by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal
“Free your mind and your body will follow…. we freed our mind and hip-hop followed,” says Philadelphia choreographer, Rennie Harris on his narrative voiceover before the finale of his new show Funkedified which had its premiere hometown run at the Merriam Theater on June 7 & 8. For over 90 minutes, the audience was definitely edified on the choreographer’s creative journey as a Philadelphia b-boy street breaker, soon to be the architect of hip-hop dance-theater in America.
Funkedified is an eight-movement opus that achieves what every great choreographer does at some point, return to their organic vocabulary and explore it on bodies who have a body of the choreographer’s work in their bodies, taking it to a new level. Harris wryly narrates at one point, “back in the day… I don’t know if I was killing it as much as I thought I was.” Of course, he was in so many ways, but Harris is a consummate technician, and game enough to give himself self-correction a decade after the fact.
Beyond any nostalgia of ‘the day’, what those dance street labs meant then, and what they mean now, is Harris’ substantive thesis. The ensemble of nine members of Rennie Harris Puremovement and The Hood Lockers, a ringer quartet of specialists, tore the house down, in Harris’s electrifying dance memoir to the 70’s era of funk music and dance. Adding high-octane fuel to the dance-fire is the Funkedified Band featuring Doran Lev (drums), Matt Dickey (guitar), Nicholas Marks (keyboards), Osei Kweku (bass & vocals), Samir Arif (sax), and Dave Levy (trumpet).
The high concept video designs by Jorge Cousineau and lighting by Peter Jabubowski, along with various sound elements were not all worked out on the older tech facilities of the historic Merriam Theater but will be corrected as the show tour continues down the road.
Among the too-many-to-remember jaw-dropping FUNKEDIFIED moments –
Hadika the immersive jolt of an opening, scored to original electric funk music by the RHF band. A gushing choreographic stream of breakers, pop & lockers and proto (hip-hop) lexicon with bows to African-American cultural touchstones like Soul Train, Grand Master Flash brio and iconic moves from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
The band’s bluesy rendition of the George Clinton/Eddie Hazel funk track Soul Maggot. Lee Breeze Foaad hypnotized with his ‘wave’ minimalism that is a central motif of Harris solos – reverse glide spirals around the stage and other signature Harris moves. Guitarist Dickey moves off the bandstand and closes in on the soloist with shredding guitar riffs that are a direct current to Foaad’s explosive physicality.
The Hood Lockers breaking their razor-sharp rhythmic unison with scorching acrobatic variations. In contrast, the subtle funk techniques were at their most poetic as danced by Leigh Foaad, Mai Le Ho, and the sublimely lyrical Titania Desardouin.
The pyrotechnics of the Jersey-based Hood Lockers – Richard Evans, Joshua Polk, Andrew Ramsey, and Marcus Tucker- can’t be underestimated. The technical daring of free arm flips, landing full body on their backs, or slamming into full splits from hang-time tumbling aerials require as much or more degrees of difficulty than Olympic gymnasts. Meanwhile, Puremovement veteran Katia Cruz’s high-octane stage presence and precision were as thrilling as ever.
Supa Josh & Crazy Sax is a mind-blowing duet between soloist Joshua Culbreath and Samir Fariz (aka FKA jazz). Culbreath not only mesmerizes by spinning on his head in various contortions, including slides across the floor and suspend but seems to defy basic physics of human dance.
Harris’s voice-over describes the day “When we realized we weren’t getting a lot of work as breakers and poppers and lockers…. then we got this call about a tour that was hiring hip-hop dancers…. which was a social party dance it wasn’t a thing you did as a professional artist; it was a culture of hip-hop….it hadn’t formally been introduced in the mainstream.” His whispering voice accompanied by a ghostly sax solo and Joshua Polk locked in a low-leaping tornadic circling pattern.
The calligraphic foot patterns at Mach-speed trajectories continued with 110th St. Brothers with a blazing musical sample of Bobby Womack’s soundtrack to ’70s hit black film Across 110th St that segues into the band’s version of Martin Solveig’s I’m A Good Man.
Harris never relies on dazzling tricks; they are part of a detailed theatrical arc. There are shimmering passages of dancers in slow motion weaving in and out of fast tempo ensembles. One aspect that was just as impressive as those feats, for instance, is Harris’ cultural expressionism in the transitional steps, with (in)visible street language.
The full ensemble finale, Yes I Can is scored to the band’s interpolation of Mandrill’s Can You Get It and recapitulates the pure dance theme of this concert, the expressive artistry of each dancer and the defining technique of the Harris’ ensemble. The expected the performance drew to an end with the most raucous encore circle, each dancer taking a bow and exiting with another breathtaking move as their names were projected on a screen behind them.
Rennie was standing at the back of the theater right after the performance, checking in on some sound projection issues, but was soon swarmed by admiring fans, still exultant over this performance. This was indeed a Philly dance night for the books all thanks to a master dance maker Dr. Rennie Harris.