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By Brenda Dixon Gottschild
How does it feel to be 15? Ask Rennie Harris, whose hip hop dance company, Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM), celebrates its “quincearos” this month at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. “Prince” was Harris’s street name as an adolescent growing up in North Philadelphia; “ScareKrow” stuck with him later on. Despite the tags attached to its practitioners, hip hop culture is more than a teenaged pastime; it’s a way of life.
Harris has crafted and transformed this street-smart, urban dance form into a complex, concert-stage product that offers a mix of messages to diverse audiences—young-old, black-brown-white, working-and-middle class. This is no mean achievement. When RHPM began, hip hop culture—including graffiti, deejay artistry, rap music and poetry, and the range of contemporary, African-based dance forms known as hip hop and its cousin, break dancing—was contained in African American (and Latino) communities. Nineteen eighties films like Beat Street brought the culture to mainstream America. But it took Harris to bring the hip hop dancing body to the same stages that hosted modern and ballet companies. Hip hop influences abound in today’s dances in works by Doug Elkins, Trey McIntyre, and Matthew Neenan, to name a few. But Harris takes the credit for bringing the genuine article to concert dance audiences and luring hip hop spectators to concert dance venues. Through his choreographic overhauls he has made theater dance history.
This native Philadelphian has been blurring boundaries and building bridges since early on in his career. The intimacy of Philadelphia’s dance world offered a fluid environment for performers and choreographers to collaborate across categories, and Harris took advantage of the opportunity. He joined the Scanner Boys, a poppin’ crew, while in high school. In the mid-1980s he performed on the Fresh Festival tours—the first organized hip hop/rap road shows in the U.S. In the early 1990s he was a founding member of Splinter Group, Philly’s short-lived world dance and music ensemble, and he performed in the city’s Movement Theater International Festival. Around the same time he formed RHPM. Thus began his “beyond break dance” journey of choreographing narratives based on the hip hop movement vocabulary and his real life experiences. (See “Rennie Harris: Pure Spirit and Sheer Joy,” Aug. 1999.)
RHPM’s 15th anniversary retrospective includes some of Harris’ signature works: March of the Antmen, P-Funk, Endangered Species, and his two evening-length sagas, Rome & Jewels (2000) and Facing Mekka (2003). A hop hop ballet infused with rap-poetry arias, Rome & Jewels is the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, though more indebted to West Side Story (the Capulets and Montagues are the Caps and the Monster Q’s) and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film than to Shakespeare. Still, the original tale about star-crossed teenaged love remains the theme. Words are seamlessly integrated into the movement palette, and throughout the piece Harris achieves an amazing fusion of dancing bodies and verbal parrying. (See “Rome and Jewels,” Sept. 2000).
In his version, Juliet/Jewels doesn’t appear onstage. Instead, she’s an invisible presence who drives the action and stirs the desires of the male cast. Although the heroine is absent, women are present. Without making an issue of gender, Harris has assimilated them into the male ensemble, functioning as members of the warring families.
Facing Mekka is a horse of another color. The female presence is front and center, with an ensemble of six whose dancing fills the stage with strength, power, and beauty. Although the movement is more overtly African than in his earlier works, it is filtered through Harris’ lens and reminds us to acknowledge that the origin of hip hop’s pyrotechnics is West African dance. Some sequences are performed in slow motion, allowing us to see these building blocks clearly. The work can be understood as a meditation in movement, music, and chants (no raps this time) on the connections between world spiritual and cultural traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and traditional African practices. Performing his legendary freeze-pop-lock-slow-fast-frantic-cool movements, Harris is the “Zen-hop” spirit who bookends the work with his two solos and crosses the stage, ghostlike, several times during this 90-minute piece. He may well be the dreamer, and the dance itself his dream.
As a whole, Harris’ creative process is a through-line based on personal experience. Reflecting on Rome and Mekka, the hip hop maestro had this to say: “I was creating Mekka the same time I was creating Rome & Jewels. Rome is a manifestation of me; Mekka is the place ‘he’ goes after he passes away in Rome & Jewels; and Prince ScareKrow’s Road to the Emerald City (the piece Harris is currently creating) is the dark place this character journeys to from Facing Mekka.” This semi-autobiographical figure is “facing his fears of living, finding no resolve but accepting his path in a way that is the beginning of some sort of resolution.”
James “Cricket” Colter, a founding member of RHPM, describes Harris’ fraught working process during the making of Rome & Jewels. “We would learn stuff, then he would scratch it. His patience was at a low, so tension was high.” Colter compares Harris to an artist “sketching a drawing and erasing and adding on to his picture. We just happened to be his pencils on a grueling project. I now understand his creative process, but at the time it was hell!”
Although the performances seem spontaneous, Harris insists it is not improvisation. (This holds true for most hip hop and rap artistry. Even those people whose stage is a street corner have worked countless hours at home or in a club to shape the impulses into choreography.) Harris mused on the contrast between allowing a work to change but basically shaping the work through choreography. “All my work changes. I allow change to happen,” he says. “The only time I step in is when I am really married to moment or movement. Hip hoppers like change, and to not allow that is to not allow them voice. Improv doesn’t play a major role in my work.”
The company has toured Europe several times. Like African American performers of the swing era, Harris finds that Europe embraces them as artists, while they may be pigeonholed at home. “The outside world seems to really love us,” Harris declared. “It’s only here that we struggle in comparison. When we are overseas it’s like we are superstars. We performed for the Queen of England’s party and for the Princess of Monaco.”
Current projects include completion of Prince ScareKrow’s Road to the Emerald City as well as a work called Heaven, based on The Rite of Spring (with a cast of 10 women and 5 men, all break dancers). And, multi-tasker that he is, Harris is also working on “a hip hop sci-fi project called 100 Naked Locks.”
Besides Colter (who was a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” last year), other founding members who are still in the ensemble are Brandon “Peace” Albright, Ron “Zen One” Wood, and Duane Holland. Tania Isaac, one of the original Mekka cast members who now has her own dance company in Philadelphia (also “25 To Watch” in 2006), will return as a guest artist for the retrospective.
Sabela Grimes, who performed with RHPM from 1997 to 2002, teaches in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, where he is an MFA candidate. His peak experiences with RHPM centered on “knowing that the artists you are about to step on stage with are going to support you, challenge you, surprise you, and dance like their very existence depended on it—and at times I think it did.” Grimes admired Harris’ abilities as a catalyst too. “Rennie had a gift for orchestrating these great talents,” he says. “We were encouraged to keep the quality of our personalities in a way that would support the vision of the work.”
Grimes’ assessment is echoed by Colter, who claims that the RHPM experience allowed him the ability to dissect hip hop dance styles and combine them in his work. “I was already a visual artist,” he says, “and now I look at the stage as a canvas.”
What does it mean to be 15? Harris mentioned that Philadelphia has been called “the emerald city because of the tent of the buildings, and when you check out the skyline it looks like you’re going to Oz.” He admitted that his tags, “Prince” and “ScareKrow,” represent “the way I often feel—that I’m destined for something great, but yet I struggle with myself and scare things away from me.” This ScareKrow has grown up, and the mature Prince is facing the reality of life’s stages with the force of his demon talent, proclaiming the gospel of hip hop as his spiritual path of enlightenment—his yellow brick road.
Writer/performer Brenda Dixon Gottschild is a DM senior advising editor. Her most recent book is The Black Dancing Body (Palgrave paperback, 2005).