Kiddie birthday entertainment seems like an unlikely origin for the roughest, toughest new urban dance phenomenon, but such is the genealogy offered in Rize, fashion photographer David LaChapelle’s highly entertaining but underdeveloped documentary on clown dancing and krumping, two interrelated forms that emerged in the ‘hoods of Los Angeles. The former began inauspiciously when a friend asked Tommy Johnson, the doc’s default focal point, to don rainbow wig and face paint for a children’s party in the days following the Rodney King riots. His energetic and personable “hip-hop dancing clown” antics proved popular enough that Johnson, working under the nom de buffoon Tommy the Clown, spawned an unexpected cultural trend, eventually taking on a generation of young protégés and inspiring the formation of other clown crews, which in recent years number over 20 and provide a creative community alternative to the lure of gangs, drugs, and crime.
From this intergenerational seedbed of clownage sprang krumping, an aggressively virtuosic form of dance battling that serves as the visual raison d’ for LaChapelle’s documentary. Gyrating and popping so rapidly that they seem like break-dancers on fast-forward (opening titles stress that no video has been sped up), krumpers face off with the belligerent bravado of backyard wrestlers, micro-syncopating every body movement in an ever morphing flurry of astonishing corporeal control. The signature move is a hyperactive booty shake that engages the entire torso as an expressive instrument; according to interviewees, it evolved from a more sexualized Caribbean-esque grind called “the stripper dance.” Traditional clown makeup transformed into asymmetrical warrior face paint that’s itself a minor art form, individually composed of blue flames, starburst streaks, and other abstract motifs, more reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust than Bozo.
Shot in a neo-vérité combination of generous performance footage and face-to-face interviews, Rize stays mostly bereft of the hyper-real hard-candy stylization LaChapelle pioneered in his print work and music videos, saving such high-gloss methods for a slow-motion coda. Although Rize demonstrates the aesthetic power and socially uplifting effects of “krumpness,” like many documentaries about performers, it’s hampered by its subjects’ skill at playing to the camera. Few of the interviews get much further than recording surface boasts and assertive self-definitions; LaChapelle connects all their stories with common threads of resisting gang culture, but at the expense of flattening out each person’s character.
This propensity leads to a particularly unfortunate sequence. Attempting to provide deeper historical background, LaChapelle suddenly cuts to what appears to be tribesmen dancing, wrestling, and face painting. Inserted to follow a statement from one performer that his skills simply came naturally, the footage appears without context or explanation. One suspects LaChapelle meant to offer an illustration of krumping’s ultimately African roots, but in fact the anonymous tribesmen’s dancing looks very little like that of the SoCal teens. It’s as if a Martha Graham documentary suddenly jumped to stock shots of traditional Irish jigging but left its argument at that. Far more remains unsaid about how krumping incorporates more historically recent gestures. Break dancing is given a brief nod, but even casual observers might recognize elements of electric boogaloo, capoeira, and ballet; one kid even high-steps a cakewalk.
While Rize includes evidence of controversy surrounding Tommy the Clown’s status as the grandfather of krump, there may be more to the story. The website for a recently released DVD called Get Krump, made with many of the same dancers featured in Rize, warns that “many characters and clowns are trying to take the credit away from the true source and founders.”
Get Krump‘s producers explain that their documentary “is not a pity tale with the old song ‘I dance because my alternatives are drugs and gang violence’ but rather ‘I dance because I am the best at it and you are invited to prove me wrong.’ ” Seems like the competition might not be over; Mr. LaChapelle, consider yourself served.