Rennie Harris

To go where no hip-hop has gone before

Acclaimed Philly choreographer Rennie Harris turns to outer space for his latest dance creation, which premieres tonight at the Kimmel Center.

By Naila Francis

It may be that Rennie Harris is moving into a new phase with his work, slowly shrugging off the autobiographical in favor of the aesthetic.

For “100 Naked Locks,” making its world premiere at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts today and Saturday, the North Philadelphia native has created a sci-fi journey in which cultural conflicts and natural disasters lead to planetary annihilation, with the 100 remaining hip-hop survivors charged with birthing a new planet.

“In the past, up until this particular work, everything has been taken from my experience. This is probably the only piece that I’ve done for the company that really has nothing to do with my personal life,” says Harris, who founded Rennie Harris Puremovement in 1992.

But he laughs when he admits: “This piece is still dark, so I guess I’m still dark. But it could be the beginning of moving forward, of me moving into creating work just for work’s sake or work for more aesthetic reasons.”

Over the course of almost 17 years, Harris has explored both the heritage of hip-hop and dance as a spiritually liberating force in full-length works like “Facing Mecca,” while paying tribute to the victims of urban violence — and in particular, his friend, Dru Minyard — in repertory pieces like “March of the Antmen.”

He put his own spin on the tragic tales in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo & Juliet” and “West Side Story” with the hip-hop opera “Rome & Jewels,” and is working on several new productions, including “Prince ScareKrow’s Road to the Emerald City,” which will trace his evolution as man, artist and teacher.

“100 Naked Locks,” workshopped in 2005 with students in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures program, draws on his appreciation for “fantastical things.”

“I’m a fan, but I’m not a buff or nothing like that,” says Harris, 45. “I like anything to do with aliens, sci-fi, ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ ‘Lost in Space,’ whatever … I’m into all that kind of stuff.

“I knew I wanted to do something in that vein before I got to UCLA, but once I heard some of the music (from an original score given to him 10 years ago) and began creating the movement for it, clearly it was just something else. There was clearly something slightly sci-fi or futuristic to it.”

Central to the piece is the hip-hop dance movement known as “locking,” created by Don Campbell in Los Angeles in the late 1960s.

Danced traditionally to funk music, locking relies on large, exaggerated movements that often involve miming or audience interaction. Performers will usually freeze during a fast movement, thereby “locking” themselves into position, before resuming their dance at the previous pace. But rather than drawing on something outdated, Harris only expands its boundaries.

“It’s very prevalent and relevant around the world today. It’s just about using it in a different light, showing how expressive it could still be and how it can still be part of the vocabulary, so to speak, of street dances,” he says.

It was on the streets that Harris received his training, joining a local B-boy (hip-hop dance) crew, the Scanner Boys, while in high school.

They became a popular performance group, entertaining crowds at parties, clubs and various events within his community, and by the time he graduated from high school, Harris was performing and teaching across the country, appearing with Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash and other rap groups.

He never planned on having his own company until he was commissioned in 1991 by Michael Pedretti, artistic director of Movement Theater International, to create a piece for its festival in Philadelphia. He asked several students from the Scanner Boys to join him — and Puremovement was born.

From the start, he has worked not so much from vision and expectation as he has from passion and the inherent sense of dance as a way of life.

“In the black community, when it comes to dance, movement, what have you, it’s not thought of as an extracurricular activity. For instance, I didn’t know that there were people who actually went to class to learn how to dance. I was 14 when I found that out. I thought that was the funniest thing I ever heard,” says Harris.

“That’s the reason why we’ve lasted so long in theater. I didn’t ask to do this. This thing fell upon me. I don’t put myself under the normal pressures that come along with this business. If somebody wants it, good. If somebody doesn’t want it, good. I’m cool. I just kind of keep moving.”

He is lauded for elevating hip-hop as performance art on par with modern dance and ballet, taking it from the African-American and Latino communities to renowned stages around the world, where both concert dance audiences and hip-hop spectators converge.

But getting to that point was not without its challenges.

“Your peers wanted you to do traditional hip-hip, to just bang it out, but if you look at hip-hop on a level from 1 to 10, and we have to perform for an hour and a half, we couldn’t perform at level 10 for that long,” says Harris. “Then the venues wanted ‘Lord of the Dance,’ because they didn’t understand how hip-hop could be expressive. When I did a solo piece about molestation, they were in shock.

“We were doing pieces and work that had some substance, as well as entertainment value.”

Rapping, spoken word, live musicians, deejays, video installations and improvisation can all be integrated into a Puremovement piece, the dancing itself rooted in African tradition and re-interpreted for a new era.

“Throughout history, every culture has contributed (to hip-hop), whether it’s English clog dancing or Irish step. There’s even a lot of Russian movement in hip-hop,” says Harris. “But African-American culture is the one driving it. We’re the ones who found this African diasporic expression and moved it forward.”

Though the dance can be a medium to express universal themes, he sets no agenda for the audience.

“For my work, I try not to be that vain about it,” he says. “The best I can do is create the work I’m inspired to create, and if someone is inspired by that work, God bless — and I’m glad.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer