A woman stands at stage center, her knee-length black dress draping loosely over trousers. She's trembling. Flashing lights -- a disco? faux lightening? -- cut the stage's darkness. The sound of thunder, then rain, pours from the speakers. It's loud, overpowering. The woman suffers, she's convulsing; her corn-rowed hair flies in the syncopated rhythm.
A man rambles through, his footwork kicking. He's pounding the floor; it's demonic but beautiful. Later, the same man will soar in high, jagged leaps. Three others join in, handsome tidy men dressed in church attire; their white shirts gleam against black skin. Seven church-going ladies strut on stage, beauties all, garbed in red Sunday's best. Using hands to fan sweaty faces, they absorb the troubled woman in their swaggering, gospel-soaked parade.
In no time, the choreographer has introduced twelve bodies on stage and it's pulsating and rocking so hard it's difficult to take it all in.
This blistering master work, Reign, choreographed by hip-hop guy Rennie Harris, rained down on Henan Province in June, performed by Lula Washington Dance Theatre during the Los Angeles-based modern dance company's three-week tour of the China.
I saw Reign perhaps eight times and its syncopated, aerobic body logic never failed to mesmerize. And the Washington dancers -- on whom Harris created the ecstatic piece -- own it, they work it so hard. They kill in this piece.
Henan Province is not Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou; it's the hinterland, an interior place not fully participating in 21st century modernity. There's no less likely audience for the Guggenheim and Alpert Award-winning dance maker's Reign. And yet, very simple people in the culturally isolated Henan, considered one of China's poorest provinces, stepped up, watching earnestly despite music that must have been immensely foreign to them.
Reign, persists a full fifteen minutes, smoky, rambling, way-cool and so infectiously funky, that if you can resist the pull of James "JT" Wilconson's gospel-house mix, it means that you're dead.
The work illuminates Harris's genius in moving vernacular dance from club to concert stage, and in unifying the black church's holy roller past with a mega super hip nowness. What a wonderful talent.
Rocking, knocking knees; backward, jagged kung-fu kicks; low-legged duck walks; hands puncturing the air with splayed fingers; arms broken at the elbow; falls to the stage caught by one strong hand -- all of this wicked fresh movement pours forth from Reign.
Musky, moistly funky, the dancers soldier though Harris's physical demands -- so punishing they must either transcend, or perish. The lyrics echo 'He reigns, He reigns, He reigns from heaven above. He reigns forever and ever...'
Then comes a new message, 'I can go to the rock of my savior...' Reign proposes a place of solace, comfort, safety and certitude, reachable through the vibrant body. What on earth the Chinese got from this is anyone's guess. I watched thousands of them watching Reign. Most looked in total shock.
Read more about Lula Washington's recent China tour:
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Los Angeles-based arts journalist Debra Levine blogs about dance, film, music and urban culture on arts•meme.