LORD OF THE DANCE
The stars of the documentary "Rize" choose art over street violence.
"Ghetto ballet'' - that's how one of the young dancers in David LaChapelle's nonfiction film "Rize'' describes "krumping,'' also known as "clown dancing.''
Whatever you call the dance, "Rize,'' a galvanizing if somewhat repetitious documentary about this Los Angeles-based phenomenon has moments of such overpowering energy and beauty that you will stare at the screen in awe. Not for nothing does the film begin with a caption assuring viewers nothing on the screen has been sped up.
Krumping, as it turns out, is a new, constantly evolving style of modern dance originated by Thomas Johnson, a drug dealer turned children's party entertainer. As his alter ego Tommy the Clown, Johnson spread a new style of dance in such blighted neighborhoods as Inglewood, Compton, South Central and Watts, first among young disciples desperately in need of an outlet outside of gangbanging. Many of Tommy's original students have grown up, spun off, developed their own style and formed competing dance troupes. Among them is Dragon, the most articulate and political of the commentators.
The life-affirming message of "Rize'' is that when you're too poor to afford ballet school - or ballet slippers for that matter - you turn your own body and existing wardrobe into your art form. With the addition of a little clown paint, that is. These dancers combine Asian and Brazilian marital arts moves, African tribal dancing, shadow boxing, the gesticulations of crazed street people, the sexually suggestive gyrations of professional strippers, holy-rolling and what appears to be a mime-like recreation of the Rodney King beating.
It is truly amazing and often shockingly violent, funny and outrageously lewd, although one toned-down demonstration by the aforementioned Dragon and a sexy, hugely talented young woman named Ms. Prissy is performed in an evangelical church. Instead of competing for turf or drugs with guns, "krumpers'' gather in "battle zones,'' and though some of the actions appear to be violent, they are part of the dance.
Dragon talks about a quasi-religious "spirit'' he feels when the krumpers gather to practice their craft. The music, much of it by West Coast artist Flii Stylz, is infectious. "Rize'' legitimately suggests art is an alternative to crime and a passport out of poverty and hopelessness, a worthwhile message at a time when arts programs across the country have seen Draconian cuts. In "Rize,'' the "dancers" most precious and only remaining resource is their bodies.
By James Verniere