By Walter Rutledge
Rennie Harris has achieved two “firsts” during the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 60th anniversary season. Harris has become the first year-long Ailey Artist-in-Residence and his ballet Lazarus is the first two act ballet commissioned by the company. The hour-long work shows significant artistic growth and is less hip-hop and more Harris.
Larazus opens with a gun shot. A sudden burst of light revealing an unconscious Daniel Harder held by Jamar Roberts (although slightly cliché the opening was appreciated for its brevity). Harder’s limp body slips through Robert’s embrace, as if life itself had slipped away. Meanwhile a group of dancers upstage watch motionless- too helpless to react. Throughout the first act Harris implemented uncharacteristically sustained, slow movement progressions that courageously dissect the stage creating an underworld like environment.
This bold direction created an abundance of stunning visual images. It also allowed us to experience Harris’ vast choreographic prowess, which often becomes a secondary design element due to the show stopping energy of his work. Breathtaking and energetic urban based movement passages became the base for an amalgam of dance styles that contributed to a thoughtful, well-crafted and developed first act.
Harris’ use of stillness, reoccurring and evolving themes were the linchpins of this abstract narrative’s success. Early in the work dancers crossed the stage shoulders raised with arms by their sides in a zombie-like posture. This was juxtaposed to Harder’s still, statue-like contrapposto, which immediately established a dreamlike netherworld. His clear and concise imagery contained multiple dance conversations happening simultaneously; which produced a visual harmony and created a moving tapestry of blood memories.
It’s amazing how sound affects our visual perception. The music montage/score, including Nina Simone, Odetta, Terrance Trent Darby, and original music by Darrin Ross, was also a rich tapestry that seemed to take us on a non-sequential journey through the African-American diaspora. The use of hip hop-based movement set to this score (that at time seems to reminiscence work songs, early twenty century religious, protest and vernacular music) exposed the source of the movement. The word that best describes the effect is etymology- the root or origin of a word. Here it was the root of a movement.
An unrelated example of this “dance etymology” would be John Bubbles in Cabin In The Sky (1943) and Michael Jackson moonwalking at the Motown 25 (1983). Different era, different impetus, yet a shared intent. The score provided the bridge that assisted the choreographer to conjure memories of bygone dances and social practices. It also anchored the work, while maintaining a supportive role; which enabled Harris to keep his intent at the forefront of the work.
The second act opened with a brilliant use of theme and variation. Harder closed act one walking downstage (en fosse) encompassed by dancers rolling at his feet. In act two he repeats the movement this time en diagonal, this simple variation seamlessly linked the two acts. Soon the second act began to move with a pace and vigor usually associated with Harris. The energy possessed an almost ecclesiastical ecstasy. Harder had seen the light and the light was good!
Outstanding choreographic structure allowed the work to excite the entire audience. The orchestra and first mezzanine were dazzled by the speed and intricate footwork that are the cornerstone of Philly’s GQ hip-hop style. While the upper balconies were treated to a kaleidoscope of patterns as groups of dancers intermingled, intertwined and interacted with geometric precision.
The work culminated with an audio Q&A with company founder Alvin Ailey. The section was surprisingly introspective and would have been a powerful conclusion. Instead, Harris chose to energize his audience through a false ending and a second staged bow. Just a slight stumble at the end of a race well run.
Lazarus marks a new direction for Rennie Harris and hip-hop’s continued transition from folk dance to a theatrical/presentational mainstream art- form. His impressive use of choreographic structure and design illustrates the duality of creativity and technical prowess. This Lazarus should live a long life.
Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik