Clowning, krumping and staying alive

Staff WriterJune 24, 2005 

'Clowning' is a hip-hop inspired dance that encourages dancers to let pent-up energy flow.

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A few dance purists out there may find "Rize" to be foolish and nonsensical. The rest of us won't be able to take our eyes off it.

Directed by photographer/video director David LaChapelle, this documentary explodes with the same combo of vibrancy, humor, energy and raw sexuality with which he infuses his photos. You don't get such LaChapelle staples as celebrity glitz and an overwhelming sense of grand scale, Technicolor camp. But you do get something unexpected: an engaging, energetic true story.

"Rize" rushes you with rhythmic aggression, as LaChapelle records groups of dancers from South Central Los Angeles busting out variations of dancing known as "clowning." It's a collection of spastic, loose-limbed, always-evolving, hip-hop movements created by former drug dealer-turned-children's entertainer Tommy "Tommy the Clown" Johnson.

LaChapelle keeps his lens focused on the "clowns," led by chief architect Johnson, and the "krumpers," former members of Johnson's dance crew who came up with their own volatile brand of wilding out. With the krumpers looking to show how out-of-step Tommy's old-school clowning is, Tommy organizes an arena dance-off -- "The Battlezone" -- that serves as the movie's ferocious centerpiece. Let's just say it makes "You Got Served" look like a senior-citizen, ballroom-dancing session.

But "Rize" is about more than dancers doing battle by getting feverishly buckwild. You also discover that this form of expression serves as therapy (and a possible way out) for these kids. As residents of the gangland capital of the West Coast, the young men and women look to "clowning" and "krumping" as a means of keeping them sane, creative and, more important, alive. When you hear of dancers like Baby Tight Eyez, whose mother is in jail and whose father is a gangbanger -- his mentor, Tight Eyez, got shot in the arm by his grandfather and once had to retrieve his mom from a crackhouse -- you begin to understand their need to let it all out. Hey, what they're doing may not be seen as dancing by others, but it keeps them from becoming nothing more than a chalk outline.

With its debatable choreography, erotically-charged imagery (there are enough sweaty, shirtless brothas in this movie to give Sunday school teachers hot flashes) and its easy-to-misinterpret racial overtones (when LaChapelle cuts footage of the krumpers with archival footage of dancing African tribes, it may be construed as audacious or patronizing), "Rize" could very well divide audiences. But it's the most colorful thing playing in theaters.

With the way LaChapelle shines his camera brightly on these brothas and sistas-in-clowning, "Rize" gleams as brightly as Hilary Duff's new teeth.

Staff writer Craig D. Lindsey can be reached at 829-4760 or clindsey@newsobserver.com.

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