The Exuberant Warrior Kings of 'Krumping'

Lil C and Tight Eyez in David LaChapelle's
Lil C and Tight Eyez in David LaChapelle's "Rize," about the new form of "ghetto ballet." (AP)

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By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 25, 2005

LOS ANGELES

It's a short drive from the buttery glow of the Chateau Marmont hotel above the Sunset Strip, where the fashion photographer David LaChapelle sips his pale green tea, to the True Workers of the Holy Trinity House of Prayer down in South Central, where the light is harsh, and so is life -- and where two young men, dancers named Dragon and Tight Eyez, hunker down beneath a mural depicting a black Christ.

"Might as well be another country," says LaChapelle, sprawled on a chair at the Marmont, talking about the South Central 'hood just a dozen miles down the road, where he filmed his first movie. "It's so segregated. I mean, nobody from here goes there. Why would they? Or, you know, that's what people here would say."

LaChapelle -- gay, white, rich, flamboyant, obsessed, product of the best art schools -- made the trip from the Strip down to South Central. He spent $500,000 of his own money, he says, and almost three years of weekends and days off from his work as a high-end fashion photographer and music video director (for Jennifer Lopez and Elton John and Britney Spears) to make his new hybrid documentary-musical, "Rize." The film opened in Washington and select cities Friday. LaChapelle says nobody -- not even his agent -- understood until they saw the film. "They wanted me to put movie stars in it," he says.

The critics are happy he did not. The film has gotten raves. It is about pure joy and raw rage, about a hip-hop dance style sired by a former drug dealer named Tommy the Clown, and transformed into "krumping," which is kind of like break dancing on fast-forward.

"The krump? You know when you see it," says Tight Eyez, whose real name is Ceasare Willis, one of the "Rize" subjects and an established master of the dance form, 20 years old now, with a bullet hole through his elbow from when he was shot by his grandfather while he was protecting his mother in a house brawl.

The interview with first-time director LaChapelle was at the Chateau Marmont, where he sighed, "Publicists are the bane of my existence." Later, Hilary Swank walked through the lobby.

A few hours earlier, the interview with Tight Eyez and Dragon took place at a storefront church, in a small room, with folding chairs and a simple altar, on a block of inner-city blight, with little left but barbershops, chicken joints, liquor stores and churches.

Krumpitude? "It's the power of the warrior unleashed," says Tight Eyez, under the Jesus mural.

In the film and in the interviews, krump is variously described as "ghetto ballet" and advanced "clown dancing." The movements -- the thrusts and pops -- are super-fast and in-your-face, and the dancers sometimes seem lost in an ecstatic, almost trancelike state, as if "a depth charge is exploding inside of them," LaChapelle says, like "they have something inside them they need to exorcise." (The film cuts to footage of African tribal dancing to make its point that krump's roots are Old World; and audiences, too, might see the similarities between the South Central form and Santeria and voodoo religious ritual dance in Cuba and Haiti.)

In some scenes, the krump resembles wrestling, with dancers of both sexes facing off in mock combat in the ring, or in more formal "Battle Zones," taunting each other, grabbing and pulling their shirts. "It's like two Siamese fighting fish," says Tight Eyez. "You put them in the same tank and they'll go after it."

The krump is nasty, and it's not. There's booty-popping -- a play on the "stripper dancing" done by topless acts at gentlemen's clubs -- but it is much more electric and frenzied, as if the dancer has been plugged into a 120-volt socket.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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