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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 4, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Rennie Harris, Dazzling at 40
Choreographer and dancer Rennie Harris turned 40 last week. In a phone
interview from California (interrupting his birthday breakfast), the
Philadelphia hip-hop artist mulled over the fact that he has been
working professionally – and continuously – since age 14. Not bad for
an artist who has long described himself as part of America’s
"Endangered Species" is the title of Harris’ 1992 signature solo, a
dynamic hip-hop theater piece to music by himself and Darrin Ross that
shows him trying to escape from those who would do him harm. His
species, of course, is the endangered young black male. And Harris,
who was raised in North Philadelphia by a single mother, has seen too
many of his peers wiped out by crime, violence, jail, and early death.
Rennie Harris Puremovement makes its McCarter Theater debut on
Saturday, February 7, with a program featuring four dances from the
group’s repertory and Harris’ signature solo. Appearing with a company
of eight dancers, Harris will present "Continuum," "P-Funk," "March of
the Antmen," and "Students of the Asphalt Jungle," a primer in Harris’
original hip-hop dance theater.
Rennie Harris Puremovement has become acclaimed for its dazzling
athleticism and intensity. As a dancer and choreographer, Harris and
his collaborators are credited with introducing the social art form of
hip hop into the world of concert dance. "P-Funk," created in 1995, is
work dedicated to dancers "who have lost their way or have been slain
on the streets." "March of the Antmen" of 1997 is choreographed to
music created by Harris’ friend Dru Minyard, "whose life and death
inspired its creation." Harris’ evening-length works, which include
"Rome & Jewels" and "Facing Mekka," have also earned him wide acclaim.
On tour nationally and internationally, the company has become one of
Philadelphia’s biggest dance exports. With a second company of dancers
on the road in New Orleans, the month of February alone will also see
the company performing in Princeton, Minnesota, Utah, Kentucky, and
Albany, New York.
Currently working as a guest faculty member in dance for the spring
quarter at UCLA, Harris says the idea of turning 40 does make him feel
a little tired.
"I was tired at 33," he exclaims. "I spent my 20s touring, and I
already felt kind of burned out at 30. I’m running on extra fumes
Rennie Harris (his birth name is Lorenzo) was born and raised in North
Philadelphia, in an African-American neighborhood known as the
Badlands. Self-taught, he began dancing in the mid-’70s and has become
a powerful spokesperson for the significance of the "street" origins
of many dance styles. He founded Rennie Harris Puremovement – his
second company – in 1992. He was just 14 when he put together his
first company of "Philadelphia steppers."
"When I first started out as a dancer, I wasn’t a hip hop dancer. I
was a stepper. A stepper is different. Stepping is indigenous to
Philadelphia, you don’t see it anywhere else." Stepping came out of
the late 1960s and early ’70s. This was a spillover from
Philadelphia’s tap days.
"They call it stepping, but it was also called GQ (as in Gentleman’s
Quarterly), because you had to dress up in suits. So basically we
mimed and mimicked the tap dancers, and although you couldn’t hear our
rhythms, we had rhythms that we used."
"I went to Catholic school, so I had a suit. If you didn’t have a
suit, you could go to a thrift shop for a three-piece suit or a double
breasted suit and have a tailor take it in. Then we’d wear a derby or
a velour hat. And we used to step against each other.
"Philadelphia stepping is something different. Basically you think
you’re seeing tap dancers but they’re not tap dancers and they don’t
have taps. All the moves are tap dancers’ moves and they’re doing all
the rhythms, but they’re doing it all to music."
"But when I was learning it, I was at the end of the era of stepping,
there were only two or three more years left of stepping, and then
that was pretty much it. I think there was probably one stepping group
left that was active in 1981."
Harris began to build a track record for opening for rap groups early
on. By the summer before his high school freshman year he was already
dancing for the Smithsonian Institution for its documentary program on
hip-hop. Harris began doing commercial work right out of high school.
Harris graduated from West Catholic High School in 1982 and almost
immediately went on tour with the first Fresh Festival, a rap group
national tour that featured Run DMC, Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow, and
After touring commercially for most of the ’80s, Harris returned to
settle in his home town of Philadelphia. "By then there was no more
commercial work and hip-hop was changing," he says. "That’s when I got
into the arts scene. That kind of forced my hand into the fine arts."
"I danced in Philly all my life, but the fine arts scene was something
different, and once I got on that scene, a lot of people were
interested and wanted to know where I came from, what my world was
about – hip hop and all that," says Harris. "And from that point, as I
began to exchange with the dance community in Philadelphia, it really
became clear – the company came on its own, it fell in my lap so to
"The first time I remember seeing hip-hop in the theater was the early
’80s at the Kitchen in New York," says Harris who shared a bill in the
1980s with Alvin Ailey at Symphony Space.
In 1992 he was commissioned by Philadelphia’s Michael Pedretti and
Movement Theater International to create a work, and from the work he
created came the company.
Harris rejects the idea of hip-hop or tap as primarily street dance.
"Hip hop has always been in theater, mainstream culture only sees what
it wants to see," he says. "Of course it existed in both street and
theater. It can’t go to the stage unless it existed in the community,"
he says. "Everything we know as expression happens in the community
and then it moves to the stage. I think maybe ballet and modern dance
are the exception – they’re something you won’t necessarily see in the
"Just because someone puts African American dance on stage, doesn’t
mean it’s not going to happen in the community any more. It’s a part
of the community, it’s a living art, so it will always remain vital.
The idea of it, the concept of it, the vocabulary may evolve, but it
will stay with the people."
Since then Harris has helped launch the careers of dancers Sabela
Grimes, Clyde Evans, Ron Wood of Zen One, and Raphael Xavier of Olive
Hip-Hop Dance Theater – among others. And his annual summer dance
festival, Illadelph Legends, has helped make Philadelphia a national
magnet for hip-hop innovation.
Illadelph Legends is a national celebration of the evolution of
hip-hop that brings together members of the local, national, and
international hip hop performance world in lecture-demonstrations,
open jam sessions, panel discussions, master classes, and extensive
outreach that features video footage from the early days of hip-hop.
This year’s festival is set to begin in late July and runs for 10
days. (For information call 215-382-8191.)
Harris’ evening-length work, "Rome & Jewels" of 2000 is a hip-hop
version of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," in which Rome finds
himself unable to escape the chaos, violence, and machismo of his
culture and society.
"In ‘Facing Mekka’ (2003), Harris guides us away from the distractions
of the external world to an engagement with deeper questions," writes
critic Suzanne Carbonneau. "As a child of the African Diaspora, Harris
does this through movement – movement that is polyrhythmic and
syncopated, in which the joints are flexed and there is close contact
with the floor, in which the voices of the singers and the sounds of
the instruments seem to take up residence in the bones of the dancers,
in which the torso is positively symphonic in its articulations – all
in a community of dancers collaborating in the ritual installation of
something unseen but palpable."
Harris founded his company based on the belief that hip-hop is the
most important original expression of a new generation.
With its roots in the inner-city African-American and Latino
communities, Harris characterizes hip-hop as a contemporary indigenous
form that expresses universal themes that extend beyond racial,
religious, and economic boundaries. Harris’ work encompasses the
diverse African-American traditions of the past, while simultaneously
presenting the voice of a new generation. Harris is committed to
providing audiences with a sincere view of the essence and spirit of
hip-hop rather than the commercially exploited stereotypes found in
Although Harris may call himself an endangered species, he is fiercely
proud of the African-American culture that nurtured him and his
siblings, his friends and his art. He describes another of his
signature works, "Students of the Asphalt Jungle," as a vibrant
affirmation of this heritage, expressed in movement, and handed down
through spirit and instinct.
– Nicole Plett
Rennie Harris Puremovement, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,
609-258-2787. www.puremovement.net. $27 to $33. Saturday, February 7,
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