Breaking out

Rennie Harris takes to the streets.

I know the calendar says that the year begins in January, but as far as I'm concerned the year starts in autumn, when the summer is over and we're all beginning new projects. That's certainly true for the dance community, and Bumbershoot is the opening salvo of the fall. It's a chance to check up on favorite companies and get a preview of the dancing we'll see during the rest of the season.

This year's lineup combines established local choreographers with emerging artists, as well as a return performance by Philadelphia's Rennie Harris Puremovement. Last spring Harris' company closed On the Boards' inaugural season in their Queen Anne space with a series of concerts that threatened to bring down the newly refurbished walls. Harris has managed a neat trick, bringing the energy of hip-hop into a theater setting without diluting its power. Locking, breaking, popping, Electric Boogie—these are dance styles that come from the clubs and the streets rather than the studios. Harris' early training was with street crews like the Magnificent Force, where dance is both a social activity and a performing art. A break-dancing session can seem like a long-running serial drama, with characters developing and interacting, challenging and defying each other, laying down dares and working it out in their dancing. Individuals emerge from the group, make their statement and return to the chorus—on one level the Greek dramatists would feel right at home in this configuration.

More recently Harris has been trying to tap into a personal and narrative vein, moving from the ad hoc drama of street performance to more scripted and structured work. Rome and Jewels, his take on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, uses the convention of the challenge dance to illustrate the tension between families that drives the original text. Mercutio's witty tongue is translated to physical fleetness, but he dies all the same. The dance, seen here as a work-in-progress last spring, still has difficulties (the dancers are not nearly as comfortable speaking their lines as they are dancing their parts), but in taking on such a work of the Western literary canon, Harris has done a brave and intriguing thing.

Most of the ensemble works for Harris' company trade on the huge kinesthetic rush we get from breaking, the excitement of seeing human beings spinning on their heads or cantilevered out in a horizontal handstand. Phrases usually end in some kind of extraordinary trick—they resolve themselves with virtuosity, and as the spotlight moves from person to person the stakes are continually raised. The result is a glorious thrill ride that has even the most staid of audiences whooping and hollering their appreciation at the end.

Check out our dance picks for Bumbershoot.

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