Corrections or additions?

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."

"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

right now."

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

Whodini.

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

speak."

"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

community."

"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

the media.

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,

8 p.m.


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