When Talent Isn’t Enough
The performers of Rennie Harris Pure Movement are an astonishing lot, and as the "Facing Mekka" opened Saturday night in the last of a three-night run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, I wondered when the audience would leap to its feet to join the pulse. They never did.
The pulse died.
It’s not the first time Puremovement has lost its way in a concept. From last year’s buzz, the word seemed to be that Harris had finally fixed the missteps of "Rome and Jewels"—his take on "Romeo and Juliet"—added women, and hammered together a unified evening of neo hip hop. Instead, the convolutions and miscues of Mekka became a cement anchor, the initial power of the evening drained away, and the program slowly sank.
What Harris and dozens of other choreographers are missing these days are mentors. Graham had Louis Horst, Limon had Humphrey, Wigman had von Laban, Cunningham had Cage. Harris needs his own alter ego to get him to shape the dance so it can talk to us not sporadically, as it did Saturday night, but consistently and thoroughly, and then transport us. But right now he doesn’t seem to trust movement enough as a language.
After an initial burst of African-inspired dancing, with all the dancers wearing red (to be followed by white and black), Harris ceded power to stunning visuals (John Abner and Theodore Harris), the evening’s themes (U.S. oppression, the power of prayer and Mecca), along with layered, often spine bouncing sound (designed by Darrin M. Ross). Forget the fact that the politics didn’t congeal and the use of ritual movement was untethered to an actual ceremony. Forget too the fact that the costume transitions didn’t enhance the ideas in the dance. There simply wasn’t enough dance. It was lurking. You could feel it. But Harris held back, especially for the men, who seemed almost aimless when they appeared and appeared infrequently. Did the impressionistic story he’d constructed seem to demand it? If it did, he should have gotten suspicious and dumped the story. He should have let the movement dictate "Mekka."
Ironically, there was enough talent on stage to fill a gold mine. The female dancers were wonderfully individual movers, each flavoring the movement to suit her, whether it was kicks steps and hop lunges (they look like dance steps from Senegal or Guinea set down on the streets of Philadelphia) or more straightforward hip hop moves. They were also preternaturally womanly. One small, compact dancer transmuted what in less competent limbs would read as fury into hungry sensual life force. A tall dancer with a reddish Afro had a lyrical, melancholic and unselfpitying depth in her angular body that was reminiscent of Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell of Ailey.
Then we got bare chested men playing—flipping, head spinning, scissor slicing with the muscular potency of Capoeristas and gymnasts. Late in the night, Harris performed slow, neo-hip-hop with a tender, almost obeisant air, like a witch doctor seeking a cure. Earlier, the women danced like machines to show the dehumanization of the culture. But everything remained in fragments and undigested. What is more, the sexes were disconcertingly divided. Admittedly this is an advance over having no women at all, but it’s a little too close to fundamentalist ideas of women for my comfort.
Kenny Muhammad, the group’s beat-box man, came close to stealing the show with nothing more than a microphone and his rhythmic genius, along with a capacity for improvisation, that seemed limitless. His set may have gone on too long, but Muhammad gave us the transcendent experience that the rest of the night refused to yield.
There is a well at the center of Mecca, and as the evening marched on, I kept waiting for the ensemble to finally break out and create their own source to match that well. I imagined the source coming from the power of the beat and the beauty of the dance, a power strong enough to urge the rest of us out of our seats. But it turned out "Facing Mekka"'s well was dry.
3, No. 5