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Rennie Harris Puremovement

'Students of the Asphalt Jungle'

by Lyndsey Winship

November 11, 2003 -- Brighton Dome, Brighton, U.K.

Breakdance and ballet, they’re not that different really. They both evolved from social dance. They’re both languages based on a repertoire of specific, stylised moves. They both encourage dancers to express their personalities or characters. They both prize prime physical fitness. And they’re both about showing off. Whether it’s 32 fouettés or a 20-second headspin, we all know when to applaud.

There’s plenty of applause for Rennie Harris’ seven-strong company of fine dancers. There are whoops and cheers and a real feeling of celebration among the audience and on stage.

Celebrating hip hop culture and celebrating diversity are two of Puremovement’s aims. Here is a collection of expert movers who all arrived on stage via a different path. Some trained in dance or performing arts, others just danced in the streets and clubs, perfecting their popping, stepping, locking, house and b-boy moves (they don’t actually use the term breakdance).

But Puremovement aren’t just about pure movement at all. They’re not afraid to confront some ugly issues. Harris is on a mission to examine his culture (that of the African American male), to preserve it’s history and to educate the wider world. Sounds like a tall order for a bunch of guys just throwing some moves.

The b-boy is a familiar figure in popular culture. Hip hop music and style are massive in the UK, but what we see most often is the commercial side, obsessed with money, glamour and violence. This programme fleshes out the picture, spanning the feel-good roots of the block party and the expressive possibilities of dance theatre – from playful dance-offs to dark stories of abuse, racism and murder. Harris delivers monologues like a seasoned performance poet, ranting about brands, money, race, war, power and politics, throwing in snatches of Billie Holiday and Marvin Gaye for added impact.

There’s a healthy mix of a freestyle feel and choreographed movement (in "Continuum" and "P-Funk") combined with more atmospheric, probing pieces ("Endangered Species", "March of the Antmen") but this doesn’t always hang together. Across the evening, the change of pace between the showy and the serious is jarring, and the political stuff feels a bit heavy handed. But why should they just give us what we expect?

Puremovement is always ready to deflect preconceptions. They don’t even dance to hip hop. The athletic finale and title piece, "Students of the Asphalt Jungle", is pumped up by samba drums and house music – I guess because it’s faster than hip hop and therefore easier to raise the temperature. The moves are less predictable too and very gymnastic.

Jaws drop at the dancers’ amazing control. One balances in a handstand then tips his body over until his legs are parallel to the floor. He holds absolutely still before raising himself back to the vertical. Now that’s impressive. There are somersaults, flips, backspins, guys hopping on their hands, on one hand even, and crazy legs flying in every direction.

They still use the tradition form where each dancer takes a turn in the circle, trying to get one up on the last. And there’s a final, knowing entrance, when one dancer comes on and takes centre stage, points to his head and gives us what we’ve all been waiting for, a sense-defying headspin, complete with ultraviolet FX.

Puremovement knows that its dance is much more than clever tricks, but the dancers would hate to leave an audience unfulfilled.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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