Rennie Harris' hip- hop 'Heaven'

Michelle "Crykit" Kolnik (left) and Emiko Sugiyama in Rennie Harris Puremovement's "Heaven." The narrative is entwined with the story of "The Rite of Spring," in which a young virgin is sacrificed.
Michelle "Crykit" Kolnik (left) and Emiko Sugiyama in Rennie Harris Puremovement's "Heaven." The narrative is entwined with the story of "The Rite of Spring," in which a young virgin is sacrificed.
Posted: April 19, 2011

Heaven, Rennie Harris Puremovement's new hip-hop work for the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts at the Perelman Friday night, premiered hellishly late when the stagehand could not work the fog machine that was to have put us all on cloud nine.

Long white panels hung from fluorescent rods (James Clotfelter was lighting and scenic designer) and eventually were raised above the dancers' heads to act as projection screens. After the show, Clotfelter lamented that his lighting on the fog would have made it look so cloudlike.

This kind of mishap can throw a show off, and it did just a tad, with a fitful start and such faint animation by Spencer Sheridan that I later wondered if there had also been a problem with the projections. Nonetheless, Harris' company, four men and 10 women, built itself up to a forceful performance, heralded by a wobbly arrangement of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, one of the festival's touchstones.

The women wore white - some were in tunics reminiscent of Nicholas Roerich's costumes for the original Nijinsky Rite in 1913 - and their angular and architectural opening tableau reflected Nijinsky's choreography. But from there on in, the only thing resembling ballet were the women's undulating arms.

The male dancers, clad in red balloon-legged pants, bounded out on all fours, in a wonderful loping movement Harris has been using since his early days, and generally stayed low to the ground with coffee-grinder leg sweeps. An intimidating Emiko Sugiyama slowly entered the stage, and the music segued to "Stairway to Heaven." A voice-over in Japanese told the story of her grandfather, Hannibal, whose incessant longing for Heaven drives her to help him achieve his dream.

This narrative is entwined with the basic story of The Rite of Spring, in which a young virgin is sacrificed. But Harris, who has been accused by critics of misogyny because he did not employ female dancers early on, not only casts them here, he also switches the gender of the sacrificial victim - it is Hannibal, danced powerfully by Brian Newby.

After the incongruity of slipping between Stravinsky and Led Zeppelin, it would have been even harder to fathom Harris' use of Arvo Pärt's Cantus but for the sonorous foreboding it lent the preparatory scene of the ritualized murder. The other women, who had veered between siren-like sylphs and ghouls aggressively baring their teeth and spreading their fingers like claws, helped Sugiyama lay Newby across an altar they formed with their backs. One handed her a dagger and she dispatched her victim/grandfather to his paradise.

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