Rennie Harris Puremovement

"Rome and Jewels"

Dance Umbrella 2001 Festival
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, UK

October 20, 2001

By Emma Pegler

The parts of the English language normally employed in the critique of dance are barely adequate for the purpose of describing Rennie Harris' take on "Romeo and Juliet" - Rome and Jewels. Shakespeare is credited in the programme for supplying part of the 'text' and Harris, a striking hulk of a figure with long dreadlocks down his back, told the audience at the beginning of the evening that he got the idea for the piece from watching West Side Story. After that, customary dance vocabulary runs out - Harris informs us that, aged 14, he had thought "West Side Story would be better with hip hop dancers." DJs scratch records in rhythm (this for the uninitiated is turntablism), handsome black 'guys' balance in handstands on muscular arms, circling their legs above their heads as if dancing ballet upside down, and Rome (Romeo), former US Marine, Rodney Mason, interlaces Shakespearian sonnets with graphic, and occasionally pornographic, rap.

Rome and the "Monster Q's" (the "Montagues" in normal Romeo and Juliet parlance) are dressed in baggy black street clothes and dance what I would guess, drawing on my narrow experience, is pure hip hop. Tybalt and the "Caps" (the "Capulets") are dressed in more clean-cut red tracksuits, dancing what I would have said was break dancing, but my vocabulary is limited and I should say "B-boy." The two gangs clash because Rome has been up to no good with Tybalt's girl, Jewels (Juliet). Rome speaks to Jewels - "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? - but she is never seen. He simulates a kiss and even full sex with the spectral heroine. But Jewels isn't the point. We are, rather, witnessing Rome's rite of passage on the streets - North Philadelphia, where Harris was raised and became skilled in the art of street dance and, presumably, survival. Body parts are isolated to perform segregated movements, heads slide along shoulders, walking backwards in a slide as if on a conveyor belt. Dancing degenerates into being thrown to the floor and given a good kicking in true gang style.

Rome's principal monologue takes us through the range of characters he could be on a rough Philly street: the "Romeo and Juliet" text and Shakespeare's sonnets delivered straight, with chilling drama, and mixed with what I would call hard-core rap. He mimics a gun with his hand pointed at the audience, he becomes a police officer shouting at him (self) "to put the gun down." He's a drunk, then a marine turned fugitive from justice, and then an evangelising priest. A veteran of the Gulf War who now has his own dance company, Mason started life dancing on the streets of South Philly. He is a fine dancer and convincing actor. When he balances on his arms and then slides onto his chest, his movements are so graceful that he appears to perform an inverted arabesque, his arms like thighs.

The use of screen is topical in dance at the moment. Used properly, the close-up of a body part performing a movement demonstrates the complexity of the movement and adds dramatic tension. We see details of the B-boy movement - a close-up of the neck of a Cap supporting his full body weight before launching into a complicated manoeuvre. As the gangs creep about the streets, their bodies appear like the disjointed images produced by heat-seeking equipment used to search out the enemy in the jungle. The body mass appears as a deeper concentration of colour. We could even have been in a sinister southern swamps voodoo scene.

The final clash between the gangs is a "full-on" scene from West Side Story, complete with swearing and blaspheming in Spanish (Boxing champion Joel "Tecknyc" Martinez is genuinely Puerto Rican). Each gang dances, the gangs clash and then the individual dancers do their "thing," demonstrating their individual prowess. At least one of the dancers is also a stunt man so we are treated to a number of double black-flips. The two women in the production "B-girl" their hearts out; Mercutio dies in Rome's arms; Rome is after Tybalt's blood - "Break him off," he instructs the boys. The red tracksuits "get it." "O, I am fortune's fool" declares Rome, faithful to the original text, as he, too, falls to the ground. No one is a winner, except, maybe, Harris, the rapping narrator and ex-con, who relieves the dying Rome of his watch, believing it to have once been his "shit."

Harris has integrated all aspects of hip-hop and rap culture into his production, right down to choreographing the scratching of records to complement the dancing, and has both integrated speech and dance so that the piece works as both drama and dance. It is hard to estimate how much of this genre the market can support and how far you can stretch these street dances artistically before a standard, hackneyed set show is produced, like the ubiquitous tango show that takes you through the development of tango from brothel to modern ballroom. Whilst I reserve judgement until I see another Puremovement production, I can guess that he won't churn out Giselle and Swan Lake hip-hop style. This production, at least, is brilliant. Or should I say wicked?


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Edited by Marie.

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