Rennie Harris Funkedified
Wednesday, July 10 & Thursday, July 11
Gotta have that funk, yo.
Yale art historian, Robert Farris Thompson, in his 1983 work, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, traces the origins of the word “funk” to the Ki-Kongo word, “lu-fuki,” meaning, to praise someone for the “integrity of their art, for having ‘worked out’ to achieve their aims.”
That said, the Rennie Harris Puremovement dancers and musicians who took it to the stage of the Carolina Theater last week at the American Dance Festival, definitely worked it out.
For seventy minutes—no intermission needed—the audience time-traveled back the 1970s and were transfixed by the kinetic, high-energy, black street dance styles on display by the seemingly inexhaustible troupe. Lighting throughout the show, particularly the use of spotlights, was emphasized the individuality of the dancers.
A live band augmented the dance performance by laying down a heavy slice of southern-fried funk and paid homage to groove and soul masters James Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Bobby Womack. The only thing missing from the formally titled, “Funkedified” concert was “Mr. X,” the Soul Train dance legend who used to pop and lock with a big toothbrush.
The concert offered an impressive, muscular three-dimensional performance that included a video montage of African-American communities in the 1970s. The performance, two years in the making, began with a darkened stage while audio from the 1975 classic, “P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up), by Parliament-Funkadelic, filled up the room. The dancers walked on stage and assumed frozen positions. They sprang to rhythmic life when touched by a dancer in a red Adidas sweatsuit and matching Kangol hat.
Then the stage funking exploded with the work “Hadika,” that featured the Hood Lockers, whose high-stepping, pop, lock, worm, breakdance, moon-walking, slo-mo, voguing, back-flips, somersaulting, dancing on their hands, damn-near gravity-defying style pays tribute to The Lockers, a dance group founded in 1971 by Don Campbell and Toni Basil. The group’s most famous member was Fred Berry, a merry, Falstaffian rocket of a dancer who was later cast as Fred “Rerun” Stubbs in the 1970s television show, “What’s Happening!!” Today, the group is recognized as pioneers of street dance.
Harris is credited with bringing social dances to the concert stage. The Philadelphia native has been called “the most profound choreographer of his idiom,” by The New York Times and “the Basquiat of US contemporary dance scene,” by The London Times.
The dance pioneer employed video footage to narrate snippets of his life story, beginning with the realization as a child that he could dance. Harris says he attended the birthday of a girl “the whole block had a crush on.”
His mom had outfitted him for the dance “in black knickerbockers, long socks and suspenders. “I was going down the Soul Train line and I could hear people saying, ‘he can dance.’ I did kicks and splits and I just know I was killing it at that party. You couldn’t tell me anything different. I didn’t get the girl. She went with another dude. He didn’t even dance. But I killed it.”
And thus a dance legend was born. The group’s high-octane performance worked impressively in tandem with the New York-based Invincible funk band. Of particular note was dancer Leigh “Breeze-Lee” Foaad’s solo interpretation of the landmark 1970s tune “Maggot Brain.” Hazel’s unforgettable guitar solo was ably captured by Invincible’s Matt Dickey who stepped down from the raised platform where the band played and joined Foaad. It was a nice moment.
My only qualm? It went on a bit too long, particularly during a curtain call that begged the patience of an audience that, nonetheless, gave the ensemble a standing ovation.
It was particularly nice to see public school buses lined in front of the Carolina Theater for the group’s matinee performance on Thursday. The program notes indicated that the free youth tickets were the gift of an anonymous donor, while subsidized tickets for Durham public school students were made possible, in part, by the Duke Energy Foundation.
Perhaps the next Rennie Harris or Damita Jo Freeman was sitting in the audience.