KEEP IT MOVING
"His eyes convulsively roll up to the sky as if seeking a blessing. As the music thumps, his muscular body writhes, ripples, and flexes into impossible contortions with almost supernatural agility."
Negotiating the rush-hour traffic, David LaChapelle is driving home, high above the twinkling lights of the Sunset Strip. On the way, he wants to play a song. He turns up the volume to "something soothing," and the late, great opera singer Maria Callas belts out her authoritative soprano, swallowing the car with emotion.
LaChapelle's body softens into his seat. He sighs, "She relaxes me, calms me down." In his mind's eye, he says, he can still see a parking lot in South Los Angeles, where a loud, frenetic mob surrounds a young boy in baggy pants. The boy begins gyrating, shredding, then rips off his T-shirt. His eyes convulsively roll up to the sky as if seeking a blessing. As the music thumps, his muscular body writhes, ripples, and flexes into impossible contortions with almost supernatural agility. He is not high on meth, not simply grinding his joints to the beat. He is juiced. He is krumping.
"I love music, I adore all kinds of dance. I always have. But this, it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen," says LaChapelle of the experience that led him make to his new documentary, Rize. "And when you are a krumper," he explains, "you are full out. You are 'in the zone,' you've been stuck by something greater than yourself. How many of us wouldn't want to feel that?"
Born in 1992, in the turbulent aftermath of the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles riots, this raging, expressive dance movement is a wild tribal fusion of hip-hop and freestyle choreography. At its peak, it is a physiological rapture so intense that the performers appear to de undergoing an otherworldly possession. "To me, these kids are artists, they are creators," says LaChapelle. "And when you see something so beautiful, something so extraordinary, you just have to share it with people."
Over the past two decades, the former East Village club-kid-turned-photographer-turned-director has done just that. Legendary for his Technicolor Wizard of Oz-meets-Fellini photographic transmogrifications of pop idols from Pamela Anderson to Tupac Shakur, LaChapelle has naturally segued into big-budget music videos over the past few years. Along the way, he became a multimedia sensation, jetting around the world, garnering accolades for his videos with artists such as Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Moby.
This high-flying environment is not where one would expect to encounter krumping. Nor did LaChapelle suspect it would become the source for his feature debut film. But the moment came in 2002, while he was directing Aguilera's infamous "dirty" video. I was backstage and saw these kids do this amazing dance called the stripper dance, where they are popping their spines and moving like pole dancers.
"My jaw dropped. I didn't have a chance to use any of it in the video, but I knew I had t check I out."
That's how LaChapelle found himself one evening pulling up in front of Tommy's Clown Academy, located in a small, deserted strip mall in the city of Inglewood. The headlights of his car shone right into the windows and through the glass. "That's when I see all these kids in this war paint, no…it is clown makeup! They are raging, dancing, breaking it down. It was so unbelievable, I went out and bought a video camera that week," he laughs. "Which was a good thing, because me and my DP, Morgan Susser, ended up using that camera, shooting for the next two and a half years."
In LaChapelle's kinetic, intimate Rize (which originally screened as a Sundance short in 2004), we dig down, enter the world of Tommy Johnson (aka Tommy the Clown), a local hero and mentor, who developed the style and dubbed it "clowning." We meet dancers such as Lil' Tommy, Larry, Lil'C, Dragon, Tight Eyez, Baby Tight Eyes, and Miss Prissy, who evolved with the movement, shifting into the fierce, "street-style" form of krumping.
"These kids are literally from the poorest families you can find. The mothers are in jail, some of the dads are OGs [original gangsters]; the founding fathers of the Crips and the Bloods. They come from the most hard-core ghetto families you can think of," LaChapelle says. "In 'Holly Watts,' there are no after-school arts programs where you can unleash your energy, your creativity. You join a gang, or, if you become a krumper or a clowner, the gangs will leave you alone, which is amazing."
LaChapelle, a man who loves keeping all engines firing, continues to careen between New York, Los Angeles, and London. He recently shot a short on the Universal back lot with Mary K. Blige, a gospel soul version of Romeo & Juliet commissioned by H&M. His photographic retrospective, Artists and Prostitutes 1985-2005, moved from New York's Deitch Projects to Amsterdam in June, and he just wrapped a new Tommy Hilfiger commercial starring Enrique Iglesias. All this, while he puts the final touches on Rize.
LaChapelle half groans and shakes his weary, workaholic head. "I have all these people who are counting on me, an overhead to support. I put all my own money into Rize and until it makes some of that money back, I have to work like crazy to keep it all going. But I have great people around me who make it all possible, and the kids," he beams, "are moving on up.
"Lil' C has been assisting a choreographer, Miss Prissy is on tour with The Game, and they still get together for Krump sessions [a regular slate of "friendly" dance competitions], and they've been in every video I can possibly put them in!
"Did you know," he reveals proudly, "they call me a krump-photographer? Meaning, when I am in the zone, when I am full on into my work, like them, I can block out the world. I couldn't be more honored."
By Shari Roman