Rarely is a dance troupe so felicitously named as Rennie Harris Puremovement (http://www.rhpm.org/ [inactive 4/07]), whose performance in Reynolds Theater on January 21 was presented by Duke Performances and co-sponsored by the Duke University Dance Program. These 14 dancers were purely moving throughout the program's single, 90-minute piece, Facing Mekka.
Dance, of course, is always about motion, but for many choreographers the visual concerns of line, shape, and pattern are as important as movement. For Harris, at least in Facing Mekka, it's all about the flow. The enormous projected video images and the tsunami of sound produced on-stage by live musicians with acoustic and electronic instruments, while amazing in themselves, were but servants of the dance, which in its surge and eddy, its constant change and everlasting on-goingness, leads us to contemplate the eternal.
Facing Mekka reminded me of standing near Niagara Falls. One feels an unsettling tension between the water's frightening power and its pleasurable, hypnotic, ceaseless cascade, a tension heightened by the unrelenting roar. The music in Facing Mekka was very loud – so loud that within 30 seconds my ears hurt – and the volume, as well as the type of sound, made me physically uncomfortable and anxious. But the music was also fascinating and mesmerizing. Although the sounds were utterly different, it was very much like Sufi music for mystical whirling in its effect of taking the listener on a spiritual journey to an inner holy place. That this effect could be produced by a drummer with five tablas and a cellist (both of whom also vocalized), a guy working scratch on a couple of turntables and manipulating a synthesizer, and a human instrument who amplified himself through a microphone cranked far beyond clarity — well, I wouldn't have believed it if I had not experienced it. It wasn't what I would call beautiful music, but it was the most interesting music, structurally and texturally, that I've heard lately.
The dancers moved on its shimmering waves of sound – its pulsing beats, its broken rhythms, its convulsive breaks and repeats – to communicate the dance's intellectual concept without resorting to the weaker tools of narrative and illustration. Even without the projected background images (edited to mimic the music's pulse) of crowds pushing along the pilgrimage route to Mecca and surging around the Kaaba, one understood the idea of spiritual journey to be driving this work. In creating an analogy between the hajj of the Islamic faithful and the pilgrimage of the artist toward the purest expression of creative truth, Harris has made an artwork of deep meaning and lasting value.