Rennie Harris

Profile: Lorenzo (Rennie) Harris was born and raised in an African-American community in North Philadelphia. Since the age of 15, 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.

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 the inner-city African-American and Latino communities, hip-hop can be characterized as a contemporary indigenous form, one that expresses universal themes that extend beyond racial, religious, and economic boundaries, and one that (because of its pan-racial and transnational popularity) can help bridge these divisions. Harris’ 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.

The Early Years. . . Hip-hop dance became a part of everyday life for Harris. As a teenager, he founded and captained ensembles such as the Step Masters, The Scanner Boys and for a brief stint of time was a member of the Magnificent Force (NY). The Scanner Boys were an innovative hip-hop dance group that pioneered Philadelphia hip-hop movement in the early 80’s. In 1992 the Scanner Boys performed for the last time at Dancing in the Streets at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Harris then formed this new company, Rennie Harris, dedicated to preserving and disseminating hip-hop culture.

Rome and Jewels. . . Currently, Harris and his company are slowing down a 3 year tour of Rome & Jewels, the first evening length work, choreographed and directed by Rennie Harris in collaboration with dramaturge Ozzie Jones and composer/sound designer Darin Ross. Rome & Jewels uses Shakespeare’s text, in addition to original material contributed by the cast, to tell its own story based on West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. To date Rome & Jewels is the longest touring hip-hop dance theater work in American history. With 3 Bessie Awards, 2 Black Theater Alvin Ailey Awards, a nomination for an Herb Alpert award and a nomination for a Lawrence Olivier Award (UK) Rome & Jewels has performed for sold-out audiences nationally and internationally. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of Rome & Jewels: “Harris has built a wedge that will open the doors of America’s art centers, displaying hip-hop as clear cultural expression, compelling to all races and generations…” and “Rome &Jewels is clearly the work of an artist of uncommon vision…we get to witness, right here in our city, the evolutionof an important new dance form.”

More important than the critics’ response has been the outpouring of support from each community to which the company travels. Rome & Jewels is a highly successful out reach tool for the company. Because the work is so diverse, fusing classical text with hip-hop vocabulary, and mixing hip-hop music with rock, modern and classical sounds, the work has the power to touch many different lives. On each new tour the company does a series of outreach activities, either lecture demonstrations or discussions, with youth from elementary school age through college age. These activities are aimed opening up dialogue about racism and other areas of discrimination, and teach respect and appreciation for hip-hop culture.

Choreography: In addition Harris has Legends of Hip-hop, Students of the Asphalt Jungle and Facing Mekka. In Facing Mekka Harris continues his quest to present Hip-hop dance on the concert stage and to challenge assumptions about what hip-hop dance is. To this end, he has developed a solo that challenges his own choreographic experiences and audiences’ expectations of hip-hop. Lorenzo’s Oil, is also choreographed and danced by Rennie Harris. Lorenzo’s Oil will be performed as a butoh style hip-hop dance. The solo is meant to integrate calming, serene space (represented by the butoh-style) with hip-hop. Lorenzo’s Oil turns hip-hop on its head in order draw attention away from the spectacle of hip-hop and the acrobatic and high powered movements that many audiences, particularly those outside of hip-hop movement, and see what it could/should be.

Inspiration:. Much of Harris’ work up to and including Rome & Jewels, has explored his personal experiences as an African-America male growing up in North Philadelphia. While this male point of view has always been a source of strength for Harris, in Facing Mekka he sought to expand and grow by choreographing a work specifically for women. He wanted to explore hip-hop movement and how women interpret and present this movement. Harris has made it their own. What is most fascinating to Harris is how they have infused his movement with their own sense of dynamics and qualities. This section is a counter-balance from the natural machismo of hip-hop dance and a chance for Harris and his dancers to explore how women translate hip-hop movement. Thematically, this section explores the universitality of movement and reflects upon the unifying power of dance. Harris returns here to the ideas of Puremovement and seeks to challenge those who see hip-hop as a purely male form of expression. Facing Mekka will provides the first chance for the women in the company to come out of the “chorus,” to highlight their skills, and to show the various ways the human body can interpret hip-hop movement.

Legends Festival: While Facing Mekka takes traditional hip-hop vocabulary and challenge assumptions and ideas about it, Harris’ other work Legends of Hip-hop, seeks to honor and preserve the tradition of hip-hop dance. Legends as it is affectionately called, has long been a dream of Harris’. It is a gathering of the legends of hip-hop dance teaching their art, leading the next generation of hip-hop dance artists, and documenting and preserving their work. The festival began in 1997-98 when guest artists and students came from around the world to Kumquat Dance Center in Philadelphia, Pa, for a week of classes, lecture demonstrations, panel discussions, jam sessions and performances. The guest artists and teachers are seminal performers in hip-hop dance. Teachers included, Don Campbell (creator of Campbell Locking i.e. Locking), Boogaloo Sam (creator of Boogaloo & Popping) and the Electric Boogaloos (pioneers of boogaloo and popping), Crazy Legs and Lil Lep of the infamous Rock Steady Crew (pioneers of B-boying), among many others. Harris has also begun touring the festival; the first pilot tour took place July 15-21, 01 at the Colorado Dance Festival. Harris’ goal is to tour video documentation, exhibits, and a supplemental book, all of which celebrate the rich history of hip-hop dance. Legends is part of an on going effort by Harris to document the roots of the countless hip-hop styles, but he acknowledges that developing an accurate history won’t be easy. Most of the ones who innovated in the dance are either locked up or were murdered in the streets.

Education: Rennie Harris, throughout his history, has established a strong reputation for innovative and exciting classes and workshops for children, beginning with Rennie Harris’ own involvement with the Smithsonian Institution’s via the Philadelphia Folk Life Center at the age of 14. The company is currently implementing an After School/Mentoring program for children in the company’s home city of Philadelphia. The After school/Mentoring program began in the fall 2000 and was a 4-6 week program at the community centers and schools throughout Philadelphia. An RHPM company member goes to these centers and teaches hip-hop dance and culture to children throughout the city who might otherwise not have such opportunities. These programs provide structured and constructive activities for at risk-youth, encourage creativity and literacy, and build self-confidence. It is amazing to see the way children respond to learning hip-hop dance and culture, in all its forms. By seeing the rich history of the culture, they develop a new respect for it and in turn for themselves as they see their role within hip-hop.

Artistic Philosophy: Harris’ artistic philosophy reflects a deeper humanitarian vision-that we as a universe of people can never overcome racial or ethnic barriers without knowing and respecting our own distinct culture. Harris grew up entrenched in hip-hop as an African-American and Latino art form, in all its forms-music, dance, language-Harris has embraced the culture and sought to honor the legacy of hip-hop. He truly believes that hip-hop is the purest form of movement in that it honors both its heritage from African and African American-Latino forms, and honors the individual. His life has been devoted to bringing hip-hop dance to all people in the belief that hip-hop expresses universal themes that extend beyond racial, religious, and economic boundaries, and one that (because of its pan-racial and transnational popularity) can help bridge these divisions. Harris’ work encompasses the diverse and rich traditions of the past, while simultaneously presenting the voice of a new generation through its ever-evolving interpretations of dance.

Harris is well versed in the vernacular of hip-hop which includes the various techniques of B-boy (misnomer “break dancing”), house dancing, stepping and other styles that have emerged spontaneously from the urban, inner cities of America like the North Philadelphia community in which he was raised. He has brought these social dances to the concert stage, creating a cohesive dance style that finds a cogent voice in the theater. He is a powerful spokesperson for the significance of street origins in any dance style. Intrigued by the universality of hip-hop, he seeks inspiration from other forms and performance art.

Harris was voted one of the most influential people in the last one hundred years of Philadelphia history and has been compared to twentieth-century dance legend Alvin Ailey and Bob Fosse. He was also nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award and has been recently awarded the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. His group of dancers and their infectious brand of movement have toured around the globe. At 40, Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris is atop the hip-hop heap – its leading ambassador.