Philadelphia-based hip-hop innovator, Dr. Rennie Harris, most notably turned hip-hop movement in all its many styles into a new language for dramatic expression. RHAW, an hour-long hip-hop show at the New Victory Theater (May 14-26), mixes moves from B-boying, popping, locking, waacking, and voguing styles into a new language that is as definable as ballet but speaks to a whole new generation of viewers.
The title is an acronym for Rennie Harris Awe-inspiring Works, and Harris bills himself as “Dr. Rennie Harris,” as if to elevate hip-hop culture to academic respectability. And he calls himself the founder, director, and CEO of his company Puremovement, of which this show is kind of a subsidiary. Raphael Williams and Crystal Frazier are listed as RHAW’s artistic director and assistant.
The agile crew keeps revealing more facets of their dancing chops; they crouch low, whipping legs around like mix-masters, twirl on their back and shoulders, swing their legs high like gymnasts on the pommel horse. From a standing start, they jump into the air, spin 360-degrees, and land, catlike, on their feet; they twitch their muscles and move like mechanical robots slow as molasses and lightning fast. They flap their arms overhead in that new-fangled semaphore called voguing in startling unison.
Some of the short pieces are excerpted from larger works and some choreographed by others and staged by Harris. The New Vic presents family-friendly attractions. But Harris’s work does not talk down to youngsters and can be appreciated equally by audiences of all ages. The dozen performers – half men, half women – dance with the natural joy of kids who’ve found a passion, and their unforced joy makes it easy to see why they’re so inspirational for other youngsters seeing them.
In the opening “Continuum” (conceived in 1997), the cast members introduce themselves by showing us their personal specialties in the center of a circle of the others – the cipher, as it’s called – then they exit the stage and return for another round. Harris gave women equal stature with men in hip-hop. What had been a guy’s game with a few token women became egalitarian with Harris’s introduction of narrative and specific story telling to the form.
In the large group unison passages, six or eight dancers will be steaming along, and out of nowhere someone will do a series of aerial flips, forward or backward, or dive into a one-handed handstand with feet pumping in the air as easily as if they were arms, or do a scary slide on the top of his head. The virtuosity feels more like simply an eruption of exuberance than an applause-grabbing stunt.
The recorded music pumps so loudly you can’t even hear when the audience applauds for a spectacular moment or the end of a section. Lighting by David Todaro keeps the mood changing simply but effectively, including some mysterious specials that pick Harris and Brown out of the darkness on their journey across the stage at the start of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” excerpt, set to the famous Queen music.
A big projection tells us the title of the show, as we enter the theater, and a colorful “peace” sign announces the excerpt from “Peace and Love” in the second half of the show. In other places, the cyclorama blazes with color, silhouetting the dancers against it. And the finale is titled “R.H.A.W. Bows.” But it takes a while to realize it is the curtain calls, since the volume of the music and the steps, which now pull out all the stops, are indistinct from the rest of the proceedings.
The performers, who don’t flaunt even their most gasp-inducing stunts, each have their own particular hip-hop gifts, and they deserve all the cheering they receive. Namely, they are Amaryah Bone, Katia Cruz, Joshua Culbreath, Phillip Cuttino Jr., Neka French, Brandyn S. Harris (Rennie’s grown son), Mai Le Ho Johnson, Kevin S. Rand, Neha Sharma, Mariah Tlili, and Schafeek Westbrook.
© Gus Solomons jr, 2013