The dancers of Rennie Harris Puremovement gave a breathtaking performance Saturday evening at Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston.
Harris is nothing less than an international guru of hip-hop choreography and one of the first to bring this essentially social genre to the concert stage.
His company performs at prestigious venues worldwide and he has taught at numerous universities throughout the U.S.
This year, Rennie Harris Puremovement was chosen as one of four companies to tour as “citizen diplomats” with Dance Motion USA, a project of the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
In addition to his works for Puremovement, Harris has been commissioned to choreograph for ballet, modern and jazz companies, including the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Hip-hop dance can be challenging to pin down, and quite rightly, as it represents a constantly-evolving spectrum of techniques and styles that emerge from street and dance-hall innovation.
What binds it all together is history — extending, as Harris reminds us, back to African rhythmic expression as it evolves through American development — and milieu.
The genius of Puremovement is the company’s elegant translations. The dancers may appear to be “freestyling” but the movement is choreographed. The movement may be choreographed but each dancer’s individuality is ever-present, in solos highlighting particular strengths and also in the unique finesse each applies to dancing in precise unison.
Portions of Saturday’s performance gave the impression of a dance party, including classic show-off solos in a circle of cheering dancers. The audience joined in, whooping and hollering in appreciation of moves that boggled the mind.
In some of the most spectacular, one male dancer (names weren’t given in the program) somersaulted through the air over the backs of five others and then did no-hands flips across the front of the stage.
Other moves included impossibly slow cartwheels and hand, head and shoulder stands, spins and freezes that seemed to redefine the body’s center of balance. Into one amazing flow of movement, dancers integrated bone-defying body rolls, fabulous torso and limb isolations and flights into the air with landings of superhuman lightness, as if their sneakers or the stage were elasticized.
The first half of the program included four separate pieces. “Breath,” to a steady, heavy beat, was a perpetual-motion wonder danced by four women in brilliant precision, yet with each interpreting the movement to befit her individual physicality and spirit.
“Three B-Boys & A Girl Length Part I” and “Nina Pah-Tina’s Troubled Man” gave more sense of story, the former mysterious and the latter quite sassy. “Continuum” began with a graffiti slide show and developed into a dance circle.
The second half also comprised four pieces, but one flowed into the next to create an integrated, multimedia performance piece. “P-Funk” included a spoken and sung political statement, with references to capital punishment, Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and Trayvon Martin.
The solo male sang a mournful ballad that opened with, “I walk around with a bullet on my tongue, killer written on my face,” and then spoke a monologue. He moved to the rhythm of his words, both spoken and sung. Later, at the end of this piece or the beginning of the next, he was joined by eight other men dancing in smoother-than-silk unison.
In an excerpt from Harris’ classic “Rome & Jewels,” Shakespeare’s words were intermingled with those of Rodney Mason, who performed the piece. As this piece segued into “March of the Antmen,” five dancers in black crawled beneath “god rays” and a cloud of smoke.
In “Students of the Asphalt Jungle,” slides of urban scenes preceded the entrance of male dancers in white pants and bare chests, performing some of the most dramatic movement of the evening.
Saturday was a night of celebration for the festival and the company. This year marks the company’s 20th anniversary; the 30th for Bates Dance Festival, and the 25th for festival director Laura Faure. Harris has participated in other festival seasons and received an honorary doctorate from Bates College in 2010, so it was especially fitting for his company to open this year’s performance series.
Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer who lives in Saco.