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For this third year of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, a special series of events was curated by The Painted Bride. Dubbed "Hip Hop 2 da Head," it represented all aspects of hip-hop culture: visual art (including graffiti), rap (hip-hop poetry), deejay virtuosity, and dance. The fact that this mini-festival opened and closed with works by white males indicates how far hip-hop has traveled from its roots in black American urban enclaves to mainstream acceptance as an art form. Performance artist Danny Hoch's brilliant, poignant Jails, Hospitals, & Hip-Hop, itself a form of physical theater, launched the series, and the Doug Elkins Dance Company concluded it.

Using a potentially powerful mix of abstract movement (from modern and hip-hop idioms), mime, and poetry, Jonzi D, African-British choreographer, dancer, and alumnus of the London School of Contemporary Dance, presented an evening-length odyssey that explored issues of identity. With dancers Alan Miller and Muhammed Wilson, he blurred the boundaries between concert and club formats; at times the audience became the disco crowd, with appropriate "freestyle" movement and direct contact between performers and spectators. The influence of traditional modern dance principles of composition is evident in Jonzi D's work, sometimes making it more well-behaved than it might otherwise be. He effectively uses silence in Silence da Bitchin' and Shoota. When sound enters the dances, it is the choreographer's original rap poetry (very stream-of-consciousness and spiritual) or DJ Bizznizz's sleight-of-hand productions at the turntables that occupy the upstage center spot for the duration of the concert.

The choreographer has a disarmingly charming stage presence that stands in contrast to cliches about rappers and hip-hoppers. Slight of build, bespectacled (even when dancing upside down), dreadlocked, and twentysomething, in Shoota he fingers and caresses the shaft of a pistol as though it's the body of a loved one. The weapon leads him through several mimed character transformations until, in a split second of power mania, he moves from masturbation (with the pistol as phallus) to suicide. This piece is a didactic, expressionist, cautionary tale that strategically balances comedy and tragedy in a dance-mime-gesture collage of preaching and teaching.

Doug Elkins has been "doing his thing" as the Peck's Bad Boy of concert dance for about a decade. Like Jonzi D, he comes from a "good boy" education in modern dance, and this is evident in all his work. Indeed, his choreagraphy is a studied, controlled, logical continuation of the lineage and boundaries of postmodern dance as it was established, from Merce Cunningham through Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, and others. In appropriating the African American break dance/hip-hop vocabulary and integrating it (pun intended) into what has by now become a traditional approach to dance composition--postmodernism quoting pop forms--his result seems less daring than it's hyped up to be.

Elkins's grasp of the art of making concert dances is impeccable. Sometimes, as in In Winter, Stand (1999), a work that is all about coupling and partnering, the dancers exhibit their craft, but, as I experienced it, the movement ended at their skin, rather than permeating the space and reaching the audience. Their bodies have been choreographed, but not the space. The work offers fascinating innovations in content but little challenge in form. Elkins is a master of the short form, the choreographed collage. He has difficulty in reflecting an overall dynamic for the work as a whole.

Train to Philly, the work commissioned for the Fringe Festival, is a case in point. Again turning to the African American aesthetic for inspiration, Elkins has choreographed a work that is a visual tribute to the black "Philly sound." Described as a "small walking tour" of Philadelphia's popular culture, the work is a sample of musical styles from soul to rap, from the 1960s through the 1990s. Special "props" go to Fritha Pangelly and Tony Agostinelli. They beautifully performed a hip-hop transformation to a rap by Philly's Roots. Generally, Elkins's dances and dancers display what is termed "attitude," a black urban concept that has been assimilated into contemporary pop parlance. It means being cool. However, cool can exist only in relation to its opposite--hot. Altitude needs to be nourished by spirit.

My problem with Elkins's work is that the choreography and performance seldom reach the level of immersion in the process of dancing and in engagement with the audience. Although they are fabulously trained and perform admirable feats, the dancers don't break a sweat, don't dare or challenge themselves (or the choreography doesn't challenge them) to reach that far. The result, for this spectator, is that the work feels sophisticated, subtle, smooth, cool, controlled--and facile. There is a self-conscious artifice to the outrageous pop movements that are artfully slipped into a "well-made dance" like Narcoleptic Lovers (1995). Attitude can too easily slide into arrogance. Probably Elkins would do well to work with a composer and a custom-made score.

Contrary to my reserve, the Friday-night audience was enthusiastic, with half the nearly full house rising for a standing ovation.

Thanks to its producer, Nick Stuccio (of Pennsylvania Ballet), program director Deborah Block, and the many others who made it happen, Philly's Fringe has done wonders in launching the new season. With eleven nonstop days and nights of more than 500 dance, music, theater, and art events--many of them are site-specific and outdoors--it's one big party that shouldn't be missed.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Next Article:SARA DE LUIS.

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