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Groundbreaking Philadelphia dancer, choreographer, and artistic director Rennie Harris will present world premiere performances of Facing Mekka, his new, full-evening hip-hop dance production, 8 p.m. today and tomorrow at the Williams Center for the Arts as part of a campus residency. Offering a vision of dance as a vehicle for uniting people and cultures, Facing Mekka includes hip-hop performance, photomontage, videography, original music, and text.

Tickets cost $18 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-330-5009.

The Facing Mekka residency includes several workshops and class presentations by Harris and his dancers for Lafayette students, including a presentation today to the African Religions in America class taught by Kofi Opoku, professor of religion, and classes for theater and dance students yesterday and tomorrow. Harris also gave a presentation at Easton Area High School last Thursday.

Facing Mecca features live percussion and original vocal and instrumental compositions performed by principal music collaborators Grisha Coleman, Philip Hamilton, and “The Human Orchestra” Kenny Muhammed, as well as musicians Lenny Seidman, and Gabby Lang. The music composition is produced and composed by Darrin Ross. Other contributors include collage artists John Abner and Theodore Harris; visual designer and videographer Tobin Rothlein; lighting designer, stage manager, and technical director David Szlasa; costume designer Onome Ekeh; set constructionist Jorge Cousineau; musician DJ Evil Tracy; and more than a dozen dancers.

The production includes “Lorenzo’s Oil,” a Butoh-like hip-hop dance performed by Harris. The solo depicts a journey in which Harris, traveling slowly on a long diagonal, serenely executes hip-hop movements. Images will be projected on screen and a floor to create a multi-layered landscape.

“Harris, well known for his boundary-pushing synthesis of hip-hop and modern dance, is also committed to treating the vital, evolving hip-hop dance scene as a serious tradition, deserving of documentation,” notes the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Facing Mekka is a sequel to Rome & Jewels, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Broadway’s West Side Story, which Rennie Harris Puremovement performed at the Williams Center in September 2000. Harris presented the Lorenzo’s Oil dance at the Williams Center last April while developing Facing Mekka, and met with theater, dance, and religion classes as part of a residency. Harris also served a residency at Lafayette the previous September, when he presented Illadelph Legends, which pays homage to the culture Harris’ choreography honors. He kicked off Black History Month on campus last month with a brown bag lecture about Facing Mekka and hip-hop traditions.

Harris provides audiences “with a sincere view of the essence and spirit of hip-hop rather than the commercially exploited stereotype portrayed by the media.” He was a 1996 recipient of the Pew Fellowship in the Arts for Choreography and has received awards from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Pew Repertory Development Initiative, the City of Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and the 1996 Philadelphia Dance Projects commission. He has been nominated for a Cal State Herb Alpert Award in the Arts three times. He has been voted one of the most influential people in the last 100 years of Philadelphia history and has been compared to twentieth-century dance legend Alvin Ailey.

Composer and vocalist Grisha Coleman is artistic coordinator of the performance group Hot Mouth, in which she is engaged as a writer, composer, performer, and choreographer. She has received a Rockefeller Multi-Arts Production Grant (1998), Franklin Furnace Performance Grant (1997), New York Foundation Artists’ Fellowship (1993), Movement Research Artist in Residence/Commission (1996), and The Van Lier Minority Choreographer’s Fellowship at Performance Space 122 (1995). From 1989-1993, she was a member of the dance/theater company Urban Bush Women, which performed at Lafayette last month. Coleman has worked with a diverse group of artists ranging from Ysaye M. Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock to filmmaker Spike Lee. In New York City, she often plays with the Sound Lab/Cultural Alchemy. She can be heard on poet Carl Hancock Rux’s new album and contributed a solo voice/cello track on Paul D. Miller’s (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) latest album. She was musical director for the 1996 Bessie Award-winning piece Stained, presented at the African-American Post-Modern Festival at Aaron Davis Hall. Coleman has taught seminars, workshops, and master classes extensively at universities throughout Britain and the U.S. She is a guest teacher at the International Workshop Festival in London, and regularly leads workshops for Movement Research’s Improvisation Festival in New York.

Musician and vocalist Philip Hamilton founded the jazz fusion band Full Circle in the late 1980s and has collaborated with such noted musicians as John Cage, Special EFX, Phoebe Snow, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, among many others. He was lead vocalist for the 1998 and 1999 tours of the Pat Metheny Group, which garnered him accolades as a “vital” and “a perfect addition” to the ensemble. He leads the Philip Hamilton Group, which features original compositions that showcase the African, Caribbean, and jazz influences integral to his work. The band has recently completed a tour of Japan, South America, and the United States. Hamilton has created music or worked on musical projects with such noted artists as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Danny Buraczeski\Jazzdance (Ezekiel’s Wheel, Beat), Mark Morris, David Dorfman, Donald Byrd/The Group, Dance Theater of Harlem, and Ballet Hispanico In addition to Facing Mekka, Hamilton has created music this past season for Martha Bowers’ Dream Life of Bricks Project, Ronald K. Brown\Evidence’s “Walking Out the Dark,” and Anne Reinking’s “Slices” for Ballet Hispanico. His compositions for theater and film include the theme for the Emmy-award winning PBS television series “Say Brother” and the musical How the World Got Wisdom, based on African folk tales.

Composer and vocalist Kenny Muhammad plays African, classical, jazz, rock, mambo, meringue, salsa, reggae, and hip-hop rhythms through the manipulation of his body. His vocal work has gained recognition in Africa, Japan, Europe, and throughout the United States. He has toured with such acts as Public Enemy and Jermaine Jackson, been a featured artist with The New York Symphony Orchestra at Manhattan Center, and performed at King Sejong Hall in Seoul, South Korea. He has also performed with Regina Bell, Malik Yoba, The Gap Band, and renowned jazz vocalist Will Downing and Patti Labelle. He has made appearances on CBS This Morning, Good Day New York, and at Carnegie Hall. Muhammad is a three-time consecutive winner on “Show Time at the Apollo.” He has also written, created, and been featured in several nationwide television and radio commercials. His commercial for Burger King was nominated for a Cleo award.

In addition to performing at the Annenberg Theatre and Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, Rennie Harris has toured the U.S. as part of Chuck Davis’ Dance Africa America. His company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, has performed and led residencies in the U.S. and abroad at such venues as the Kennedy Center, Luckman Theatre in Los Angeles, Boston’s Dance Umbrella, Spoleto Dance Festival, Colorado Dance Festival, Bates Dance Festival, Parc de La Villette in Paris, Celebration of African Heritage in Bahia, Brazil, the Holland Dance Festival, and the Nervi Festival in Italy. The company received a 1998-1999 National Dance Project grant for Rome & Jewels.

Harris grew up in the inner city of North Philadelphia. He started dancing at eight years old by emulating dance moves from the TV program “Soul Train.” He was 14 when the Smithsonian Institution included him in a folk dance program. Harris began dancing professionally at age 15 and touring at 19. The year he formed his current company, he also created Endangered Species, a solo work.

Harris is well versed in the vernacular of hip-hop, which includes the various techniques of b-boy (often labeled by the misnomer of “break dancing”), house dancing, stepping, and other styles that have emerged from the urban, inner cities of America. He has brought these social dances to the concert stage, creating a cohesive dance style that finds a cogent voice in the theater.

The artist explained his philosophy of dance to the Richmond-Times Dispatch: “I aim for dance that puts people in a different space. You can’t solve all the problems [in society], but you can recognize them and move on. African dance is about celebration. You go through the struggle and then celebrate. I don’t know anybody who has ever danced and not been happy. The spirit of hip-hop is the spirit of celebration.”

Intrigued by the universality of hip-hop, Harris seeks inspiration from other forms, including Angola and Brazilian Capoeira, West African dance, and performance art. As a pioneer in performing, choreographing, and teaching African-American hip-hop, he toured the country and abroad with the first organized hip-hop tour in America, the “Fresh Festival” starring Run DMC, Fatboys, Curtis Blow, and Whodini, as well as working with Kool Moe Dee, West Street Mob, Salt ’N’ Pepa, and other noted hip hop stars. Since the age of 15, Harris has taught workshops and classes at many schools and universities, including University of the Arts, UCLA, Columbia College, and Bates College.

The Harris residency is sponsored by National Dance Project, Pennsylvania Artists on Tour, and Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

The nationally recognized Performance Series at Lafayette attracts more than 10,000 people each season. It has been cited for performing excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project, Chamber Music America, Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, Pennsylvania Arts and Humanities Councils, and Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

The 2002-03 Performance Series at Lafayette is supported in part by gifts from Friends of the Williams Center for the Arts; by the F.M. Kirby Foundation; by provisions of the Alan and Wendy Pesky Artist-in-Residence Program, the James Bradley Fund, and the Ed Brunswick Jazz Fund; and by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour, and New England Foundation for the Arts.

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