North Philadelphian Rennie Harris began dancing professionally in a hip-hop group he co-founded when he was just 14. After a second dance group split up in 1992, Harris, now 41, put together Puremovement, the hip-hop dance troupe that has brought him international acclaim. Puremovement comes to the FirstWorksProv Festival October 1 at 8 pm at the VMA Arts & Cultural Center for a 90-minute show of five classics from their repertory.
Harris and Puremovement brought their hip-hop opera Rome & Jewels to Rhode Island College in 2004, and in an interview with Harris then he told me that if he had not made dancing his lifeís work, he "would have been a priest or a preacher." That kind of fervor infuses Harrisís choreography and the workshops he does with young people.
"It started in the late í60s with the Robot," Harris noted, on the phone from Philly. "A lot of people think of hip-hop as this frivolous thing, and itís being redefined via the media. People are teaching it and cashing in on the money and not teaching the history of it.
"If you want to know about dance, you want to know how that particular generation was thinking ó what led them to move in a certain way," he continued. "People take it for granted that theyíre going to teach some hip-hop dance but not know the history from the plantations. Once you understand the history from the slaves and you see the same movement and structure and vocabulary there, then youíll understand what this really is. Movement is the last manifestation of reality, so the movement is defined by your consciousness and your subconscious."
When asked about the collective consciousness that led to hip-hop, Harris had one word for it: "War." More specifically, the Vietnam war and the War on Poverty in the late í60s and early í70s.
"War changes us," he reiterated. "Major wars change the way we think, in a way that people donít even understand. It changes the consciousness of a people; hence, itís going to change their expression."
What I remember most from the first time I saw Puremovement perform in í98 are the powerful emotions pumping through the dances, but Harris maintains that he creates "from a purely technical and choreographic place ó the emotional part of it is up to the dancers. If they are feeling it that day, hopefully that will connect to the audience."
The pieces Puremovement will perform, in their signature blend of popping and locking, tumbling and spinning, include: "Students of the Asphalt Jungle," which Harris has described as "an affirmation of our African-American heritage through movement, handed down through spirit and instinct"; "Endangered Species," an on-the-edge chase by a solo spotlighted dancer; "Continuum," a rush of gravity-defying moves that show the spiraling effects of hip-hop on thoughts leading to feelings that lead to movement; "P-Funk," a dazzling display of hip-hop chops to an irresistibly funky beat; and "The March of the Antmen," an intense work inspired by the life and death of Dru Minyard and set to original compositions by him.
Harris explained that what may look like improvisation in his dances is quite carefully choreographed. If his dancers take solos, thatís part of the structure: "For me, itís not a different vocabulary ó Iíve known it all my life. I think itís the way Western culture operates: if itís not in their world, it doesnít exist and therefore is new.
"When you really get down to it, hip-hop has to do with humanity," Harris added. "This spirit of freedom of words and freedom of expression and freedom of choice continues to revisit every generation and disguise itself as something new, or rather it comes back with every generation. It was called rhythm and blues, rock íní roll, swing, jazz, bebop. Now itís called hip-hop. With every musical form, there comes a point when the music defines the dance. Rap and hip-hop is all about communicating. The term hip-hop means to re-open your eyes."
Issue Date: September 23 - 29, 2005
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