Dir. Rennie Harris. Northrup Auditorium, Minneapolis, MN. November 1, 2003.
In today's religiously politicized culture, entitling a performance "Facing Mekka" begs the audience to engage with the text on a political level rather than purely an aesthetic or emotional one (if any of the three can be experienced in the isolation of the others). Unfortunately, reading Rennie Harris' latest performance piece, "Facing Mekka," is a difficult project with unsatisfying results.
The performance is structured much like a jazz piece, with both collaborative and solo aspects, allowing the dancers and musicians, individually, and in groups of each, to engage the audience. After two short vocal pieces, the performance begins with a large ensemble piece, with the full band playing and a large group of dancers on the stage, while short video clips of Islamic images are shown on screens in the background. The effect is overwhelming, and the audience is left to decide what to focus upon. This is further exacerbated by the fact that while many of the dancers have choreographed moves, when they dance with others, they add personal flourishes to the movements, making it difficult to decide who requires attention at any point. This scene segues into more apprehendable configurations, although most of them are difficult to attend to in their totality; some scenes involve very few performers (or only one), and while these are quite easy to find a focus in, they may be the most problematic for the performance as political.
If the intent of the performance is to show the negotiations of the individuals with the institution of Mecca (permutated into "Mekka" and other local traditions), while this is quite poignant in the solo performances (especially that of Harris himself, who ends the show dancing in a rather arcane fashion within a starkly lit box), it is often susceptible to the more predictable elements of a mixed audience (unsolicited applause throughout a solo performance).
Easily the most engaging aspect of the performance was the music. Each of the musicians (except for the DJ) took solo opportunities, displaying a wide range of possible interpretations of the musical traditions of Islam, both sensitive and bombastic. The performance of the beatboxer, Kenny Muhammad, is amazing, and it's easy to forget the rest of the performers in lieu of his skills; able to replicate an incredible array of noises, both organic and mechanical, Muhammad's performance could not have lasted long enough. But what its relation to the broader theme of the performance is is rather obscured. This stands in stark contrast to the vocal performance of Philip Hamilton, at the very beginning of the show. Hamilton's voice is a strong presence throughout the performance, and is evocative of the more traditional musical traditions of Islam. Similarly, the drum performance of Lenny Seidman is somber and moving, towards the end of the performance. The virtuosity of the musicians, and their strong presence on the side of the stage throughout the performance make "Facing Mekka" more appropriately thought of as music with occasional dance rather than the obverse.
The most problematic aspect of the performance is the gendered division of labor: While the men are often given space to perform their dancing and musical virtuosities, the women most often play background roles, working to "soften" and contextualize the performance of the men. While this may mirror the social realities of Islam, reifying such is problematic of Harris, since at no time throughout the performance does there seem to be a questioning of these roles: There are no duets between men and women, buy rather only single men dancing with groups of women (the former dancing idiosyncratically, the latter dancing in choreographed forms). "Facing Mekka" sadly fails to show the difficulties faced by women within Islamic tradition, and glorifies the actions and roles of men.
There are wonderful moments throughout "Facing Mekka," but I'm inclined to think it better approached as a "concert" than a "performance." This dichotomy may seem overly academic to some, but to see the performance as necessarily disjointed, to see it as contributions made by individuals in an attempt to convey their personal experiences of Islam, retains the aesthetic and emotional aspects of their performances. However, to bind them all together unsettles "Facing Mekka" as a whole, and troubles the legacy of Islam as a cultural and social tradition.