A man creeps through a field of recumbent bodies. Did I say man? More an ape with the instincts and long velvet muscles of a tiger. He stops to sniff at the fallen and unloose a guttural howl to the stars. This is “Rome,” the Romeo of Rennie Harris’s hip-hop take on Shakespeare, Rome & Jewels. In Harris’s mind, this section is called “Darwin,” and Rome is about to evolve, painfully, from a creature too primal even to get out the name of the girl he desires, to a neighborhood tough who praises his ladylove with “She had dumps like a truck,” to a man of feeling and conscience.
Chain-link fencing (constructed by Doron Kutnick), live negative-image videos designed by Howard Goldenkrantz, and deeply colored lighting by Pamela Hobson create a battlefield for this raw and mesmerizing performance. Three intrepid DJs (Cisum, Miz, and Evil Tracy) wreak elegantly synchronized havoc on records, while, up in the booth, composer Darrin Ross layers in music and other sounds.
Will S. gets his due. Once erect, Rome (the amazing Rodney Mason) addresses an unseen Jewels with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” then eyeballs the audience and teases, “You didn’t think I was going to go there, did you?” Lines by the Bard share space with text contributed by Harris, dramaturge-performer Ozzie Jones, and other cast members. The rapping isn’t into nail-your-eardrums repetition; it emerges as a rhythmic flood of the rich and strange. I think I heard something like “his gardenia-scented receiving gesture” and “pregnant with a green ghetto secret.” Harris, at 14 a major fan of West Side Story, was originally dubious about bringing Shakespeare into his tale of feuding gangs, but it didn’t take him long to make the connection. He believes that “rappers and lyricists, hip-hop poets of this generation, probably owe something to Shakespeare’s writings and complexity as much as any poet today.” Familiar to Shakespeare too was a world ruled by vengeance and duplicity. On the street, “a guy tells you one thing, but he’s really saying something else, and you never really trust him, or something happens. . . . Someone’s always got a game. . . . I realized that was Shakespeare. That was Hamlet. Wow! How deep is that!” In Rome & Jewels, Jones, as a “Cap” uncle just out of jail (he’s also a snaky, popping, word-bending narrator), tells the brothers to “chill” after Rome and Merc steal his watch. In the end—after Tibault and Mercutio are slain, after Rome howls, “I am fortune’s fool!”—he grabs Rome, snarls, “Where the fuck is my watch?” and kills him.
Harris, hip-hop artist turned postmodern choreographer, knows that world. He survived growing up the eldest of seven kids on Philadelphia blocks they called the Badlands, where, if you were smart, you didn’t walk past the corner. He saw friends kill other friends. He knew what it was like to be taunted as weak—the way envious Ben V. (Sabela Grimes) works on Rome—for opting out of violence. “Not knowing it was [a war zone] as a kid, I had no problem with it”—”it” including the street’s view of women as chattel, notches in your belt. But he changed, and Rome struggles to change—torn between the rules of the game and the innate tenderness Jewels has uncovered in him.
Dance vitality, exuberance, and venom power this work. The Montagues (Mason, Grimes, Clyde Evans Jr. as Merc, Duane Holland, and Les Rivera) use a hip-hop vocabulary—fast on their feet and often in tight, blasting unison, even though Harris says, “Hip-hop is really more about attitude—just be a rowdy and the movement comes.” The Capulets are B-boys—arrogant about their tribes’ skills at breaking. When Ron Wood (Tibault), Brandon Albright, Jules Ulrich (the lone female—a tomboy), James “Cricket” Colter, Raphael “Xeno-Zen” Williams, and Forrest “Getemgump” Webb enter, they’re twisting and spinning and flipping and diving. When Colter skids across the floor on his head, you understand what that puff of hair is for. The rumble’s duels are virtuosic competition matches fueled by hate.
When I talked to Harris during the company’s Jacob’s Pillow season, he was still tinkering. He spent a lot of time developing Rome and his Benvolio (“Forget her, man, you know it’s us, and she’s nobody. What is your problem?” is the gist of Ben V.’s argument). Now Harris wanted to flesh out Merc and Tibault (Jewels is his lady, not his cousin). One interesting thing about the production is that there is no Juliet. When Rome or Tibault addresses her, you judge from their responses how she has answered back. The bedroom scene is an erotic slo-mo solo by Mason on the floor. Originally, Harris had a real woman playing Jewels, but that didn’t work out; this summer he was wondering about the viability of a disembodied female voice commenting, since, in a sense, Jewels and her different morality have taken up residence in Rome’s head. The piece, Harris thought, needed more euphoria after Rome makes love to Jewels, more controlled choreography in the fights.
All this pondering about structure and character, the talk about history and trends in hip-hop, plus Rome & Jewels itself, show how far Harris’s theatrical know-how has developed from the days when he couldn’t believe that dancing, which he’d always done, was something people took classes to learn. When he earned his first money performing, he starched and ironed every bill before displaying the take to his grandmother. But he’s run a happening company since 1993, taught, won awards. I think a lot of his dances, overtly or implicitly, question violence, but he says that this one, Rome & Jewels, has finally moved him personally out of that space where he thought he was weak if he didn’t respond to a slight with a fighting move. At first, he had no personal attachment to the piece, but knowing it so well, and understudying Jones, has slipped him inside it. “One foot in the street, one foot in the universe, that was me—always daydreaming, always daydreaming, yet I knew I was there.” Rome & Jewels has also moved him into a new place artistically—a place where dreams and gritty reality are dancing partners.
We accept the often irrational amalgam of drama and pure dance in the full-length classics of ballet. Parties and festivals provide pretexts for showy steps, and in the supernatural world, dancing is a modus vivendi. In Giselle, Albrecht gets to toss himself into wonderful steps because he’s being made to dance himself to death. A revival of the second act of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Creole Giselle (1984), staged and directed by Frederick Franklin, orchestrates the rising tension between pleading for life and dancing up a storm. DTH’s Wilis form a beautifully drilled ghostly army, and the moss-decked bayou graveyard is their parade ground. This company excels at projecting drama. Kip Sturm’s Albrecht comes across as gentle, almost bemused in his mourning for Giselle. I admire his subtle acting as well as his excellent jumps, but miss the occasional burst of speed or impetuousness. You get the impression of a man so noble that he’s resigned to death. As the Wili queen, Lenore Pavlakos is most impressive in her airborne passages. Kellye A. Saunders makes a sweet and tender Giselle, although her delicacy is more brittle than vaporous. Caroline Rocher and Tanya Wideman excel as two Wili lieutenants.
Memento Mori, a new ballet by company ballet master Augustus van Heerden to Peteris Vasks’s Musica Dolorosa, illustrates the perilous nature of the dance-drama relationship. The ballet relates the old tale of death-as-stalker—in this case, a studly, preening, magnificently muscled virtuoso (Ramon Thielen), who dances as if the air were molasses-thick. The drama occurs when he singles out one man (Sturm) from three couples. Until this occurs, these six don’t register as people, but as smiling dancers performing attractive steps in a void. Sturm doesn’t die at first, but he has an Experience, and after that the others smile less but dance the same. The work becomes suspenseful mainly because Thielen keeps circling Sturm and his partner (Saunders) and because, for an enigmatic second, Sturm reenacts with her the way Thielen caught and held him.
Van Heerden is one of the three choreographers (Laveen Naidu and DTH’s founder-director Arthur Mitchell are the other two) of last year’s hit South African Suite, a work that brings ballet, African steps, and modern dance into unity in startling and often original ways. This is an irresistible piece, with terrific music by a variety of African composers, played live by the Soweto String Quartet. Among the standout performers: Bethania Gomes and James Washington; Paunika Jones, Kevin Thomas, and Leslie Anne Cardona; and those two tall beauties, Christiane Cristo and Camille Parson. Here the drama is the dancing.