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Rennie 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 inner-city African-American and Latino communities, hip hop can be characterized as a contemporary indigenous form that expresses universal themes extending beyond racial, religious, and economic boundaries. Because of its pan-racial and transnational popularity, hip hop can help bridge these divisions. As one of the first to bring hip hop to concert halls and opera houses, Harris’s work encompasses the diverse and rich African-American traditions of the past, while simultaneously presenting the voice of a new generation through its ever-evolving interpretations of dance. Harris is committed to providing audiences with a sincere view of the essence and spirit of hip hop, rather than the commercially exploited stereotypes portrayed by the media.
Lorenzo (Rennie) Harris was born and raised in an African-American community in North Philadelphia. Since the age of 15, Dr. Harris has been teaching workshops and classes at universities around the country and is a powerful spokesperson for the significance of “street” origins in any dance style. In 1992, Harris founded Rennie Harris Puremovement, a hip hop dance company dedicated to preserving and disseminating hip hop culture through workshops, classes, hip hop history lecture demonstrations, long-term residencies, mentoring programs and public performances.
His works include Legends of Hip Hop, Students of the Asphalt Jungle (a collection of repertory works), and like much of his work, his evening-length Rome & Jewels, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the Broadway musical West Side Story, explored his personal experiences growing up as an African American male in North Philadelphia. His Legends of Hip Hop is part of an ongoing effort by Harris to document the roots of the many hip hop styles as it honors and preserves the legacies of early innovators of hip hop forms and styles for future generations.
Facing Mekka, which challenged assumptions about what hip hop dance is. Lorenzo’s Oil is his butoh-like solo hip hop dance, calling on a calming style that subverts the often acrobatic spectacle and high-powered movements that many audiences expect from hip hop.
Besides Rennie Harris Puremovement in Philadelphia, he also directs RHAW and the more recently formed Denver-based Grass Roots Project, a cross-generational hip hop troupe. Harris teaches hip hop dance and history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and continues to choreograph, teach and tour with his three companies.
Dance ICONS is thrilled to announce that Rennie Harris will conduct a choreographic conference geared toward young dancemakers on April 23, 2017, 4:00 p.m – 5:30 p.m., in conjunction with Dance Metro DC at Dance Place in Washington, D.C. That weekend Harris also premieres a new evening-length work commissioned by Dance Place
ICONS: Let’s start where you started as a kid: dancing on the street.
Rennie Harris: I don’t look at it as dancing on the street. It was more or less dancing in the community. People just literally think of street dancing as on the street, that’s specific to a block party, when the street’s closed off. I danced at block parties, church events, community center events, if someone had a party, a school party. It’s cultural. By that I mean that when something is a part of your culture, you don’t really think of it as having a beginning; you are just raised in it.
Western culture -- white folk, Euro Americans, Europeans -- thinks of things in a linear way with a beginning and an end and, when you do that, you put a different value on it. In African-American culture dance is of value. It’s revered, part of the cultural design, so to speak. Old, young, everyone does it. It’s not something that is judged and there’s no sense of hierarchy because everyone is involved. Of course, some dancers are better than others but at the same time everybody in your cultural cipher, if you will, can dance -- my brothers, my sisters, everybody can dance. When you become professional you go to a different space because you’re being asked to call on your skill set at will, to say this is what I can do. And then, you get paid for that.
ICONS: Tell me about choreography in hip hop and street dance culture.
RH: In hip hop culture, in street dance culture, you pretty much do everything, which is a traditional Africanist perspective. So if you are a dj, you probably can dance too. And if you dance, you probably can rap. So people danced, rapped, dj’s promoted their own shows. Dancing and choreographing went hand in hand. So if you’re a dancer, you’re a choreographer. You’re a choreographer from the beginning and everyone contributes. There might be one central person who might be pulling it together, but everyone is contributing the choreography or vocabulary to it when you first start off.
ICONS: Let’s talk about your choreography.
RH: Choreographically for me, it’s my way or the highway. It’s about my life basically. So once I realized it’s about my life, I realized it’s my steps only.
In the community everybody contributes, that’s different. That’s the hip-hop way. When it goes into a professional [setting], it’s easier when there’s one choreographer. I started to become bilingual: I took on a Western understanding as well as my Africanist understanding of dance and choreography.
ICONS: Take me through your process in creating a work.
RH: Depends if I’m hired or working on my own. On my own … I come up with an idea, something interesting. I might hear some music or something or someone inspires me. It could be anything. I’ll start creating vocabulary. I’ll start teaching stuff and build a phrase until we get like ten minutes of vocabulary with nothing else. Then I begin to pick out which vocabulary matches the mood that I want and then I start creating crosses. After I create the crosses, then I look at it and say, ‘Is this a narrative?’ Then I create the story …
ICONS: Many of your works are narrative or thematic, they’re giving us a message right?
RH: It’s not for me to say I’m giving someone a message. If someone gets it, then that’s fine. I’m just telling a story, my story. It has nothing to do with anyone else’s story. If they relate to it that’s great. For me this is … sort of therapeutic … there’s some life st going on. I don’t think of it as giving anyone a message other than this is my story.
ICONS: What would you advise the younger generation if they want to build a company and make their own work?
RH: First, do what’s in your heart. Take advice with a grain of salt. People’s advice is based on their own personal experiences, and it may not be your experience. If you take too much advice and have a mentor, then you’re really missing out on the true learning of it. You need to discover yourself, because you are the most important part. [The work] may be naïve, it may be young, early choreography. You’ll get all sorts of critiques, but I’m not a fan of skipping the steps.
The best work is what you know: Work that comes from a personal place … so you have to find you, stay with you. Academia teaches you tools, and you use those tools when you can no longer create with your hands, you know what I mean? That’s what academia is for. … But if you want to do stuff that’s about you or stuff that’s going to affect other people, most of the stuff that’s going to affect other people is personal to you. So stay true to yourself.
Interviewer Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater, and the arts for numerous publications and is director of communications for Dance ICONS.