of his troubled, sometimes violent youth.

The innovation of "Endangered Species" springs neither solely from the street nor the stage but from how the stage frames the street movement. The solo employs "ticking," part of the robot-inspired West Coast street dance style called popping and locking.

"Having ticking reflect mental and emotional turmoil was a brilliant idea," says hip-hop historian Jeff Chang. "It recontextualizes the style. Ticking is all about precision, moving at minute fractions at a rapid speed like a CD were skipping. Rennie used it not to illustrate precision but to illustrate chaos."

In Joseph's work, words are as important as choreography. "Body language is subconscious," says Joseph. "Spoken language is the most literal manifestation of thought; it's most conscious. When you intersect the two, you communicate your ideas more fully."

The intersection manifests itself early in "Word Becomes Flesh." Joseph begins with a poem about his relationship with his father, a Haitian immigrant who questioned Joseph's love of tap dancing, afraid it's too "American." Joseph describes his frustration with his father via body and mouth. His right foot clad in Adidas beats out a frantic rhythm, his chest thrust forward with yearning as he shouts to his imagined father, "I'm blazin'! Pop! Pop! Can you see me?"

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