On fire
Rennie Harris travels with hip-hip in Facing Mekka.

By Rita Felciano

DANCE DISAPPEARS THE minute the curtain descends: there is no canvas to return to, no manuscript to consult, no annotated score to study. Unless the performance has been recorded, a viewer has to rely on memory when forming an interpretation. Opportunities to talk with a dance maker before and after a piece's debut are rare. That is exactly why I seized the chance to discuss Facing Mekka with Rennie Harris.

Harris is a Philadelphia-based dancer-choreographer who started dancing in the streets of North Philly during the late '70s, going on to tour the country with the Scanner Boys. Over the past 11 years – after founding PureMovement Dance in 1992 – he has steadily extended hip-hop's language from the club to the concert hall. As Harris puts it, he's been walking a tightrope between "the truth of hip-hop" and "the formality of the theater stage." In 1999 he brought his all-male Students of the Asphalt Jungle to the Bay Area. In 2000 his first full-evening choreographic work, Rome and Jewels, played Theater Artaud, and every single show sold out. Last weekend the extraordinary Facing Mekka, Harris's most mature show yet, came to the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis.

I initially discussed Facing Mekka with Harris when he had just begun work on it in Philadelphia in the spring of 2000. At the time he was certain he wanted to work with "indigenous movement" from Africa, Latin America, and Japan. But besides some Butoh timing and capoeira sections, I couldn't find these elements when I originally saw the piece last May at the Joyce Theater in New York City. Had I missed something essential?

When I called Harris in Los Angeles two weeks ago, he had an answer. "Two things happened," he said. "I started late and didn't really get my travel plans together in time. But also, it did not feel right. It simply did not come out of my feeling. This idea of taking those movements and bringing them [onstage] to deconstruct them – [it] was not coming from my consciousness."

Still, Harris's initial concept didn't completely disappear; Facing Mekka had an extraordinarily complex world music score by Rome and Jewels composer Darrin M. Ross, in which cello, berimbau, tabla, percussion, DJing, and a wide variety of vocals coexist. The second viewing at the Mondavi Center revealed that while Harris may not have used specific influences from world dance, he did push hip-hop into the universal realm created by his exceptional musicians. A head spin that seemed to go on forever had as much to do with a dervish's practices as with a kid's testosterone-driven display of physical prowess. Facing Mekka was imbued with a meditative quality I hadn't fully realized before.

The visuals, pale and washed out, looked like elaborate collages of U.S. history over the last 50 years. Crowds, faces, wars, fires, flags, and also lakes and craggy canyons emerged for an instant, only to be wiped away or swallowed by fog. Why were they so hard to identify? Were they memories, half-forgotten but somehow still with us? "Maybe," Harris admitted over the phone, adding pragmatically, "I did not want them to overshadow the dance. It's too hard to watch both."

Facing Mekka featured a significant first for Harris: it showcased five beautiful female performers. Strong and sinuous, they were trained in African dance, not hip-hop; rarely performing with the men, they appeared almost self-contained, though they were every bit as powerful as their male counterparts. "I worked with them separately for maybe six months ahead of time and watched how they moved," Harris said when asked about this new facet of collaboration. "Then I started setting movements on them. They were actually surprised [laughs] that I could move my hips." Seeing the show at Davis confirmed for me that the women drive Facing Mekka. Their communal power derived from a more integrated way of being in which assertive strength is balanced by an intense sense of being in the present.

Midway through the piece, a cube appeared, and a woman inside it gradually rose. This structure has been described in some reviews as a "screen cage" or a "net cubicle" – terms that convey a sense of confinement. I didn't see it that way: it looked to me like a holy shrine of Islam. "Yes," Harris confirmed. "It's the Kaaba." Framed by two vocalists, the first intricately scatting, the second delivering a gospel-inspired prayer, this solo was Facing Mekka's heart. Glacially timed floor spins and contortions sent the dancer (Erica Bowen at the Mondavi Center; Tanja Isaacs at the Joyce) on a low-to-the-floor trajectory across the stage.

Undeniably, Facing Mekka's most disturbing section was its ending, an explosive popping solo for Harris that was a counterpart to the female solo. At the Joyce, Harris's face was obscured by his dreads; he was a hulking figure set against a burning, collapsing world, and his body spoke a history of pain. By the time the work came to Davis, Harris had turned up the heat and expanded its implications. Gone was the bravura popping; only his drooping right arm, like a broken wing, showed traces of it. But as he dragged himself into the Kaaba – trembling with world-weary exhaustion – he became increasingly ferocious. Looking up into the light, he let out a long, slow howl that seemed to have arisen from the bowels of the earth. James Baldwin wrote of "the fire next time." Harris made the "next time" right now.

October 15, 2003