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Rennie Harris Pure Movement

Rennie Harris: Knowing the Culture

by Donald Hutera


Funny how something as simple as going to a movie can later impact on your life. Consider Rennie Harris seeing the film version of Broadway musical "West Side Story" for the first time as a teen-ager in Philadelphia. "Up till that time I watched old films - Danny Kaye, James Cagney. I knew musicals as musicals. But this form of dance, I didn't know what it was - modern dancey ballet. I just automatically felt they shoulda got some hip-hop dancers to do it."

Harris, now 37, is America's premier hip-hop dance specialist. One of his major achievements is to bring the complex energies of street culture onto the concert stage. "Rome and Jewels" is the first evening-length work he's made for Puremovement, a company he founded in 1992. US critics have deemed the 90-minute performance beautiful, fierce and funny.

A dozen dancers and three DJs retell Shakespeare's story from the perspective of black urban males. The Caps are b-boys and b-girls who move in the acrobatic, floor-based style mistakenly referred to as breakdance. Jewels, never seen onstage, is girlfriend of their leader Tibault. The rival Monster Qs, including engaging young Rome, are hip-hoppers whose dancing is a showier brand of stylised unison steps. The dancing is exciting and accessible. Speaking cast members additionally employ a dazzling, sometimes raunchy blend of Shakespeare and rap-poetry to move this tale of 'star-crossed homeys' along to its devastating conclusion. The net result is a gutsy, sustained blast of words and motion.

"Rome and Jewels", which took three years to complete, owes as much to film director Baz Luhrmann as it does to Robbins and Shakespeare. Harris credits Luhrmann's audacious 1996 film of "Romeo and Juliet" with "pushing me in a way I needed to go. To do something epic and film-like with human bodies. To play with time." At first Harris shied away from the classic text because "I honestly didn't wanna open that can of worms." But at one of the rehearsals Rodney Mason, playing Rome, "started spewing Shakespeare in the antic now-ism of today. 'Yo, Ro-may-o, thou art a villain! So what up, nigga?' With movement, too. We went, 'Oh, **** , that's hot!'" After "grabbin' some research," Harris now believes that "Shakespeare was and is the essence of hip-hop. The lyricists of today - the rappers - probably come closest to his dynamic of writing."

Harris is unapologetic about the physical absence of Jewels. "It never really was about Romeo and Juliet, but about Rome's growing up with men, his sexist conditioning and his spiritual quest. I wasn't even thinking about the love part. I was looking at gang machismo." While this has led to accusations of sexism from a few critics, Harris remains philosophical. "If someone remarks that there's not enough women in the piece, they're shutting the work off. When that comes up, they're mostly dealing with their own issues. If I'm gonna do this [dance-theatre] as a part of my living, the only way is to be honest and true to myself. I want the work to be healing for myself and others."

"Rome mirrors my life in so many ways," Harris continues. Growing up in a tough part of Philadelphia, and leading a street dance group, he began choreographing and directing "without knowing that was what I was doing. But I'm kinda quick to take charge. It was rough, but a lotta fun. It was common for us to get chased out of a neighbourhood, or for an event to end in violence." Harris' knowledge of classical dance is limited; he's seen "Swan Lake" and "Nutcracker", but never a "Romeo and Juliet" on pointe. This hasn't prevented him from receiving commissions from smaller-scale American classical companies. "It's usually liberating for the dancers. I'm excited because they're excited."

"Hip-hop is about being raw," he goes on, "never about being slick. People are missing the point in approaching it with a ballet aesthetic. Even though the show is heavily choreographed, there's improvisation. Everybody is not doing the movement the same way. It doesn't matter if the arms are lifted to the same height, or the weight distibuted the same way, as long as they're moving together in synchronised timing."

Harris scorns the mainstream's appropriation of street dance. "You may know the movement, but not the culture. I would never approach modern dance without trying to understand it. But black culture always gets kicked into this thing of entertaining. It's approached as a commodity, without understanding the history. People forget that the true foundations of hip-hop are an extension of traditional culture in the States. The understanding of it is different between the US and Europe. It's almost becoming a novelty in the US to do hip-hop dance-theatre." Still, Harris can't complain. "We've been touring heavily since '95. The dancers are pretty much on the road hard-core ten months of the year. For a hip-hop company to do that... And, as a choreographer, I make a living. God bless us, man."

This interview first appeared in either the Spring or Autumn 2001 editions of Dance Umbrella News.

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance and arts for The Times, Evening Standard, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Magazine (US) and Dance Now. He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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