In the middle of the opening set at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! on Thursday, the rapper and performance poet Decora dedicated a song to a man he called a mentor: the folk singer Pete Seeger. The song, played by a full band with horns and electric guitar, was a riff on Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
In its unexpectedness, this was an apt introduction to the main act, Rennie Harris Puremovement dance troupe. For decades, Harris has been swerving away from stereotypes and expectations of hip-hop dance, all while staying true to its roots. As he explains in one of the video segments interspersed throughout “Nuttin’ but a Word,” the touring show he brought for this free performance in Prospect Park, he considers the three laws of hip-hop to be individuality, creativity and innovation. Which means that hip-hop is fundamentally progressive and ever changing. “To change how you view it is progressive,” he says.
“Nuttin’ but a Word” isn’t all that innovative in form. It’s a suite of numbers, a mixtape dance. But much of the music isn’t what you might expect from a hip-hop dance show: ambient tracks; the Cinematic Orchestra’s “Man With the Movie Camera,” which sounds a bit like the theme from “Mission: Impossible” with a killer drum beat. To watch these dancers tackle Al Jarreau’s vocal version of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” a manic jazz standard in 9/8 meter, is great fun.
The vocabulary is likewise not strikingly new: a blend of moves from house, b-boying and Campbell locking — the bouncy articulation of arms, elbows and fingers that point every which way. There are occasional flashes of pyrotechnics — flips, head spins — and some of the fabulous footwork is almost too quick to see. But the emphasis is on subtlety and groove. These are exceptionally musical dancers who never lose their connection to an underlying rhythm even as they physically register every subdivision and stutter.
For a master like Harris, the choreography is a little short on expressive groupings and stage patterning. Once or twice, he gets some oppositional forces going, a line of dancers holding still as another line eats space. But much of the evening is just unison or solos. It’s still superior hip-hop dance.
The most affecting number is called “A Day in the Life.” Set to a hauntingly quiet track by Dhafer Youssef that builds to muezzin-like keening, it’s a narrative. Joshua Culbreath and Phillip Cuttino Jr. are two guys on the corner, sliding sideways, stopping to look around or smoke a joint. They are assailed by invisible forces, presumably the police, and Cuttino is shot and killed. Culbreath’s dance of grief, though a touch maudlin in its miming, uses the expressive potential of b-boy steps, the way he spirals and windmills on his back, to intensely moving effect.
“Rappers tell stories all the time, so why can’t a hip-hop choreographer?” Harris asks in the next video segment. It’s a question he answered long ago by showing how narratively expressive hip-hop’s dance vocabulary could be. But in these video segments, Harris is still explaining himself, still fighting battles he would seem to have won earlier in his career.
True to the laws of hip-hop as Harris defines them, “Nuttin’ but a Word” rests heavily on the individuality of its dancers. Compared to the superhuman performers of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, for whom Harris often choreographs, these dancers look more ordinary: less polished and precise in position, if always rhythmically accurate. But each one catches your eye with small-scale wonders and charm: Culbreath busting out some air guitar and the Moonwalk, Emily Pietruszka popping like a fierce robot.
The show starts with the dancers circling up to a house track and taking solo turns. It ends, satisfyingly, with a funk song by Mandrill, the kind of music for which these moves were made. In this way, “Nuttin’ but a Word” could be seen as both progressive and conservative. It follows what Harris says is his mantra: “Always Keep Moving.”
Nuttin’ but a Word
Performed at Prospect Park on Thursday.