By Walter Rutledge
The real significance of Rennie Harris’ body of work has been his ability to transform hip-hop, a vernacular dance style created during the height of inner city urban blight of the 80’s, into the foundation for his abstract narrative art form. In early works such as Rome and Jewels (2000) Harris transforms the visceral hip-hop esthetic into 21st classicism. His latest work for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Exodus infuses the hip-hop genre and modern dance with theatrical elements and strong choreographic structure.
The departure or Exodus is a spiritual journey to enlightenment. The work begins with spoken word as a lone dancer (Jamar Roberts) stands upstage left. Back lit by a single colorless light he begins to reach into the darkness. Slowly Roberts moves diagonally downstage creating a corridor on a stage strewn with bodies in repose.
A figure downstage right appears from the darkness. A distraught Hope Boykin holds a motionless body (Matthew Rushing), Roberts touches Rushing and he awakens. Roberts commands the stage with a Promethean aplomb, removing them from the darkness and giving them fire for a new consciousness.
This new consciousness is also symbolically expressed through Jon Taylor’s costumes. Taylor created a feeling of individualism in the first half of the work with varied costume styles and colors. In the second half the styles remained varied, but the costume color became a communal off white; which assisted to created a visual unity without uniformity.
Harris’ ability to overlaying multiple movement patterns in different time signatures, while maintaining a clear focal point is one of his trademark design elements. These passages were textural and image rich, conveying a range of emotions and imagery in one harmonious chorus of movement. When unison is finally employed it produces a unifying solidarity of purpose.
Harris’ style extends beyond movement. He is the craftsman with a real understanding of spatial design. Exodus is architectural, and the choreographic geometry has a natural organic build.
Always in control, Harris’ artistry remains the centerpiece. Instead of relying on tricks and individual virtuosity he trusts the collective group dynamic to drive the work. Subtle imagery and stillness punctuate the work even when the pulsing house music and gospel mix reaches 120 beats per minute. In one of many memorable moments Roberts walks between two stationary male dancers as if he was entering the gates to the new consciousness.
Exodus is one of four new works presented during the 2015 Ailey season. Other new works include: Untitled America: First Movement by Kyle Abraham, Open Door the sixth ballet for the Ailey Company by Ronald K. Brown) and Awakening, Robert Battle’s first original work of the company. The Ailey season runs through January 3 for ticket information and a complete schedule of performances visit ailey.org.