Puremovement- photo by Brian Mengini
Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM) has appeared at the Bates Dance Festival since 1996. Back in the day, the festival was instrumental in helping to launch Harris' first evening-long work, Rome & Jewels, (2000) a then audacious hip hop take on the dueling gangs at the heart of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. For the first time, hip hop dancing was being used as a narrative language on par with ballet and the great techniques of the American modern dance pioneers as a street-based vocabulary that contained depth and breadth, and the ability to tell a range of stories.
An excerpt from Rome & Jewels is being revived for this performance, and it gives good sense of how far Rennie Harris Puremovement has come as the company, rejoined by some of its original performers, celebrates RHPM's 20th anniversary year.
Harris has been dancing and choreographing hip hop routines since he was a 13-year old in Philadelphia in the 1970s -- before hip hop even had a name, much less was seen as one of the central pillars of a global culture that, as enumerated by Afrika Bambaataa of Zulu Nation, would come to include MCing (rapping), DJing, graffiti writing, and the production of knowledge. In the company's early days, RHPM performed in front of predominantly white audiences. Tonight's program includes the signature works P-Funk and the classic acrobatic virtuosity of Students of the Asphalt Jungle from 1995. These works come from the period where RHPM experimented with building the cipher (inward-facing ring) that would allow the dancers to perform for and challenge each other, building their own energy field within the confines of a conventional stage.
RHPM incorporated female performers in its earliest years, but during the company's early touring, much of its repertory focused on male prowess (in Rome & Jewels, for example, Juliet is nowhere to be seen -- she's the idealization of everything outside these young men's tight bonds with each other, and a valuable, unreachable figment of their collective imaginations). That changed with the memorably moving Facing Mekka, which was performed at Bates during the summer of 2004. This past season, Harris showcased b-girls in his narrative show, Heaven, which crossed house dancing with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In tonight's repertory program, women take to the stage in Breath, Nina and Three B-Boys and a Girl.
This is the third generation of dancers to make up Rennie Harris Puremovement. Some of the dancers are hip hop specialists. Others have studied other forms of dance, gymnastics, Brazilian capoeira and competitive athletics. In all cases, commercial, and commercialized, hip hop dance is ubiquitous enough -- in public places, on the stage, broadcast in shows like America's Best Dance Crew, and everywhere on the internet -- that being good enough to stand out takes some doing.
As Harris told an audience at Stanford University this past year:
Hip hop dancers are like jazz musicians, none of them are the same, they will have different variations on top of variations like tappers do and so when you watch them dance...the application is completely different. When you allow that, you allow for brilliant moments to happen, so the work always has to breathe. If it doesn't breathe, it's not hip hop.
In his role as teacher and griot -- along with Jorge "Popmaster Fabel" Pabon of Rocksteady Crew/ Universal Zulu Nation, Harris is perhaps hip hop's senior historian -- he takes pains to stress that hip hop is merely the most recent expression of movement that comes from the African diaspora. Hip hop dance's percussive, often acrobatic style stands on the shoulders not only of traditional West African moves but also the cakewalk, lindy hop, moonwalk, Puerto Rican dance forms, and a wide array of genres that developed over the past century and offered dancers self-expression and freedom.
As a choreographer, Rennie Harris says that he teaches his students at places like Bates or his own youth company, Rennie Harris Awe-inspiring Works (RHAW):
There are no rules, everything is fair game, the sky is the limit, and take no prisoners.
c 2012 Debra Cash