Dallas — On Aug. 3, a powerful dance company with historical significance rolled into Dallas for a one-night performance at the Latino Cultural Center, presented by the South Dallas Cultural Center, in partnership with the National Performance Network and New England Foundation for the Arts. Founded in 1992, Philadelphia-based Rennie Harris Puremovement is the premier concert street dance company, with a mission to preserve and disseminate hip-hop culture to its audiences beyond the familiarity of its commercial branding.
Their recent evening-length dance theater work Lifted includes a gospel choir, theater, and of course, a variety of hip-hop vocabulary. With script, choreography, and direction by Harris, Raphael Xavier and Darrin Ross provide compositions and design the sound score. Alonzo Chadwick, Phinizea Chadwick, Trenelle Doyle, and Simone Jordan (all hailing from Portland) supply the vocals throughout.
Audience members walking into the LCC are greeted by an open stage set like a church, with a large pulpit, a platform for the musicians, benches and stained glass projections. With patrons still trickling in, choir director Joshua Sommerville sits at the keyboard and begins to play and sing. At the end of his bluesy song, dancers enter the space, setting up the relationships for the narrative, while a recorded spoken word by Wadud Ahmad sets the energy.
Aunt Tah-Tah (Tatianna Desardouin) and Uncle Jip (Phillip Cutino, Jr.) try helplessly to reach their nephew Joshua (Joshua Culbreath) as a church service begins. Reverend CJ (Carl Robinson, Jr.) excites the congregation with a rousing opening monologue, to which they respond with fervent house dancing. Intricate footwork that moves impossibly fast immediately brings the energy up, then the choir moves the emotional high to a different frequency with impassioned arrangements of classic gospel songs “The Solid Rock” and “Total Praise.”
Sommerville invites the audience to physically respond, by raising hands, clapping or shouting. Unspoken is the invitation to continue that response throughout, which allows for an immersive viewing experience. The Reverend continues his service with the story of the prodigal son, an obvious allusion to future events involving Joshua. More unison dancing emphasizes community and joy.
The four ushers from the church service swap their church clothes for red and black street attire, as they illustrate life outside of the sanctuary, with temptations of crime and money and agitations of inner city life. Their choreography shifts towards locking and breakdancing, showing off their individual skills. A hesitant Joshua still tries to find his way and finds intrigue in this other “community.”
In the best segment of the evening, he finds his way to the church, and while Rev. CJ belts out a powerful “I Need You Now” by Smokie Norful, Joshua’s choreography proves hip-hop’s expressive range, beyond high-energy praise or heavy-hitting angst. Spinning and spiraling floor work alternates seamlessly between power moves and acrobatics that take on a satisfying ease. The combination of the Reverend’s imploring vocals and Joshua’s desperate execution creates a stirring experience that everyone in the audience could not only see and hear, but feel within.
Act II opens with the gang leader Big Poppa (Rodney Mason) subtly moving through his rhythmic monologue covering Black Lives Matter, crime, police tensions, and the seductive power of money. He captivates as an alluring, devil-like character, speaking in metaphors yet at the same time being quite direct. The homies follow along with their movements, almost spellbound, before they maneuver into a more intense locking segment.
Aunt Tah-Tah’s cries for help evolve into an exquisite liquid/animation-style phrase that progresses so organically, one almost could imagine the movement as pedestrian. Desardouin is positively a force to be reckoned with in the hip hop world, as she remains the focal point in that section, even though other action happens alongside her.
Joshua’s moment of truth and vital decision highlight grace and redemption, a poignant juncture emphasized by the choir’s impactful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The ending segment explodes in a variety of genres, as the performers display their talents with bows and an encore.
But just as the story juxtaposed the positive community of praise with the harsh realities of life, so does the ending. The celebratory applause and grooving immediately stops with an obscurely projected montage of news clips touching on political and social unrest.
Thankfully, it's not the last DFW will see of this powerhouse group: The Dallas Symphony's Soluna festival has commissioned a new work of Rennie Harris, jazz musician Terence Blanchard and visual artist Andrew Scott, which will debut April 9, 2019 at the Majestic Theatre.