Rennie Harris: Funkedified Takes a Fast-Paced Trip to the Days Before Hip-Hop
The New Victory Theater brings funk music and dance to the stage.
In the '70s, the TV show What's Happening!! introduced audiences to a new dance genre known as funk, when Rerun, played by Fred Berry, occasionally broke out in routines filled with locking, popping, jumping, and dramatic splits. Rennie Harris grew up when funk was at its freshest, and he was inspired by dancers like the Campbell Lockers, the pioneering dance troupe that Berry belonged to and that appeared on that other classic show of '70s TV, Soul Train.
Ever since immersing himself in dance from the age of 15, Harris has become a major American choreographer and an authority on funk and hip-hop dance, so his new adrenaline-fueled show, Rennie Harris: Funkedified, now running at the New Victory Theater, offers a must-see chance to check out a dozen talented dancers stepping to Harris's moves, while taking a look back at a genre that has traveled many roads from the street to the mainstream.
In his multimedia show, Harris has brought together two dance troupes — Rennie Harris Puremovement and the Hood Lockers — and a six-piece band that jams on songs by James Brown, Dennis Coffey, and on other funk-inspired tunes by sound designer and composer Darrin Ross. What transpires is an hour-long journey through the evolution of funk performed by a multiethnic group of blazingly talented male and female dancers showcasing Harris's dynamic choreography. Besides the genre's recognizable popping and locking, performer Joshua Culbreath shows how b-boying (sometimes called breaking) fits into the mix, while Leigh Foaad (a.k.a. Breeze-Lee), in one of the show's slower numbers, lets us see how funk can achieve moments of balletic grace.
Funkedified often has an improvisational feel, as when the dancers dart onstage to join in a synchronized routine while others disappear into the wings, but it's all a well-tuned dancing machine that shows us just how Puremovement got its name. They're backed by the amped-up band directed by Mathew Dickey on guitar and Doron Lev on drums. Above the band, Jorge Cousineau's psychedelic projections, peppered with city scenes, keep the '70s street vibe ever present.
Harris, also an educator, includes his own recorded voiceover throughout the show to give us an oral history of funk and his journey with it. One of the show's shortcomings is that the narration is overwhelmed by the band in the first half, though a quieter coda near the end allows us to hear Harris's insights regarding the bluesy, sad side of funk. His words are an important part of this experience, and we need to hear them.
Still, besides being an excellent showcase for super-talented performers, there's much to be learned about modern dance in Funkedified. Astute observers will see evidence of moves that Michael Jackson used for the Moonwalk, as well as striking poses that foreshadow the advent of vogue. Funkedified also makes an apt primer on Harris's work in advance of his upcoming choreography gig for the Encores! concert production of Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World at New York City Center later this month. Either way, the show is a great intro (for families with kids ages 9 and up) to the dance that gave birth to hip-hop that will inspire young budding dancers to move their feet to a funky beat.