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50 years of Embodied Knowledge

The headline performance of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s Hip Hop Across the Pillow mini-festival—which took place from August 2-6, 2023 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip hop—was an abundance of embodied knowledge. The triple-bill program featured two world premieres, both commissioned by the Pillow: “Thief of Hearts,” a duet choreographed and performed by hip hop luminaries Kwikstep and Rokafella, and “Parable of PassAge,” a collaboration between d. Sabela grimes and the Ladies of Hip-Hop. The evening ended with Rennie Harris’ 2016 work “Nuttin’ but a Word,” performed by Harris’ company, Rennie Harris Puremovement. Each piece on the program showcased a different facet of hip hop, highlighting the many ways the genre can be used to tell stories, educate, entertain, foster community, and honor individuality.


Hip Hop Across the Pillow


Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Ted Shawn Theatre, August 2, 2023


Sophie Bress

Reyna Núñez, Jai_Quinn Coleman, and Iman Brooks in d. Sabela grimes' “Parable of PassAge,” with Ladies of Hip-Hop, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Photograph by Jamie Kraus

“Thief of Hearts” opened on a colorfully lit stage, occupied only by a large, glimmering diamond placed atop a pedestal. Lasers criss-crossed the space, creating a protective force field around the precious jewel. One at a time, Kwikstep and Rokafella, dressed as thieves, made their entrances, aiming to steal the diamond. Repeatedly trying to outsmart one another to get their hands on the prize, Kwikstep and Rokafella quickly transitioned their battle of trickery to a battle of dance, culminating in an impressive suite of headspins—and a projection of the words “to be continued . . .” as they exited the stage.

“Thief of Hearts” underscored the storytelling capabilities of hip hop. The multitude of gestural movements took on a conversational tone, highlighting the way these motions have so deeply embedded themselves into our cultural lexicon. Throughout the piece, Kwikstep and Rokafella’s choreography is second nature to understand, speaking to many without using any words. Pantomime in dance can often get a bad rap—Kwikstep and Rokafella remind us of the power that gesture can hold. 

Kwikstep and Rokafella in “Thief of Hearts,” Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Photograph by Jamie Kraus

The next work on the program, “Parable of PassAge,” was inspired by pioneering science fiction author Octavia E. Butler. The work opened the stage into a sort of portal, transporting the audience and the dancers alike. The costumes, rather than just being practical coverings for bodies, moved around the dancers, expanding their kinespheres. The visuals—tessellating geometric shapes and ever-morphing images of women’s faces, combined with scenes from nature and psychedelic patterns—created an otherworldly, yet strangely soothing, backdrop.   

Immediately striking in “Parable of PassAge” was how the dancers came to the stage so fully embodied. While clearly part of a collective, each performer honored their own movement sensibilities, taking the steps and transmuting them into their own body with a signature interpretation. They’re not there as characters or—as dancers on stage so often appear—untouchable projections of themselves. Instead, they’re human, unapologetic, and unique.

Ladies of Hip-Hop in d. Sabela Grimes' “Parable of PassAge,” Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Photograph by Jamie Kraus

The evening ended with Rennie Harris’s “Nuttin’ But a Word.” With the founding of his company in 1992, Harris ushered hip hop and street dance onto the concert stage, and has been championing the form in these spaces ever since. But, in addition to his choreographic and directorial work, Harris also has an immense passion and gift for educating. Central to his teachings is the cypher, a circle where dancers and musicians gather to improvise, perform, battle, and cheer one another on. The cypher is also a place where collective knowledge is passed from person to person and generation to generation. As Jacob’s Pillow scholar-in-residence Imani Kai Johnson noted in her pre-performance talk, “Nuttin’ But a Word” welcomes the audience into the cypher, sharing this knowledge with us, too.

During the work, Harris joins the dancers on stage (albeit not in person, but in a series of recorded video interviews). During his first segment, he talks about meeting a man who told him the company’s work saved his life, and the impact of this conversation. Next, Harris tells us about the evolution of street dance, the ways it—and the ways we view it—are always progressing. Finally, he talks about his own choreography‚and the importance of storytelling in his work.  

We’d seen Harris’ last comment play out on stage just moments before, as Joshua Culbreath performed a breathtaking solo full of almost superhuman stunts. But Culbreath’s movements were much more than just spectacles of awe—they were heartwrenching displays of emotion. Culbreath tells a story of deep human feeling as he tosses his body across the stage, transforming the vocabulary of breaking into one of sadness and anguish. And Culbreath’s story wasn’t the only one we saw on stage—throughout the piece the dancers shared narratives of friendship, loss, community, and joy, too.   


Joshua Culbreath in “Nuttin’ But a Word” with Rennie Harris Puremovement American Street Dance Theater, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Photograph by Cherylynn Tsushima

Sophie Bress

Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. In her writing, she focuses on placing the arts within our cultural conversations and recognizing art makers as essential elements of our societal framework. Sophie holds a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She has been published in Dance Magazine, L.A. Dance Chronicle, The Argonaut, Festival Advisor, and more.



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