- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

Dancer-choreographer Rennie Harris is a force of nature. A huge hulk of a man with a powerful frame, he moves with the force of a cyclone, dreadlocks lashing the air as he explodes with energy.

Two weeks ago, he appeared in his celebrated 1992 solo, “Endangered Species,” at the Kennedy Center’s Masters of African American Choreography festival. On a darkened stage, standing in a beam of smoke-filled light, he danced the pain and anger of being a black man surviving in a world surrounded by violence and despair.

This past weekend, he and his company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, appeared locally for the second time in a fortnight at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in a program presented jointly with the Washington Performing Arts Society.

“Facing Mekka,” created more than a decade after “Endangered Species,” shows an impressive growth in reach and theatrical resourcefulness.

This more recent work springs from a rich and diverse culture that includes hip-hop, break dancing, Afro-Brazilian capoeira movements, Islamic influences, beatbox vocalists and East Indian drumming, all set against a shifting collage projected against the back of the stage — which includes people and places but mostly creates a shimmering background for the stage action.

The evening-length work is episodic, but its cumulative effect is powerful.

Mr. Harris includes women in his cast on this occasion; they project a feminine component of both tenderness and strength. He himself, in two striking solos, brings compelling passion to the stage.

His group of remarkable men show the human body in feats so astounding they seem magical — soaring through the air in backward somersaults embellished with bodies pirouetting in the air; moving along the floor on their elbows, their bodies levitating a few inches off the floor; one man doing head spins — a signature hip-hop move — that explode in a dizzying flurry of arms and legs like a giant waving anemone.

As astonishing as the dancing in “Facing Mekka” can be, it is a tribute to Mr. Harris’ vision that the movements never seem like empty virtuosic tricks. The flights of these dancers into space are like flights of the spirit — the physical embodiment of a soaring grace.

The music is as extraordinary as the dancing. A recorded score includes music and the sounds of crickets, heavy breathing and sirens. Added to that are the presence of three remarkable musicians.

Philip Hamilton possesses a strong, unusual voice that he projects with the nasal overtones of Middle Eastern singers. His vibrant sounds brought a sense of warmth and ritual to the stage.

Lenny Seidman, a percussionist who draws from Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and West African drumming traditions, transfixed the audience with his tour-de-force playing of the North Indian tabla, projecting all its intricate rhythms and complex vocal variations.

Most magical of all were the sounds emanating from Kenny Muhammad, a string bean of a teenager who, with sibilant hisses, clicks and deep guttural base notes produced such sounds from his larynx that it was hard to believe they were coming from a single voice. True to the all-embracing spirit of “Facing Mekka,” he also contributed to the visual effect, his body weaving and his hands moving like birds in ecstatic flight.

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