Hip hoppers have been paying tribute to kung fu since the Ming Dynasty, but it's the rare performer who draws from the postwar Japanese form of butoh. Yet that's just what Rennie Harris does as he moves through rows of still dancers. Dressed in loose black clothing, his limbs and torso slowly contorting, then rhythmically waving, Harris signals a convergence of traditions and ideas. He's purposely referencing Japan's achingly slow and beautiful form...while popping--that is, flexing his muscles to create a snapping effect, in his more habitual hip-hop style.
This curious, but surprisingly natural, finale to the 39-year-old choreographer's newest work, Facing Mekka, which will be performed as part of the Walker Art Center's Hip-Hop Moves Festival, demonstrates just how far hip-hop dance has come in the 25 years since Harris first witnessed the emergence of the B-boy style on the streets of north Philadelphia. Now hip hop is a global phenomenon, crisscrossing cultures and influencing everything from music to spoken word, fashion, and, most definitely, dance.
Back when Harris was first finding his groove, hip hop was busy being born, in distinctly different forms, on the East and West coasts. In New York, Grandmaster Flash, Fab 5 Freddy, Afrika Bambaata, and the Rock Steady Crew inspired a fusion of rhythm and movement that thrived on fierce breaks in beats. Meanwhile, California was undergoing a transformative "funk era," during which popping, locking, and boogaloo styles came to prominence thanks to the endlessly inventive Electric Boogaloos and Don Campbell. The media eventually lumped everything together under the misnomer "break dancing" (a term originally meant for only one type of East Coast style). Soon suburban kids were attempting to spin on their heads using high school cafeteria trays (believe me, I tried it) and Michael Jackson was moon-walking his way into MTV history.
Harris, like his peers, started dancing for a lot of reasons--creative outlet, street cred--but he almost certainly didn't help pioneer a new form with the intention of seeing it memorialized in a museum. "There's a lot of reverence for hip-hop culture," says Harris by telephone from Philadelphia. "It's about self-reliance. People die for it. They call it respect, but it's really a little broader than respect. Respect doesn't do justice to the real sense of the individual spirit."
Essentially, hip hop is as elastic as the people who perform it, and that's why the Walker is paying homage to its birth while simultaneously celebrating its vibrant present and bright future. This weekend's performances of Hip-Hop Moves: Heroes and Innovators feature Campbell, the originator of the precision move the "Campbellock," and the Electric Boogaloos, who developed the perpetually rolling boogaloo dance and popping form. While it seems a bit strange to codify what at first glimpse seems like social dancing, one need only venture onto the internet to discover that the scene itself has catalogued countless varieties of hip-hop moves: Crazy Legs, Robot, Dime Stopping, Strobing, Air Posing. These styles are certain to appear in the work of the program's younger talent, including Philly's the Untouchables and locals like the Groovenuts Crew and Hip-Hop Co-Op.
After a week of master classes, community forums, and films (including 1983's Wild Style), Harris will lead his Puremovement company in Facing Mekka at Northrop Auditorium. It's a fitting finale for the festival: The work, a personal journey for Harris, combines hip-hop styles with everything from African movement to Indian flavor. Vocalists Grisha Coleman (of Hot Mouth) and Philip Hamilton combine forces with beat boxer Kenny Muhammed, and a variety of percussionists and turntablists--plus a tabla player--to supply the soundtrack.
Harris first conceived Facing Mekka in 1998, but it premiered during the first week of the latest Iraq war, and the images of battle, flames, and solemn faces resonate differently in a time of conflict. "It's not really a response to the world, it's a response to me," he observes. "It's not so much about addressing the chaos. It's about recognizing that this is nothing new. This is how we've lived on this planet. This is where we are."