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Hip Hop and Butoh Collide When Philly Legend Rennie Harris Returns To Painted Bride With Michael Sakamoto

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Photo by Janelle Weatherford

“This is the performance I’ve been waiting my whole career to do”, says choreographer Michael Sakamoto. On December 12th and 13th, Sakamoto and Philly’s own dance icon, Rennie Harris, will take to Painted Bride’s main stage with their dance theater duet, Flash.

Conceived as a ‘conversation’ between the two dancers, the 45-minute piece features Harris and Sakamoto using their respective disciplines, Hip Hop and Butoh, to juxtapose cultural backgrounds (Japanese-American and African-American), personalities, and struggles for self-acceptance in the midst of crisis.

It’s a conversation that actually started years ago on campus at UCLA, where Michael Sakamoto was pursuing his PhD and Rennie Harris was teaching. Having studied both Hip Hop and Rennie Harris as a part of his graduate research, Sakamoto began the dialogue.  The more their rapport grew, the more the artists realized the commonalities not only between their dance forms, but between their own lives.

Both Hip-Hop and Butoh were born from marginalized, urban subcultures, each embodying a philosophical approach to building cultural identity through dance. Specifically, Butoh rose out of an occupied, post-WW2 Tokyo in the late 50s as a way for dancers to grapple with their rapidly westernizing culture. Characterized by grotesque imagery, absurd environments, and hyper-controlled movement, Butoh is a hybrid between dance and theater.  “When you see old school Butoh dancers,” says Sakamoto, “they are performing their self-perceived chaos.”

Before he was an innovator in contemporary Butoh, Michael Sakamoto was a Asian American kid, growing up in LA, popping and locking to the sound of James Brown. He launched his performance career 1994 as a soloist in the Rachel Rosenthal Company. Later, Sakamoto co-founded and co-directed the avant-garde theater ensemble, Empire of Teeth, cited by LA Weekly as a “Best of LA” theater company. Additionally, Sakamoto is a published author and scholar who has lectured internationally on Butoh. Today, Butoh serves as the philosophical foundation of all of his works.

Hip Hop, on the other hand, emerged from African-American and Latino communities in the late 60s as what Harris considers a contemporary indigenous form—one expressing universal themes that extend beyond race, class, and religion. In 1992, Rennie Harris founded Rennie Harris Puremovement, a Hip Hop dance company dedicated to preserving and disseminating Hip Hop culture through workshops, classes, lectures, residencies, and public performances. The North Philadelphia native’s most famous works (e.g., Rome and Jewels, Facing Mekka) have garnered him international recognition and countless accolades, including three Bessie Awards, two Black Theater Alvin Ailey Awards, and a Herb Alpert award.

Attendees of Flash can expect to see all the popping, locking, and breaking Rennie Harris is famous for, plus all the visceral, shocking, serpentine moves that makes Michael Sakamoto an innovator in contemporary Butoh. What’s more, Flash will be a multidisciplinary performance piece, complete with original monologues. Viewers can also expect an element of spontaneity, based on the dancers’ shared prerogative. Sakamoto says, “[Rennie and I] work really well together because we both approach performance as structured improvisation.” Though the general structure of the show is static, their movements are completely impulsive, creating a true sense of a dialogue between them.

Flash is piece about resonance, reconciliation, and transcendence amid chaos. Through Hip Hop, Butoh, and the shared experience two dancers, attendees will come to understand that crisis, as Michael Sakamoto puts it, “is an opportunity for change.”

Flash (work-in-progress dance theater duet by Rennie Harris and Michael Sakamoto) from Michael Sakamoto on Vimeo.

Flash featuring Rennie Harris and Michael Sakamoto comes to Painted Bride Art Center Saturday and Sunday, December 12th & 13th. Tickets on sale now—$30 in advance, $25 day of show. 30% off for Painted Bride Members. Call 215-925-9914 or log onto paintedbride.org to purchase.

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