Rio Dance Battle & Rennie Harris, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, New York – review

The sight lines may be imperfect, the sound system a bit crude and thunderstorms always a possibility, but you can count on Lincoln Center Out of Doors (until August 10) to deliver some of the most happening world music and dance around. As the opener to the free festival’s first dance event, a dozen twiggy young men and a single lithe woman competed in a hip-hop battle, Rio-style. These Brazilians did 45 seconds of passinho apiece.

Typical of dance crazes from the last decade, the “little step” started local and went viral via YouTube only to return big time to the streets. Thanks to the internet, it has gobbled up – if not entirely digested – decades of hip-hop innovations. The dancers chose from B-boy acrobatics, the Michael Jackson moonwalk and crotch-grab, the strutting and preening of vogueing, old-style popping and locking, and Rio’s own speedy booty shimmies, offered with comic panache.

But a single move anchored every variation: the signature “little step” behind all the other little steps. It begins in the hips like any samba-driven dance and becomes spectacular below the knee. (See this YouTube video, about 1 min 30 secs in, for an illustration.) Imagine a Charleston with a jagged edge. The free foot does not merely swipe the floor, it bears down for a second as if to squash a bug. The corkscrewing hips, the lower leg waggling in and out and front and back, and that arresting pause on the downbeat – the passinho deserves a fad. It even deserves choreography.

But that would require a Brazilian Rennie Harris, the hip hop maverick whose Philadelphia troupe took the stage for the second hour. After the novelty of the passinho and the short bites, it was hard to pay attention to a whole dance, much less several blurring together from lack of costume changes, curtain calls or curtains.

Now, though, we could see the Philadelphians through a Rio lens. Harris’s dancers are strong and mature and they moved with a boundless quality. They loped where the Brazilians darted and pranced. They glided through their magnificent floor moves. But like many American hip-hoppers, the high shoulders and voluble gestures suggested anxiety, defensiveness – a chronic danger they could not dodge no matter how fast they might move their feet.

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