Rennie Harris Puremovement photo by Bob Emmott
If art can be salvific, we are desperately in need of it now, and Rennie Harris’s Facing Mekka presents an alternative and compassionate vision for this troubled world.
Concerned that our culture lacks rights of passage, in this work Harris brings us together to experience celebration and mourning, and to provide us the means to heal if we will take it. At a preview showing of Facing Mekka, a viewer told Harris that the dance was actually a prayer, and it is a description that Harris has embraced. With its sense of ritual celebration, meditation, and catharsis the work is indeed incantatory. While hip hop is usually thought of as the most secular of enterprises as it has developed in commercial culture, Harris is interested in the latent spiritual dimensions of this form, which traces its roots to an African lineage that acknowledges movement as a form of spiritual quest. And it is to this idea of hip hop that Harris has devoted his life as an artist.
We are, all of us, global citizens—a fact that before the events of September 11, 2001 seemed to many Americans a more benign fact than it does today. Harris sees other kinds of dangers, however, in withdrawing from our contacts with others, believing that our choice of response should be to cleave more closely together rather than to withdraw in fear and hatred. In Facing Mekka, Harris provides an opportunity to do just this by taking us on a kinesthetic and musical journey through the art of other cultures. For if art is an embodiment of deeply-held values and beliefs, then it represents a particularly opportune way for us to know each other. And with dance, in particular, we are—as the Native American saying goes—walking in others’ shoes, moving like them, feeling quite literally what it is like to be them. It is certainly more difficult to hate and fear those whom we can know in such a profoundly intimate way. Facing Mekka is a work that aims to break down preconceptions and stereotypes about others, and to open up our own hearts to the unfamiliar. Harris points out that when we say that we don’t like someone or something, we are actually saying more about ourselves than about what we say we don’t like. We are, in fact revealing our smallness—the paltriness of our experiences and the puniness of our spirits. The novelist Jeanette Winterson has described art as “aerobic.” By this she means to metaphorically suggest, of course, that art makes our hearts stronger. And with this work, Harris has provided us with art that we can breathe in with great life-sustaining gulps.
Facing Mekka is an epic journey through world cultures, its landscape composed of the movement and music of peoples across the globe. Africa and the Diaspora are much in evidence, but the work also includes rhythms and dances from every inhabited continent. While it is a celebration of the variety of rhythmic expression, it is ultimately an expedition to find the commonalties within that phrasing. This is not an anthropological assemblage but an artistic one. Rather than engage in reconstructive research, Harris made the decision to draw on his own memory and experiences for the movement material in acknowledgement of the way that acculturation actually takes place. While the work is pan-cultural, it is firmly rooted in Harris’s home soil of hip hop. But Harris finds this cultural outreach a natural extension of his lingua franca because he asserts that hip hop, which represents an amalgam of cultural influences, has always represented “common ground.”
Indeed, the esteemed art historian Robert Farris Thompson has established that hip hop represents the confluence of at least five distinct cultures of the Black Atlantic that were vibrant in the South Bronx when hip hop was gestating there in the 1970s: Afro-Barbadian, Afro-Jamaican, Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, and North American funk. As b-boying (which became popularly known as break dancing) was emerging on the East Coast, electric boogaloo and popping were coming out of Fresno and Los Angeles. All of these unique diasporan cultures share African retentions that formed the bones of hip hop, just as they have provided the skeletal structures for all previous American vernacular styles. But there are significant influences from other cultures as well. With the popularity of Bruce Lee films in the ‘70s, the precision and dynamic movement of Asian martial arts were also absorbed, as well as, some have suggested, the floorwork of capoeira, the Angolan/Brazilian martial art form. (Capoeiristas were just beginning to make their presence felt in New York.) Harris also says that, while growing up in Philadelphia, he and his friends were consuming old dance films to sample the steps and the styles of Hollywood, which would themselves have been amalgams of everything from tap, ballet, jazz, precision chorus line, acrobatics, “eccentric dancing”—even bharata natyam— and so on. In other words, the inventiveness of hip hop dance, like hip hop music, resides in the way that older, unrelated forms have been sampled, mixed, and altered.
In Facing Mekka Harris has taken a huge creative leap, challenging himself to venture into unfamiliar territory. Harris views his work as a vehicle for exploring the profound questions of life, and his choreography is testimony to that process, charting the struggle and excitement of that journey. In this work, Harris experiments with familiar hip hop vocabulary by extending its usual range. But for Harris, “extending” hip hop means expanding the possibilities for the form to achieve meaning, depth, and significance, rather than to simply increase its physical thrills and acrobatics. For all the visceral excitement inherent in this work, Harris’s interest in aerobics, like Winterson’s, resides in lifting spiritual weights rather than in pumping iron.
The journey in Facing Mekka is a tour of the cultural globe but it is also about the inner landscape. All of Harris’s works have had some element of spiritual autobiography or pilgrimage. Beginning with Endangered Species (1994), the extraordinary solo in which he comes to grips with the life the streets were preparing for him; through Students of the Asphalt Jungle and P-Funk (1995), paeans to the redemptive power of movement and rhythm; to March of the Antmen (1997), a chronicle of a struggle for survival, Harris’s choreography has charted not only where he was but where he has wanted to go. In his previous evening-length work, Rome and Jewels (2000), which was a hip-hop recasting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the protagonist found that love provided an opening towards a spiritual journey, but it was a journey that was aborted when Rome found himself unable to escape the parochial claims of a culture steeped in chaos, violence, and machismo. Harris described himself then as standing like Rome, with “one foot in the street, and one foot in the universe.” In Facing Mekka, it seems that Harris has left behind his straddling stance. Having arrived at that place to which these other works have pointed, Harris guides us away from the distractions of the external world to a confrontation with the deeper questions. As a child of the African Diaspora, Harris does this through movement—movement that is polyrhythmic and syncopated, in which the joints are flexed and there is close contact with the floor, in which the voices of the singers and the sounds of the instruments seem to take up residence in the bones of the dancers, in which the torso is positively symphonic in its articulations—all in a community of dancers collaborating in the ritual installation of something unseen but palpable.For those familiar with Harris’s previous work, Facing Mekka presents a radical shift in the gender dynamics of the choreography. Just as he was interested in exploring movement from unfamiliar cultures, Harris has challenged himself to cross the gender divide with the goal of having men and women acknowledge each others’ life experiences. Because hip hop is often suffused with machismo, Harris recognized that in order to truly create community, he would have to consciously undercut that inclination. Where Harris’s previous dances have centered on more aggressive movement styles and masculine tendencies, this work turns its focus toward the women. To achieve this, Harris stretched himself to see outside of his own perspective and to think outside of his own experience as he studied the ways in which the female members of his cast move. He then devised choreography that would support and acknowledge this more subtle and lyrical style. But Harris did not stop there. He also asked the males to move within this same range in order to put them in places they had not been before as dancers. In keeping with the philosophy undergirding the work, however, he also asked the women to learn more traditionally masculine floorwork and to move, at times, with a more forceful and percussive dynamic style.
The work culminates in an extraordinary solo “Lorenzo’s Oil”—Lorenzo is Harris’s given name—in which he experiments with stretching and elongating popping, the style of hip hop dance in which he specializes. In fact, Harris is seeking out connections here between popping and butoh, a post-World War II Japanese contemporary dance form, often featuring bodily distortion and extremely protracted time, that aimed at capturing the spiritual essence of that culture. While these two forms might seem to have little to do with each other at first glance, Harris is interested here, as he is throughout this work, in looking past external differences to find deeper commonalties. Harris talks about popping as a particularly “internal” dance form, and butoh is also concerned with the interior world. Harris acknowledges that popping has been, for him, an arena for working out pain, and butoh has alternatively been called “dance of darkness.” Moreover, both are nuanced forms requiring an exquisite sensitivity to subtleties. (Harris speaks of “being alive to the current of air in the room” as he performs.) The result is that, in eschewing its more spectacular and aggressive aspects, Harris seems to uncover the essence of popping.
In addressing itself to the fractured state of our world, Facing Mekka throws down a gauntlet that challenges us to choose our responses with active and evolved consciences: to develop empathy for each other, to return anger with love, to counter the horrific with the beautiful, to get past fear and embrace other people. In this work, Harris challenges us to look again at how we might see—truly see—other people of the world with compassion and fellowship. In suggesting that we face Mekka, Harris is really asking that we face ourselves.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2004