Choreographer Rennie Harris’ Philadelphia hometown fans and dance colleagues filled the lobby of the Annenberg Center for the first of three performances of his dance-theater piece ‘Lifted’ urban drama of a young black man struggling with family, community, and faith. Harris created the work three years ago, then had to wait out the industry shutdown before going back in tour with performances in Chicago, Delaware, and after Philly run headed to The Joyce Theater in New York this summer.
Keyboardist Joshua Sommerville plays the rousing organ invocation as the dancers file onstage, moving in slow-motion as they assemble for the sermon of the Rev. CJ. Joshua, played by dancer Joshua Culbreath, argues with his aunt and guardian on the sidelines. Harris choreographs a gestural dance between them that goes in hypnotic reverse. Just one of the unexpected choreographic moments Harris employs draws you into these characters’ emotional lives.
Rev. Cj briefly sermonizes before he sings the spiritual “Turn Your Life Around” that brings the dancers center stage for Harris’ signature hip-hop ensemble lines that flow with a rhythmic pulse and accelerate to more intricate footwork and group patterns. There are even a few breakout soloists, overcome with spiritual faith. Even with all of this dance fever, it’s hard to take your eyes off Carl Robinson Jr.’s as Rev Cj. His mighty bass-baritone eclipses his understated demeanor.
But Joshua isn’t buying into it. He has lost his parents and feels alone and lost even though his Aunt and Uncle have taken him in. Rev. CJ also tries to talk to him, is well aware of his struggles, and tries to bring him to the healing protections of the church. Meanwhile, Joshua is also being lured into the nether world of Big Poppa and his gang of stealth pick-pockets- Big Poppa even sings a rap version from ‘Pick a Pocket or Two’ (sampling lyrics from the musical Oliver!).
Harris brings in his veteran old-school ringers – Marcus Tucker, Andrew Ramsey, Richard Evans, Josh Polk – aka The Hood Lockers, who double as the Church Ushers. The group of 40 dancers with lock, pop, and signal choreo on the sidelines as the Church Ushers and as Big Poppa’s ’40 Thieves, each dancer features pugilistic acrobatics and specialties.
The gang tests Joshua’s nerve by first stripping his shoes to see how he fights back. As they find out, he has the street cred to physically leap over them if pressed- at one point, Culbreath vaulting over the quartet who had just finished a breakdance.
In a riveting scene called ‘Doubt & Dolo,’ the Rev. pleads with him to resist becoming a gang member. He sings the spiritual ‘I Need You Now’ as Joshua’s anguish is expressed in a stirring solo dance soliloquy Culbreath performance– from his headstand pirouettes, his tornadic lilted flip. Askew body flips and inverted body locks are nothing less than mesmerizing, but his transitional steps and acting make this more than hip-hop virtuosic.
Rodney Mason plays Big Poppa, the gang boss and all-around nasty guy. He espouses his cynical view of efforts to stem police violence against black men. Mason, who won a Bessie Award for his performance in Harris’ Rome and Jewels, gives a chillingly wry performance. Elyse Browning and Phillip Cuttino as Aunt Tah-Tah and UncXO, actor-dancers make the most of their brief dramatic scenes as Joshua’s aunt and uncle.
The soundtrack includes original music by Raphael Xavier, Darrin Ross, and house rap mixes interspersed with spoken and voiceover dialogue. And more than once, the vocals of Alonzo Chadwick, Phinizea Chadwick, Simone Jordan, Trenelle Doyle, Jazzmine McCray and
Jahdiah Dyson lifted the roof off of the Zellerbach Theater with their mighty gospel vocals.
Harris’ economic script is crucially balanced with the choreography and choir, but the theatrical arc in the final scenes strikes as too rushed and could easily be expanded. (I caught up with Harris after the performance, and he noted that he was still working on a few things in Lifted, which is typical of his creative process.”)
Meanwhile, Harris’ panoramic range of hip-hop old & new school choreography in Lifted, with a cast that represents two generations of PureMovement dancers and puts it on the footing of his seminal dance-theater works as his classics’ Mecca’ and ‘Rome and Jewels.’ The cast represents two generations of hip-hop dancers. Harris’ theatrical-dance storytelling has a drive that simmers, percolates, and explodes with purpose, joy, and communion.
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So good to see you there and to read an intelligent review. Can always depend on you to show up and know what you are talking about. Thank you!!!
Agreed with JB!! Thanks Lew, you are always showing up for the important Philly events!
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