Dance, from the streets to the stage
Rennie Harris Puremovement road manager Rodney Hill spoke defensively, but not because the packed house saw hip-hop dancing in the wrong way. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center swarmed with people, some with children on their laps or in seats on the floor. Everyone looked to be an open book, ready to listen to the modern history of hip hop and maybe even learn a dance move or two.
Hill wanted the audience to understand the message behind hip-hop movements and music. He defended the music style against perceptions that it perpetuates violence, lewd behavior and negativity; and the dance form against certain purists who say it can’t be taught like a ballet class can and against the false beliefs surrounding certain moves (Hill said that Michael Jackson did not invent the moonwalk, for example).
It was Family Night at the center, one of three residency days the RHPM dancers will have in Sheboygan before mounting a fully choreographed, 90-minute show on Thursday night. Hill introduced two male dancers, Hannibal and Mouse, and two female dancers, Dinita and Fyness. After a short history lesson, he clicked on a computer screen and booming music filled the room. Then came the “locking” demonstration.
Locking, which was made famous and more fluent by Don Campbell on the West Coast, became a staple in clubs and on shows like Soul Train. As seen in this video, dancers are influenced by Afro-Brazilian/Afro-Cuban moves that once graced the jazz circuit and some vaudevillian acts.
It’s one thing to see hip-hop dancing in commercial movies like You Got Served and in documentaries like Rize, but now it stands alongside other respected dance forms, including ballet, jazz, swing, ballroom and modern dance. Its place in the cultural mindset has swung from street and nightclub expression to high art.
Currently, choreographer extraordinare Rennie Harris teaches at schools like UCLA and Columbia. “Students of an Asphalt Jungle,” one of the four pieces staged here on Thursday, is on the national tour in part through the NEA’s American Masterpiece grant. This past summer, the U.S. State Department held a symposium of hip-hop dancers from around the world. It’s a good time for hip-hop dance.
The RHPM, which hasn’t been seen in Wisconsin since 1998, will stage a full show with 11 members Thursday night that includes suites like “March of the Ant Men” and “P. Funk” (during a show that still has tickets available). Each one has a story of extraordinary depth behind it. To understand more fully, see the video below or Part II on YouTube for the Harris interview and behind-the-scenes footage of the 2009-10 Puremovement season. Tickets for the John Michael Kohler Arts show can be purchased online or by calling 920-458-6144.