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The Bard's Hip-Hop Foot Soldier

Choreographer Rennie Harris blends Shakespeare with rap in a modern take on 'Romeo and Juliet.'

September 17, 2000|ANNE MIDGETTE | Anne Midgette is a New York arts and culture writer

The scene is familiar: young men on a city street, dancing. They spin on the axis formed between head and shoulder, flex their arms in sinuous undulations and perform other feats of acrobatics for the crowd. Some people might call it break-dancing, although the correct term for this dance style, we learn, is b-boying. Whatever it is, it focuses on movement, with the body supporting itself on the ground through other means than the feet.

In the 1980s, such groups of dancers were a common enough sight in the inner cities of America. But there's something different about these particular dancers: Their movement is cleaner, more choreographed. They move from b-boying into another dance style, a form of straight hip-hop, portraying two gangs--the Caps and the Monster Qs. Their stage is more tangible, and the story line is eminently familiar. For these dancers are in a theater, and the piece they're staging is an evening-length hip-hop dance called "Rome and Jewels," a new take, in hip-hop idiom, on "Romeo and Juliet," masterminded by choreographer-dancer Rennie Harris and coming to UCLA's Schoenberg Hall Oct. 27.

"Hip-hop is an almost exact twin of the way Shakespeare was perceived in his day," says Harris, whom Dance magazine calls the "high priest of hip-hop." No poet or journalist today, he says by phone from his home in Philadelphia, had the kind of broad appeal of Shakespeare--or of hip-hop.

It's a long way from Shakespeare to inner-city Philadelphia, where Harris was raised and where, as he puts it in his official program biography, he "watched friends join gangs, deal drugs and ruin their lives." But the 35-year-old Harris took a different route. Having started dancing at 8, he had his first professional gig at 14 and continued experimenting with and performing different forms of dance until he founded his current company, PureMovement, in 1991.

In 1993, PureMovement gained wider attention with such works as the solo "Endangered Species," acknowledged as his breakthrough piece. A virtuoso tour de force, it illustrated not only the complexities of growing up in the inner city, but the choreographic and artistic possibilities of a dance form that was virgin territory for most conventional choreographers and audiences.

"People have limited hip-hop dance," says Harris, meaning that they've reduced it to what they think it's about. "It's bigoted, what most people think."

Harris has succeeded in crossing a divide, bringing hip-hop into the spotlight of what one might term "high culture." Still based in Philadelphia, PureMovement has performed throughout the United States and Europe, holding residencies and workshops as well as performing its repertory of Harris' works. Harris, meanwhile, has received fellowships and awards ranging from a Pew fellowship to a Rockefeller Foundation grant to a commission to choreograph for the Pennsylvania Ballet. Rather than dismissing hip-hop as an informal and commercial vernacular, dance critics are comparing the head spins of b-boys to a ballet dancer's fouettes.

"Bigoted" thinkers might assume that Harris, with his mass of dreadlocks and his devotion to every aspect of hip-hop culture, is seeking to legitimize a major aspect of the black experience. However, his mission is better summed up in the name of his company: PureMovement. His work is less about a political agenda than a deep love and interest in all the manifestations of hip-hop: b-boying, popping, cracking, house.

"The very essence of hip-hop," he says, "is about the celebration of life, energy and a higher spirit." Dance clears a space for a more purely spiritual expression. "I don't know if I have a message--just to tell people to get out there and dance."

And he doesn't want to claim hip-hop as uniquely black territory, either. "This theory of the melting pot has not been thought out properly," he says. "Imagine America as a big pot of boiling water whose ultimate goal is to become the best soup known to mankind. In order to make the best soup, you must have the best individual ingredients, such as carrots, peas, celery, etc. Once the ingredients become a part of this soup, it is hard to appreciate the individual tastes of the carrots or onions. Hip-hop culture is now comprised of every suppressed culture here in America that has lost its purpose."

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For those who aren't up on the distinctions between the various forms of hip-hop dance, the lecture-demonstrations of Harris and company come as a welcome education. "B-boys" (and "b-girls") "are more traditional breaking; there's a lot more slow movement," Harris explains. "Hip-hop is more about machismo aggression. It's strong dancing, but not as acrobatic as b-boying." It also tends to be more verbal, more political.

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