From the moment Rennie Harris’s eight male dancers enter the stage it is clear that hip-hop dancing is not one thing, it’s many. The Philadelphia-based troupe splice B-boy backspins with speed-stepping, acrobatics with robotics, body-popping and locking with capoeira. There are even fleeting glimpses of lindyhop, jazz and, in one ironic dig, Michael Jackson. The whole mix is held together by superlative physical control, attitude and virtuosity. The opening and closing sections are showcases for the dancers’ displays of physical daring: gyroscopic headspins, upside-down backbends, bouncing handsprings, and somersaults that twist cat-like in mid-air and land in the splits.
Harris is not merely a showman; he is a man with a mission
Harris is not merely a showman; he is a man with a mission. For him, this is not a flashy, sellable MTV product, but an expression of the physical cultures of black America – and he is concerned with making theatre from them. In Endangered Species, puffs of smoke envelop a lone figure, to the industrial sound of piston pumps. He acts out a story of struggle and racial oppression, his nervy body-popping a physical manifestation of the conflicting impulses that rack his troubled body. March of the Antmen is a slow, controlled protest against the human cost of both military and gang warfare. Images are projected on to the back wall: Malcolm X, urban dwellings, graffiti. Harris also undercuts the overt machismo of hip-hop, one soloist playing the double role of confident B-boy and his timid brother; and at the curtain call, the dancers greet each other with supportive embraces of brotherly (but not sissy) affection.
Hip-hop highlights the soloist and, while its physical feats are breathtaking, you wonder how Harris might develop the styles in group or partnerwork, or into more sustained compositions. This show, most of which dates back some years, suggests that the best is yet to come.