Review: In ‘Funkedified,’ the Visceral Glory of Funk

Posted June 4, 2018 5:10 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “It makes your face crumple up, like something smells really bad.” That’s Rennie Harris, in his disjointed but deeply pleasing new show “Funkedified,” trying to explain the visceral effect of funk music. It’s not easy to put into words.

Fortunately, Harris has other means. He is a choreographer, probably the greatest one in hip-hop. He’s also an educator and a scholar, with a masterly understanding of the dance forms that funk music inspired in the early 1970s — especially the popping and locking that hip-hop experts like him often categorize as funk styles.

These are moves that originated mostly on the West Coast and spread through “Soul Train.” Even if you don’t know the terminology, you probably recognize the stop-motion animation of angled limbs, the centipede articulation of joints, the guileless joy and goofy knickerbockers and beanies. Forearms spin at the elbows like propellers, revving up then reversing. Impossibly quick feet subdivide the rhythm. Elastic bodies drop suddenly to the knees or into half-splits. Fingers point every which way, but always to the beat.

“Funkedified” is principally a showcase of funk styles. At the New Victory Theater, where the production had its premiere Friday, the terrific dancers of Harris’ Philadelphia-based company, Puremovement, are augmented by a four-man team of period specialists known as the Hood Lockers. A tight band (led by drummer Doron Lev and guitarist Matthew Dickey) brings the funk live, covering James Brown and George Clinton, among others.

Part of what makes this dance idiom recognizable is a certain narrowness, and over the course of an hourlong show, as the same moves kept returning, I periodically found myself wondering if Harris and the dancers had run out of material. But then some dancer would flash a fresh variation, musically witty or physically astonishing, and my doubt would dissolve into pleasure.

That creativity is the glory of the show, but my worry was a sign of structural flaws. Despite Harris’ fluid staging, which has the look of a street corner with folks always passing through, the overall pacing is herky-jerky, hampering the twitchy style rather than enhancing it. And there’s little to hold the show together except a slight connecting thread of autobiography, a few oddly placed voice-over segments in which Harris tells anecdotes about his youth as a funk-style dancer or ruminates on the meaning of funk.

Funk has two sides, he says at one point. It’s not just good times and getting down; it’s politics and pain, too. But while Harris’ previous work has done more than anyone else to expose and develop the darkly expressive potential of funk styles, the darkness here is mostly murk and vague melancholy, an overreliance on slow motion and ominous sound effects that make it hard to understand what Harris is saying.

And some of what he’s saying is important, wisps of an origin story for hip-hop dance. You won’t learn much of that story from “Funkedified,” but you might sense it, as spirals and flares of breaking mingle easily with popping and locking. If your face starts crumpling, you’ve found the funk.

“Rennie Harris: Funkedified” runs through Sunday at the New Victory Theater, Manhattan; newvictory.org.