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Steve Sucato   |  August 06, 2022

‘Rennie’s’ Return Rekindles Hip-Hop Dance Flame [REVIEW]

Rennie Harris Puremovement – Nuttin’ But A Word
Cain Park – Evans Amphitheater

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
August 6, 2022

By Steve Sucato

It had been 24 years since the last time DANCECleveland and Cain Park presented Rennie Harris Puremovement. A lot has changed in the hip-hop dance scene since then, although witnessing the company’s hourlong program Nuttin’ But A Word this past Saturday night, in some respects, time seems to have stood still. A production sampling street dance and other dance styles lumped under the umbrella term hip-hop dance old and new, Nuttin’ But A Word, choreographed by company founder and Artistic Director, Rennie Harris, was as much a return to the dance styles celebrated onstage 24-years-ago as it was a fresh take on them in new dance works performed by new dancers. This was illustrated in the program’s opening work “Continuum” which highlighted the various dance styles across the street dance and hip-hop dance culture timeline with some traditional African dance moves thrown in for good measure.

A cast of 15 men and women formed a dance circle (minus the side that would have the dancers’ backs to the audience). Each in the cast then took a turn in its center showing off their talents in various dance styles, in an entertaining, audience-pandering, one-upmanship of those that took center stage before them. In an array of locking, house, and popping dance moves, along with some acrobatics and the ubiquitous Michael Jackson whip kick move, the display of skill from each dancer was unique and thrilling. Of note were the b-boy head spins and stage theatrics of dancer Joshua Culbreth who elicited vocal praise from the audience for his adroit skills.

Joshua Culbreth. Photo courtesy of DANCECleveland.

Next came the group unison dance “The Word…”. The most concert-like dance work on the program, the well-crafted piece set to pulsating music by former Sesame Street composer Osunlade, was the most recognizable to the So You Think You Can Dance crowd as current-day hip-hop dance. Within it was a twisting and shifting women’s trio led by the engaging Emily Pietruzska and a dynamic, machismo-fueled men’s quartet.

Billed as American Street Dance Theater, as a group, Rennie Harris Puremovement’s versatile dancers appeared as at home in the concert dance choreography as the improvisational-based street dance works they are perhaps best known for.

One of the more intriguing works on the program, “Unlocked” juxtaposed several dancers performing fast-paced locking movement phrases with other dancers performing in almost slow-motion, a deconstruction of that locking movement. That was followed by the piece “Bent,” which sought to exemplify the hip-hop dance tenet of innovation and evolution by performing those dance styles to Al Jarreau’s fusion jazz work “(Round, Round, Round) Blue Rondo à la Turk,” but the choreography for it fell a bit flat.

Conversely, “A Funny Thing Happened?,” which followed, and was also danced to jazz music, this time by British nu jazz group The Cinematic Orchestra, proved one of the evening’s highlights. It began with a line of women dancing in slow stylized movement as if constrained to let loose as a group of men was dancing full-out in a variety of movement phrases. Later the women appeared to break free of constraint and rivaled the men in a succession of expansive dance movements that truly impressed.

Rennie Harris Puremovment. Photo courtesy of DANCECleveland.

So too did the program’s most stirring work “A Day in the Life.” A duet for dancers Culbreath and Phillip Cuttino Jr., who portrayed friends unjustly harassed by the police. The two performers’ palpable hurt and rage could be felt by, and in some ways, embodied by the audience in this powerfully dramatic work that sadly ended with Cuttino Jr. simulating being shot by police.

After the piece “Locking Exposed,” the program concluded with “Get Down or Lay Down” to music by Mandrill. Like Nuttin’ But A Word’s opening piece “Continuum,” it involved the cast in a celebration of each other’s unique talents in what is referred to by Africanists as the “Bantaba.” The joyful piece touched on all the dance styles seen throughout the production and was a fitting end to a solidly entertaining evening of dance.

Dedicated to preserving and disseminating hip-hop culture, Harris and company may be the most visible keepers of the street dance and hip-hop dance historical flame. With Nuttin’ But A Word as well as their other works, they also continue to light new dance flames that burn brightly in the hearts and minds of those who witness their art.

ARTSAIRAUGUST 10, 2022AL JARREAU, BALLET, CAIN PARK, CLEVELAND, DANCE, DANCECLEVELAND, MANDRILL, MICHAEL JACKSON, OSUNLADE, RENNIE HARRIS, RENNIE HARRIS PUREMOVEMENT, THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA

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