On the street, Rennie Harris went by the nickname Prince. Now, following a triumphant run at the Kimmel Center to celebrate his company Puremovement's 15th anniversary, he might just be crowned King. This North Philadelphia native is a master at transforming the turbulence and difficulty of our world and his own challenging past into world-class hip-hop spectacle.
Facing Mekka, seen in its Philadelphia premiere on Friday, the final night of the company's three-show run, fuses movement and musical influences from around the globe with a flickering stream of video imagery that brings all of civilization and history on stage.
It's an ambitious, abundantly alive production. You can't get bigger sound than Mekka's mix of live voice, DJ, percussion and cello (perhaps too loud for some), more vital dancing than that of its cadre of phenomenal performers, or a more thought-provoking layering of image and action. The work produces complex feelings without any simple story lines.
As Mekka opens, a muezzin's call to prayer sounds over Harris' own quiet, tormented presence. He quakes, face fixing in a silent scream. As projected images of fast-moving clouds morph into multitudes of villagers walking, all humankind is invoked.
The four red-clad, radiant women who enter next are Mekka's backbone. Their dancing encompasses movement languages of all the world. Dipping low, pulsing, their arms fling out West African style. Intercut with hip-hop locks, fast footwork and snaking backs, their dancing is fierce, their sensuality and strength a balm.
Larger groupings of men slide through a variety of styles, too. Capoeira moves bring them low to the ground for flips, balances on the hands, and elegant swiveling arcs. Celebratory moments bring midair martial-arts acrobatics. A still, prayerful scene climaxes with multiple no-hand pirouettes balanced on the head. This blurringly fast feat reads as a meeting of hip-hop with the devotion of the whirling dervish.
The costumes include pants draped with robelike skirts in changing combinations of red, black and white - the color all must wear entering the shrine at Mecca. And, likely representing the heart of that shrine, a sheer rectangular enclosure intermittently descends.
Harris remains the outsider, passing through scenes or taking solos, arms like licking flames, body and braids whipping as if channeling the energy of a lightning strike. He seems out to quench a spiritual hunger, to still his roiling inner world. His deft articulations (ever seen a dancer mobilize his jaw?) and breakout moments of release bring, only briefly, a look of repose to his face.
Mekka seems to ask, "Why all this violence? How do we find God in all this?" Tobin Rothlein's video, sped up and choppy at times, ultraslow at others, shows flashbacks from our collective memory: the civil rights struggle, wars recent and remote, houses on fire, and people on pilgrimage and at prayer. The coexistence of joy and trouble and the power to prevail seem at the heart of Facing Mekka.
Harris was born to dance and make dances. His virtuosity and depth as a performer help him find and showcase those same qualities in others.
Seen earlier this year, Harris' new works for Philadanco and Dayton Contemporary Dance demonstrated those companies' power and funk, and brought out the Olympian in dance stars like Danco's Gary Jeter.
In Mekka, human beatbox Kenny Muhammad gives a show-stopping solo, Tania Isaac holds us rapt with a concentrated arachnid crawl, and Lenny Seidman's single thumps on the tablas bring the whole extravagant production down to a single point of awareness.
Harris has craft. His method - letting the work develop as it's being performed - means there are rough and raw moments. But he knows how to build an image, develop a sequence, and make the space teem with life. Like Shakespeare, he follows devastation with humor, density with narrow focus.
His theater is immediate, dark and rousing without being heavy-handed. Its transformative power comes from the alchemy of Harris' reaching in deep to spin personal dross into artistic gold.
Kudos to the Kimmel for throwing this 15th-birthday bash. In his introduction, Tom Warner, director of programming, hinted at more Puremovement at the Kimmel in the offing.