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Bard to the Bone

Rome & Jewels, with Puremovement, choreographed by Rennie Harris.

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Roll over, Shakespeare. Better yet, try a headspin, a back flip or flare. The players in the latest rendition of Romeo and Juliet strut their stuff in a way that would have made your average Elizabethan blush. Not since Jerome Robbins choreographed West Side Story has the classic tale of star-crossed lovers — here they are “star-crossed homeys”— undergone a more radical urban update.

“Yo Tybalt, thou art the villain, so wassup, bro?” is the kind of jive talk exchanged in Rome & Jewels, a “hip-hop opera” choreographed by Rennie Harris that is heading for Burlington’s Flynn Theatre this weekend. Snatches of Shakespeare blend into a rapping swirl of poetry, music and audio effects deftly handled by the Puremovement company of dancers and deejays. The closest thing to a “yonder window break” soliloquy is accompanied by the sound of shattering glass.

Oh, and don’t expect to see fair Juliet, either. She never appears in this crotch-grabbing rendition. “I found it more interesting to have Jewels conjured by Rome. We see her only through his eyes,” Harris wrote in the program notes at a recent Hopkins Center performance at Dartmouth College. If Shakespeare gave Juliet some great inside scenes, it’s Romeo who is caught squarely between the fraternal grasp of his boyhood brothers and the promise of adulthood and individuation in the embrace of a woman.

That conflict spoke directly to Harris, who grew up in North Philadelphia, where there were more boys in the ’hood than girls in the palazzo. At 14, he started “stepping” — a Philly-centric form of tap — and later went on tour with a hip-hop dance troupe called the Scanner Boys. But he watched friends “join gangs, deal drugs and ruin their lives,” according to his official biography. He didn’t fully escape the misogyny or the violence bred of his upbringing, either. Just last year, before the premiere of Rome & Jewels, a member of the troupe was murdered outside a club in Philadelphia.

“To be honest,” Harris told The New York Times, “Rome is me at this moment. We each have one foot in the street and one foot in the universe.”

One reason the world won’t let this young-love story die is because its brutal gang violence continues to be relevant. The Sharks and the Jets had their day. Now Harris has recast the Montagues and the Capulets as rival black gangs in Philly: the Monster Q’s are hip-hoppers, moving with the rhythmic swagger associated with rap. The Caps are B-boys and B-girls specializing in acrobatic floor maneuvers — what the uninitiated might identify as “break dancing.”

Rome & Jewels is a perfect showcase for urban dance moves that have come out of a competitive, aggressive and alpha-male culture — not a whole lot different from the piazza pecking order in 16th-century Verona. Just as it was in West Side Story, the synchronous stuff is powerful, especially on the Monster Q side. Watching a single dancer launch his body in the air from a lying-down position is impressive enough. But when a whole group of muscled men do it in unison, well, it packs a punch. Especially with smoke pouring off a stage adorned with two opposing sections of chain-link fence, and the faint sound of a chopper in the distance.

But like most African dance forms, hip-hop culture also encourages the development of individual styles. Despite their solidarity, the gang members in Rome & Jewels emerge with distinct personalities. One specializes in acrobatics — perfect back flips, in particular. Another is the perfect “popper,” using stop-start, freeze-frame and slow-mo gestures to suggest what Harris calls “internal pantomime.” You can follow a movement, like an electrical charge, as it “enters” one end of his body, possesses him briefly, and exits out the other.

The Caps are less successful developing group and solo styles, in part because their demanding moves require them to spend most of the time down on the floor, spinning on their hands, heads and other body parts. In terms of dramatic potential, transcending the tangle is a tall order. B-boy moves — also known as “breaking” — seem to be somewhat limited in that way.

Harris spent years making Rome & Jewels, and concedes it was his “hardest work to date.” That’s because he was also setting out to prove the urban dance forms he champions are not just entertaining acrobatics, but art — a viable medium capable of conveying a story through a whole range of human emotions.

In that regard, Rome & Jewels is partially successful. With bold images — like Rome picking over the motionless bodies of his buddies like a wild animal — Harris arguably goes where no hip-hop artist has gone before. But the emotional “transformation” of his protagonist is less convincing. Rome still has plenty of adolescent attitude when he queries Jewels with a pelvic thrust, “Wilt though leave me so unsatisfied?” When he finally does get the “booty,” he follows up thus: “Is that Victoria’s Secret you’re wearing?”

As Harris would say, how wack is that?

This production bails out before things get really complicated — before the poison, missed message and double-suicide thing. Rome gets cut down soon after the “rumble,” in which he kills Tybalt — who in this production is the boyfriend, not the brother, of Jewels. Although these adjustments are likely to confound purists, who may also be thrown by the “sound design”, they were perfectly acceptable to the audience at the Hop, which clapped enthusiastically throughout the show. If there was “a story of more woe,” then whoa, mama — they either didn’t know it, had forgotten or just liked this one better.

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