Just as we were all beginning to feel that Shakespeare had become a tad passé, archaic, and unrelatable, Rennie Harris Puremovement has returned to the Joyce Theater to bring us “Rome and Jewels,” the tale of two “star-crossed homies” whose unending strife is conveyed not through traditional drama, but rather through the more modern and somewhat cooler medium of hip-hop.
Beyond the superficial entertainment value of seeing the Bard’s most revered play adapted to include tank tops, Herculean shows of core muscle strength, and anachronistic references to “pussy” and “fallopian tubes,” “Rome and Jewels”—like all of Harris’ work—attempts to make a simple but much fought-over point: Like any other art form, hip-hop tells important narratives through movement, and it is worthy of a stage as well as a street presence.
For me, the principle shouldn’t be in any doubt, but if this is the show to convince us of the expressive potential of hip-hop, it feels like a slight disappointment.
The Shakespearean adaptation, which combines movement, music, dialogue, and rap to retell the tragedy, is only the first of four of the most celebrated works from the Rennie Harris Puremovement repertoire that are performed during the evening’s program. Founded in Philadelphia in 1992, the company has designed this latest program as a celebration of the progress the company has made since its inception. The more abstract “P-Funk” follows “Rome and Jewels,” followed by “Students of the Asphalt Jungle” and “March of the Antmen.”
Although it is the first time all four works have been shown together on a New York stage, none of the pieces are new, and therein lies part of the problem. Condensing four award-winning shows into one feels like an embarrassment of riches, and some of the nuance of each piece is lost. The audience becomes comfortable with the style of one performance, only to be jolted via an unnatural intermission into the next. Without enough time for a narrative to unfold, we never feel quite immersed in the world that the dancers create. The choreography in “Rome and Jewels” fails to facilitate a real, emotional connection between the audience and the characters onstage. Instead, viewers can’t forget that they are watching a mere representation of two lovers’ struggles filtered through the lens of hip-hop—when what we really want is for the choreography to facilitate a real, emotional connection between the audience and the characters onstage.
While the format of the show is a little stilted, Harris’ choreography and the professionalism of his dancers cannot be faulted. The company is unrivalled technically—the dancers’ athleticism is astounding, their energy infectious. The show seems to be most successful in those moments when the show breaks away from the confines of its darker, more conceptual scenes. Hip-hop is perhaps the dance form best able to express pure joy, and when the dancers begin to freestyle, both impressive acrobatics and subtly cool, jazz-inspired styles can be seen as performers bring their personalities to the stage. The movement itself is by turns humorous, passionate, aggressive, and ironic.
The latest offering from Rennie Harris Puremovement illustrates perfectly the tension inherent in modern, staged hip-hop. In feeling it has something to prove to established dance forms, it seems to have overplayed its hand. We are thrown so many concepts, stories, and political messages that the sheer talent of the dancers and choreographers is slightly lost. Perhaps if we stopped feeling the need to debate the legitimacy of hip-hop, companies like Rennie Harris Puremovement would feel less of a need to assert their worth so overwhelmingly, and could make more engaging, assertive work.