In gauging the responses of young dance-goers today, it’s probably safe to say that the Facebook post has replaced — and, perhaps, improved — the paper-and-miniature-pencil survey. “OMFG Rennie Harris Puremovement was AMAZING!!!! Dr. Harris is such an inspiration to me, as a Large dancing man of color, he give me such great support for what I will be doing for the rest of my life.” So reads an update by an audience member fresh from a performance in California last month. The post spawned several like-minded comments by the young man’s friends who had seen the show at Stanford University’s nearly full Memorial Auditorium, and sparked interest in others who hadn’t. In the Internet age, spreading information can create community; the community of Rennie Harris fans seems to be adding friends at a vigorous pace.
Harris directs two dance companies from his Philadelphia base: Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM), which he began in 1992, and Rennie Harris Awe-inspiring Work (RHAW), formed in 2007. His second company, comprised of younger dancers, comes to Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts Thursday through Sunday.
As founder of the annual summer festival Illadelph as well as artistic director and principal choreographer for both companies, the acclaimed hip-hop master reaches his public on multiple platforms. Bringing his work to concert stages on tour meets repeat viewers in addition to audiences who may be new to hip-hop, or misinformed about it. Rodney Hill, company manager of RHAW and RHPM as well as a choreographer and RHPM dancer, describes some first-timers: “We get a lot of people who are curious. They heard about us or read up on us and just came out to the show, and we actually changed their whole perspective on how they look at hip-hop dance.” Countering negative stereotypes of hip-hop as a violent counterculture factors into Harris’s agenda; his work illuminates its ability to draw people together peacefully.
Education features prominently in all branches of Harris’s enterprise. He founded his second company to meet the great demand from talented young hip-hop dancers eager to join his main company, supplying a place for them to grow as artists and develop their skills as practitioners. Some of RHAW’s members — teenagers and young adults — attend college, while others are working; the group’s evening rehearsals take place around everyone’s schedules. Dancer Mariah Tlili, 20, from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, has been with the company for four years. Asked about some of her motivations to dance, she writes that, in addition to others’ dancing, music, and life experiences informing her, “I think it is important that if I look at someone else dancing and feel inspired, that I should be able to be inspired from what I am doing. It is truly inspiring when I find myself continuing to grow and learn. It helps me stay humble, and keeps me away from settling in places that have so much more space for me to reach.” She describes her director this way: “Rennie Harris, who is a pioneer in so many ways, is a very intelligent man who plays no games!” She appreciates being able to work so closely with him. “Whenever he is around, I take full advantage of the time,” Tlili says. The RHAW dancers not only receive training and mentoring from Harris and other hip-hop legends, but also provide lecture-demonstrations, discussions, master classes, and outreach programs in schools and community settings as educators, themselves.
Harris’s mission in reaching young people goes further than showing them moves in a studio. His works deliver content that reflects this generation’s experiences through a widespread contemporary idiom. Both RHPM and RHAW explore physical vocabularies of Campbell Locking, Popping, Boogaloo, B-boy/girl, House, and hip-hop social dance. Master classes offer abbreviated courses in the histories and qualities of styles such as the footwork-focused top rocking. In developing evening-length as well as shorter works, Harris moves beyond abstract virtuosity to create theatrical dances. The choreographer has taken on familiar narratives, such as Romeo and Juliet, to develop rich, relevant stories through hip-hop. (Rome & Jewels, premiered in 2000, uses text and video with dancing to tell an old story in a radically new way.)
RHAW’s Miami lineup features 10 short pieces. The bursts of new ideas and quick changes of tone could be a good match for young dancers and young audiences alike. Hill talked me through some of them over the phone. Harris’s 1997 Continuum, also seen at the Facebooked-about program at Stanford, opens the evening with dancers moving on their own terms. “They get to show people themselves — they get to freestyle,” Hill explains. Speaking about Harris, Hill says, “He actually gives them the light to do their own thing” before absorbing it back into his choreographic design. Continuum is the oldest work on the program, acknowledging RHAW’s roots in RHPM. The other nine pieces were conceived in 2010.
Hill draws attention to two of them: Bohemian Rhapsody, to the music of Queen, and Peace and Love, with music by Mandrill. Both pieces by Harris pack stories that could stretch an evening’s length the way Hill describes them. Harris draws on experiences growing up in North Philadelphia, where Hill is also from. “Even though it’s Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it’s like its own country,” Hill says of the north side, complete with its own rules of conduct, style of dress, and culture. Violating the rules, intentionally or not, could get you into serious trouble. Harris addresses young-person problems like bullies at school and romantic break-ups. He also shares through his dances his vision for a better future: being part of your community, giving back to it, and navigating your world, whatever it looks like, with the confidence of a B-boy or -girl.
Harris wants to fill theaters with young people who might identify with the work he puts on stage, and targets those who might most need to see it. Bringing RHAW to junior high and high schools exposes students to a new language, or a new use for one they might already know. Hill remarks, “When people watch, I want the audience to come away with something from this, but I want to hear from them, what they have to say and what they think about the whole energy of the work and the look of the dances.” Get to the show, then get on your computer.
Carnival Studio Theater, Ziff Ballet Opera House at The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami). Ticket prices are $40 and $45. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org. Thursday through Saturday, February 10-12, at 8 p.m. Sunday, February 13, at 2 and 7 p.m.