In the dance documentary "Rize," one of the young men who has given life to a new style of street dance known for its frenzied, impassioned posturing explains to the audience that this creativity will not be commercialized. Unlike break dancing, he says, these gracefully chaotic moves will not be sold off to the hip-hop establishment and used to enliven a Coke commercial, sell a pair of Nikes or make some rich but disaffected suburban preteen feel dangerously cool.
His is an earnest speech about maintaining the purity of a cultural phenomenon. But the fashion industry -- with its insatiable need to seek out innovation and sell it to anyone willing to max out his credit card -- is a Goliath of an opponent.
"Rize" was directed by the fashion photographer and music video creator David LaChapelle. (Several of the dancers already have careers as video extras.) The film is set in the neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles -- places where poverty, violence and despair are endemic. "Rize" is, in part, an anthropological study of the way in which that blighted community inspired a relatively lighthearted style of dance known as "clowning," which evolved into the more emotionally fraught "krumping."
Thomas Johnson, an amateur social worker and professional children's party entertainer known as Tommy the Clown, is credited with inventing clowning -- a spasmodic style of dance that incorporates the raunchy butt shimmying common in the shadowy world of chrome poles, G-strings and $5 bills. As his fame grew, Johnson realized he could use the lure of dance as an alternative to gangs and drugs. He quickly gained a following of clowning proteges.
Clowning begat krumping, which looks like a mixture of traditional African tribal dances, street fighting and the physical evocation of spiritual ecstasy. It is impossible not to compare the film with other movies that have brought a style -- break dancing, vogueing -- out of the shadows. And with the dance came the attendant aesthetic -- sneakers, white gloves, hyper-glamour -- ready to be borrowed, appropriated and diluted by the fashion industry.
In "Rize," the dancers paint their faces with markings that suggest warrior clowns. The look speaks directly to those feelings of terror one might have had as a small child forced to sit through a Ringling Bros. performance of clowns accosting first each other, and then the audience, with seltzer and rubber bats. Angry, threatening, gangsta clowns.
In order to execute their moves with ease, the men wear baggy jeans hanging low to reveal their boxer shorts, and oversize T-shirts. The women, too, often wear loose-fitting trousers or shorts with a bikini top. There is nothing new in what they wear. These clothes have already been gussied up, suburbanized and transformed into a fashion spread in countless magazines. The apparent cliches tempt one to prematurely toss these dancers onto a pile with break dancers and all of the crotch-grabbing, rump-shaking gyrators that have been spawned by hip-hop culture.
Through the dancing, however, the clothes are transformed into something unexpected, compelling and distinct. Those quadruple-XL T-shirts swirl around the men when they dance. Their body movements are so quick, punctuated with so many powerful thrusts and pops, that they risk leaving the clothes behind. The T-shirts flap in slow motion while the body moves in frantic, desperate fast-forward.
Although some of the performers adorn their shirts with graffiti expressing allegiance to a specific dance crew, most of them wear a plain white tee -- a flag of neutrality in a landscape controlled by rival gangs who lay claim to their turf in shades of red, blue and who knows what. Those pristine white shirts catch the breeze and float in the air like angel wings -- a rapturous flock of ghetto Gabriels on a decrepit slab of concrete.
It is not surprising that a dancer -- even a self-taught one -- is both muscular and lean. In the film, when those cheap T-shirts can no longer keep up with the male dancers, they are torn away in a sexually provocative bodice-ripping, a violent emergence of Hulk-like aggression, a spiritual conversion. The torso is stripped bare.
LaChapelle's film style -- like his fashion photography -- employs blindingly saturated colors. His sky is lapis. His dancers are a lush, glossy chocolate. The sweat on their limbs doesn't just glisten, it flashes white hot. LaChapelle transforms the dancers into a study of human musculature. With every roll of the body or snap of the chest, one can see the muscles engage and react.
The clown costumes and the urban youth uniform can't compete with the eloquence of the dance. The clothes don't speak; they muffle. And it's possible to believe -- if only for the duration of one hypnotic oceanside dance of anger, grief and bravado -- that this is one bit of street art that the fashion industry can't touch.
Some of the krump dancers who appear in "Rize" perform with Tommy the Clown -- who is credited with inventing clowning, which evolved into krumping -- at a party last month in Hollywood.