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Rennie Harris Bridges the Previous and Future

The primary time Rennie Harris and his firm, Rennie Harris Puremovement American Avenue Dance Theater (RHPM), carried out on a live performance dance stage, the viewers didn’t cheer. Discouraged, Harris and his dancers—younger males susceptible, admittedly, to bouts of hypermasculinity—started arguing: “We’ve received to bounce more durable,” “It is best to’ve come to rehearsal,” “Man, you suck.” By the top of the present, their whispered insults had escalated into plans for a bodily struggle. However earlier than they may take the dispute exterior, they wanted to bow. To their shock, the viewers burst right into a standing ovation.

“This was an entire tradition shock to us,” Harris mentioned in a recounting of the expertise at a Stanford College speak. Accustomed to the audible vitality exchanged at cyphers and different social dance settings, the forged had been unaware that conventional theatergoers stay quiet to be well mannered. Bridging that divide between the cultures of road dance and live performance dance has since develop into a defining factor of Harris’ influential profession.

Harris based RHPM in Philadelphia in 1992, and whereas it’s usually labeled a hip-hop firm, the choreography largely channels different road dance kinds. Harris distinguishes between the 2, defining hip-hop dance as nationwide social dances anybody can do—just like the cabbage patch, soldier boy or nae nae—and road dance as city-specific genres with their very own methods, like home, popping, locking and breaking.

“I used to consider ‘road’ gave it a decrease connotation. Then I spotted it was a decrease factor in accordance with white dance and Western tradition requirements. Nonetheless, it’s not coming from that. Due to its Africanness, it stands alone,” clarifies Harris.­ “ ‘Avenue’ is a slang time period for group. It’s not the literal road.”

Although hip-hop music hardly ever seems in Harris’ work, it grounds his firm culturally. True to hip hop’s three unstated legal guidelines—individuality, creativity and innovation—Harris pushes into new territory. After touring internationally all through the Nineteen Eighties with music artists akin to Salt-N-Pepa, Run-DMC and LL Cool J, Harris turned to theater, feeling as if “I had already accomplished it and was retiring,” he says. “My mindset was ‘I’m going to make what I make, and both you prefer it otherwise you don’t.’ ” The ensuing works precipitated the invention of “road dance theater,” and their affect could be seen in most of the hip-hop and road dance productions on stage and display right now. 

Fusing street-dance motion vocabulary with unique music and writing, Harris developed narrative-driven items exploring racism, sexism and different cultural points. Although his work was—and, disconcertingly, nonetheless is—typically met with an viewers reception that questions the rigor of road dance and the authenticity of staged hip hop, it broke the barrier for brand new African diasporic dance kinds to look in conventional performing arts institutions. “In these days, when you noticed a dance piece, it was ballet or modern,” says James “Cricket” Colter, an RHPM founding member. “This was our dance, one thing from the Black group that was excessive artwork, identical to ballet, getting used to inform a robust story.”

Ozzie Jones sits in a dance studio, his right arm lifted, wearing jeans and a white t-shirt.
Ozzie Jones rehearsing Harris’ Rome & Jewels. Picture by Brian Mengini, courtesy RHPM.

For his half, Harris feared the work was getting consideration for the incorrect causes. Playwright and stage director Ozzie Jones remembers, “On the time, he was pissed off. The boys are all actually stunning and in nice form. As a result of it’s numerous breakdance motion, like flying by means of the air, he was beginning to really feel like they had been objectified strippers.” Harris enlisted Jones, together with composer Darrin Ross, to collaborate on his first evening-length work, Rome & Jewels. With this hip-hop adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which started rehearsals in 1997, Harris got down to show RHPM was “not only a rinky-dink firm doing cute work,” he says.

To get invited into the corporate, Rodney Mason danced his approach by means of Philadelphia’s nightclubs, battling in opposition to RHPM members. After he joined in 1996, he remained shy, quietly studying from the opposite dancers, till Harris introduced­ his plan to create Rome & Jewels. An skilled actor and lifelong Shakespeare fan, Mason stood up and shouted: “Yo, Rome, the hate that I’ve for you possibly can afford no higher time period than this: Thou artwork a villain—so what’s up?” 

Although Mason had recited a variation on Tybalt’s traces, he emerged because the manufacturing’s Romeo, or Rome. Juliet, or Jewels, was more durable to forged; whereas RHPM is numerous right now, on the time it was predominantly males. Because the seek for Jewels continued, Mason started rehearsing with an imaginary girl.

“He was doing it with a lot element that you just felt like you possibly can see her,” says Jones. “It ended up being a superb enlargement of Rennie’s concept of displaying this macho, hip-hop, gang tradition and the sexism that’s inherent in that. As a result of these younger wolves are out on this planet by themselves, their concept of girls, love, honor and justice just isn’t actually based mostly on a lot exterior their creativeness.”

“I didn’t know till later that any person noticed what I used to be doing,” says Mason. “If I might’ve identified, I wouldn’t have been so free, however I suppose that was the entire level.”

Harris hardly ever prepares choreography on his personal beforehand, preferring to workshop phrases with the dancers within the room. “He likes you to convey your individual individuality to it, so it doesn’t look overly rehearsed,” says present RHPM member Joshua Culbreath. “He tries to coax out the very best in everybody’s persona by giving solos or having components of the choreography be from a particular particular person’s motion approach.”

A group of seven dancers stand in a studio facing toward the right of the frame, where Rennie Harris stands, one arm to the side, demonstrating choreography.
Harris (far proper) in rehearsal for Lazarus at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Picture by Nan Melville, courtesy AAADT.

Since RHPM productions usually characteristic concrete story­traces, the dancers’ distinctive kinds additionally inform their appearing. “Character growth offers your dancing a lot extra texture,” says present RHPM member Emily Pietruszka. “You get to convey one thing to life quite than simply do a bunch of strikes somebody instructed you to do. There’s a distinction between placing road dance motion onstage and actually telling a narrative by means of road dance that individuals can discover themselves in.”

Whereas theatrical hip hop might not really feel groundbreaking in a post-Hamilton world, Rome & Jewels was the primary manufacturing of its variety. “Rennie was pondering far out,” says Raphael Xavier, a famend dancemaker and educator, in addition to a former RHPM member. “Quite a lot of the younger corporations developing now are using his blueprint.” When Rome & Jewels premiered in 2000, it acquired essential acclaim and received three Bessies, and in 2008, Harris received the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre. This 12 months, to kick off celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, RHPM will remount the manufacturing with most of the unique forged members. The revival premieres in Philadelphia this month earlier than touring to Boston, The Joyce Theater in New York Metropolis and Windfall.

For Harris, dance was “cultural, so we don’t take a look at it as one thing extracurricular or exterior the norm,” he says. Rising up in an African American group in North Philadelphia, he first realized a method distinctive to the town referred to as GQ, adopted by popping, locking and breaking. He carried out these dances with a neighborhood crew referred to as the Scanner Boys, at venues just like the native roller-skating rink and prepare station. 

Joan Myers Brown, founding father of Philadanco! and the Worldwide Affiliation of Blacks in Dance (IABD), remembers driving her two daughters to observe these performances. “When these youngsters first began doing it, individuals would say, ‘Get these youngsters and their cardboard bins off the road nook,’ ” she says. Then, “the instances caught up with Rennie.”

Years later, Brown requested RHPM to carry out on the 1995 IABD Pageant in Philadelphia, the place they impressed legendary African dance practitioner Baba Chuck Davis, who invited RHPM to tour nationally together with his pageant, DanceAfrica. Gaining visibility and momentum, RHPM was quickly touring its personal repertory internationally. In the meantime, Harris started receiving choreographic alternatives from different corporations, together with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

“While you consider road dance and hip hop, you’re actually speaking about our historical past,” says Ailey creative director Robert Battle, who has commissioned Harris for 3 works, together with the corporate’s sixtieth anniversary and its first full-length, two-act manufacturing, Lazarus. “Rennie takes us again to the origins, being a celebration of life in and of itself, and I consider that’s what Alvin Ailey did in his work, not utilizing road dance per se, however in that approach that he was in a position to make the most of fashionable dance and make it accessible,” says Battle.  

A group of six dancers dressed in shades of purple jump, lifting their knees and elbows, all facing the left of the frame.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Harris’ Lazarus. Picture by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT.

That mentioned, with hip hop getting more and more commercialized and its progenitors rising older, preserving its origins has develop into pressing. “There aren’t that many genuine voices that didn’t study the tradition however lived the tradition,” says main hip-hop practitioner Emilio “Buddha Stretch” Austin Jr., who says that Harris “has been a part of the tradition for 40 of its 50 years in existence.” 

To help Harris in codifying his motion observe and cultural information, the Mellon Basis granted RHPM $1 million, to be awarded over the following three years. Although gifted in time for the corporate’s thirtieth anniversary, “it’s lengthy overdue,” says Emil Kang, the muse’s program director for arts and tradition. “Not solely is he making exceptional work, however he additionally holds a lot historical past and tradition. We’re actually making an attempt to assist him construct out synergies between resourcing work for his firm and making a pedagogy that contextualizes all these components.”

Educating artists, critics and audiences about hip hop’s roots has been a serious motivation in Harris’ profession. In Philadelphia, he organizes Illadelph Legends, the primary road dance pageant of its variety. Begun in 1997 to offer hip-hop pioneers, lots of whom had been now not lively within the trade, with a platform for sharing their information, it’s now an annual­ weeklong intensive that options each established and rising road dance icons from throughout the globe. 

And as an artist in residence on the College of Colorado, Boulder,­­­­­ with honorary doctorates from Bates School and Chicago’s Columbia School, Harris has helped form hip hop in greater schooling. He lately based Rennie Harris College to “lay down the muse of hip-hop tradition and assist individuals create a curriculum to show responsibly and respectfully,” he says. The certification program goals to empower the following era of dancers to actually advance—and never merely applicable—the artwork type through the use of it as a medium for telling private tales.

“You’re making it extra genuine by bringing your tradition to it,” he says. “That’s what hip hop has all the time been about: your personal particular person take—your personal individuality, creativity and innovation.”



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