Hip Hop at 50

Rennie Harris and Puremovement celebrate 30 years of breaking on stage

Influential company is bringing a revival of ‘Rome & Jewels’ to New York

Thirty years ago, dancer Rennie Harris returned to his hometown of Philadelphia and thought about retiring. He had spent years dancing with hip-hop crews and touring with rappers, but it seemed like it might be time to get a job in another industry.  

“I was 27 but I’d been dancing professionally since I was 14,” said Harris. “I was vexed, and I didn’t have that much money.”

But then veteran director Michael Pedretti called with a commission. This time it wouldn’t be for the club or a commercial, but for a theater. And so Rennie Harris Puremovement, the longest-running hip-hop dance company in the country, was born.

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Puremovement is busy with a slate of new works in development. It’s also reviving one of its influential early works, Rome & Jewels, which reimagined Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story for a new generation. The piece won three Bessie Awards, a Shakespeare Award, and a nomination for the United Kingdom’s Lawrence Olivier Award. On Tuesday, their tour will make a stop at the Joyce Theater in New York.

Harris laughs now recalling how “hilarious, and arrogant, and dumb,” his plans for early retirement were.

Harris’ works resonate because of the frank way they address social issues such as incarceration, gun and sexual violence, race, and religion. Besides the dances he created for Puremovement, Harris’ works can also be found in the repertoires of companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Philadanco.

He sees himself as an ambassador for street dance and its numerous styles, from popping and locking to house and stepping. Always the educator, Harris founded Rennie Harris Awe-Inspiring Works, a youth organization that trains “hip-hop hopefuls” in dance techniques and elements of professionalism and production, and more recently, Rennie Harris University, a certificate program that covers Harris’ street dance pedagogy and serves as a model for teacher training in the field.

Andscape spoke with Harris recently about longevity, legacy, and his North Philly style.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Rennie Harris’ Puremovement is the longest-running hip-hop dance company in the country.

Osamu Inoue

When you founded Rennie Harris Puremovement, what was going on between the street dancing community of Philly and concert dance?

I had no clue what was going on in concert dance because I wasn’t in concert dance at the time. I came up in hip-hop and the commercial world. In 1991, Michael Pedretti came to me and said he wanted to commission me to create some work. I had basically been dancing and choreographing all my life. But at that time in hip-hop, for street dancers, no one really looked and saw themselves as choreographers in that way, even though we were one and the same. And I didn’t call it ‘choreography,’ I called it a ‘routine.’ At that time, I don’t think I did anything past 10 minutes. And he [Pedretti] wanted 45 minutes. So he commissioned me $1,500 to do that and that’s how the company got started.

Was it daunting to move from making a 10-minute routine to a 45-minute production?

I honestly didn’t even think about it. What was daunting was that as a street dancer you want to knock it out of the box all the time. The whole game is to be on 10 when you’re dancing, right? And you can’t be on 10 for 45 minutes. I mean, that would be a circus. It made me think about it differently, creating the sort of ebb and flow for the night that could sustain 45 minutes to 60 minutes with all street dance … what I call a hip-hop production.

d. Sabela grimes, who originated the role of Ben V (aka Benvolio) in Rome & Jewels, once said that your work has a North Philly style that helped contribute to your success.

When I became a popper, I moved to New York for a few years. Every time we would go to a club, go to say the Roxy and battle, people just thought, automatically — because they had never seen the way we dance, the way we pop — they just thought that it was from California. Everything’s sort of homogenized now, but before when you traveled, you could see the unique aesthetic from that city.

Puremovement revives one of its influential early works, Rome & Jewels, at Joyce Theater in New York on Feb. 7.

JHsu Media

Philly has its own way of moving, a type of speed that came from its history as a tapping town and a style called GQ [also known as ‘stepping’] that came out in the ’60s. And my generation probably was the last generation to learn it and to battle with it and all that. Because of that, there’s just a sense of timing, and rhythm that’s unique to Philadelphia, specifically North Philadelphia. My generation, and even some of the kids a little bit under me, they still dance a certain way, but they might not know what it is they’re doing if they don’t have the history of Philly.

When I’m dancing, doing house, or footwork, I’m listening to a whole different beat. Like, I hear the beat, but I call it dancing through the raindrops, an in-between space in timing. Dancers often keep trying to find the one [in the music]. But I’m playing with them choreographically, telling them to let the one go.

Were the dancers that you cast from your community? Was there a point when you started to hold auditions?

You know, in 30 years I’ve had two auditions and that was only under pressure from admin. What I did was I went around to the clubs in Philadelphia and invited dancers that I thought were dope to come to rehearsal. And none of those dancers showed up. [Laughs.] And then I got these younger dancers who showed up, but they weren’t as skilled. That also sent me on a different path because the top dancers were, for lack of a better word, divas in a way, and so this was the beginning of me training dancers to do what I need them to do for the work that I wanted to do. Part of that also had to do with work ethic. People would come late. One dancer said, ‘I got the choreography, why do we have to keep repeating it?’ It was stuff that I hadn’t thought about. At that time there was no academy, no real academic process for teaching [street] dancers to become professional. So I had to go through all of that before I could even get to the work. I had to learn to manage people, that was more the work than to figure things out choreographically.

Over the years with Puremovement, did the audience change?

Our audience changed from the gate as soon as we hit the first theater. It was all white and everybody was so quiet. We hadn’t experienced that before. As we’re walking on the stage for the bow, the audience stood up, clapping and screaming in a standing ovation. We couldn’t believe it — what the hell was this? It was older white folk, but over the years that changed, suddenly became younger. And then it was like gray hair and young people and then that became mixed and multicultural.

But one of the things that has not changed is that street dance still is seen as this sort of youth movement. Which is good, but when it comes to street dance theater, people often feel like the circus has come into town, so they bring their kids. But my work has always been adult content. Even early work in the ’90s was about molestation and rape and religion.

Once we danced at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina and the headline read, ‘Harris brings angst dance’ and then said, ‘If you can get through the first half, the last piece is amazing.’ We called the first 45 minutes the walkout zone. In the very beginning, people picketed our shows, would send cops to our shows, because they didn’t have a clue what was going on. No one was doing what we were doing at the time. Yet juxtaposing hip-hop and theater was definitely not new.

So we cracked up and loved it when people left the show. But the people who stayed? That’s what it was all for.

What about Rome & Jewels? Did people leave that show when you first performed it?

Oh, yeah, people leave it still. We just did it in Philly and people were leaving. Because they were bringing their kids, and this is an R-rated show. The work was actually fashioned after West Side Story and played on the idea of Romeo and Juliet. But it’s not about that love story, this is a whole different thing. Rome is objectifying women, creating women who he wants them to be, for him, he’s in love with the idea of love but meanwhile, there’s a war going and this man is fighting himself. Rome & Jewels is short for ‘roaming for jewels,’ a jab at the hip-hop community because we are always searching for the Holy Grail. The opening lines are given by Ozzie Jones who plays the Old Man narrator, like the Tony character in West Side Story. He opens it up with:

Big and Pac roamed for jewels, but don’t we all? You ain’t nobody until you’re somebody on some motherf—er’s wall. One big, black, fat, and ugly, the other scarred up like tags on a train. Spitting freestyles for thirty Gs with pounds of weed on the brain. Now here, heartbreak gets popped too — while bullets crash through. Cause in the jungle sometimes what love got to do? When all your eyes are set on nothing, you get tempted like David Ruffin. Cause in the death angel’s arms, our screams sound like mumbling. Through Rome, we see Jewels, and Rome stands for quest to get love, props, or dough before he dies from the stress.

This is not about unrequited love. He opens it up by telling you this is about class. This is about something bigger.

How did the script come together?

I started writing the script in 1996. Around ’97 or ’98, we were performing at Bates College. And Laura Faure was the director of the dance program at that time, and she was looking over my shoulder as I worked on the script. She got people interested to give me some money to create the work.

So now we have rehearsal. Sabela and Rodney Mason, they start doing their own poetry with it, that just blew everything up. They never asked me, they just would come in and start going and when I saw that, I was like, dope, let’s keep it. And then Ozzie, who was the dramaturg at the time, wrote his intro.

This new production is part of Rennie Harris Puremovement celebrating 30 years. Do you have a vision for the next 30?

This is a surprise to me. Often, I just put my blinders on, and I keep moving. I don’t look left, don’t look right. I can’t look to see what this person is doing, or what that person is doing, I just keep moving forward. I’m really in a mode where I feel like I want to create as much as I possibly can. I’m hopeful that we’re still around for another 30, that the company can make it past my demise.

Liner Notes

Rennie Harris Puremovement will perform Rome & Jewels from Feb. 7 through Feb. 11 at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., New York, New York.

Candice Thompson is a writer and dance critic living in Brooklyn.