by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal
Rennie Harris, Philadelphia’s premiere hip-hop dancemaker, has spent the last year on the West Coast, sitting out the pandemic and gearing up for the 30th Anniversary year of his company Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM).
Even though it was 8 am Pacific Time from Riverside, in a Zoom interview last week, “My girlfriend lives out here, and so when the pandemic hit this is where I was, we had just come off the road. So I stayed out here. I was back in Philly briefly over the summer and looking forward to being back this coming summer.”
But Harris explains that he has not been in creative retreat and has been working on new creative choreographic projects. This week is company returns to the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia for a Livestream concert of Harris’ dance-theater pieces, old and new.
Harris was sipping coffee and donning his Eagles hat (“I have all the hats for Philly’s teams”) and despite the hour, touched on a wide range of subjects, the dance industry shutdown, the early days of Hip-Hop to our perilous time, and the role of arts in a politically violent country.
But first, he paused in remembrance of how many artists in the Hip-Hop dance world have been lost this past year. “We lost a lot of legendary hip-hop folk and not all to Covid… Osaume Sy, Don Campbell, Adolfo Shabba-Doo Quinones, and so many others in the arts. Like all of the Philadelphia Dance community, he was still in shock at the news of Manfred Fischbeck’s death.
He reminisced about his early days with PureMovement “I used to share an office with Manfred at Kumquat and The Community Education Center. Manfred, Brigitta (Herrmann) and Hellmut (Gottschild) really set a standard in Philadelphia.” Harris said.
Dancing out of lockdown
“I feel like the artists are taking a huge hit. Dancers and dance companies have been devastated through this pandemic….“ Harris said that when it hit last year, “We were right in the middle of tours, two years of work canceled, and lie everybody else, had to go into hibernation.”
As many dance companies are fighting to survive the shutdown, Harris said that the industry itself “is exposed as inadequate regarding their operating systems. And now we’re all in massive reset mode. Actually, I thought about folding the company for a minute. But once I got out of the fear zone. I started creating work.”
He said he was particularly inspired to keep things going with Puremovement and creatively during the shutdown was “what I saw dancers doing to survive during this crisis. Doing whatever it took to survive, starting a class, teaching, staying connected, and keeping things going the best they could.”
Harris has three projects in the works for the 2022 30th Anniversary Season, which will kick off with a revival of his dance-theater masterpiece ‘Rome & Jewels’ which premiered at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia and won Broadway’s Bessie Award, Shakespeare Theater Award, and nominated for the prestigious Olivier Award.
Also in development is ‘Losing My Religion,’ an autobiographical multi-media production that will include old and new choreography, a dance-theater piece confronting social and political issues. He will also premiere ‘American Street Dancer,’ a deep dance dive into Hip-Hop idioms and styles from Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York, with music by a Hip-Hop Street Orchestra.
For now, as theaters and tours are off the table, Harris is navigating the virtual dance world.
For the Annenberg program, he has been conducting Zoom rehearsals with the cast Joshua Culbreath, Phillip Cuttino Jr., Lucas Mikan, Emily Pietruszka, and Kai Rapelyea – for their first Livestream performance. ”All of the company is not there because of Covid. And it’s live, so they better be on point.” Harris joked.
“You take a year off and jump back in. It’s hard, and I can’t tell fully because it’s virtual. But the upside is that virtual dance is now a full-on separate genre. I really wasn’t a fan of dance on film. It was very much more cerebral to me than visceral. But during this time, I have come to appreciate it and understand it more. I think it has now found a place. And it is creating another platform for everybody. That part of it is interesting.”
Art & politics
Exposing systemic racism and social injustice have been central to Harris’ aesthetic for 30 years.
Harris recalled his two excursions with the state department to promote free expression and goodwill around the world.“I did it twice. In 1986, during the Reagan Administration, we went overseas on an American Embassy tour, as the best of what America had to offer, so they brought street dancers, tappers, and doo-whop groups. Harris had mixed feelings about the political agenda they might be representing but said, “I did it again going to the Middle East when Hilary Clinton was Secretary of State.
“However, the reason why I accepted it this time because of President Obama, and the second reason was that was we were bringing hip-hop, which exists within the culture itself. It is a nation within a nation. A whole different agenda and representation that other nations may not be aware of, an idea for the arts to represent freedom and free expression.”
The issues are dramatized in the Annenberg Livestream program of these works- ‘Continuum,’ ‘The Word,’’ The Big What If,’ ‘Black Promises’- and the explosively relevant ‘A Day in the Life– which Harris choreographed in 1995, and it is a dance documentary of two black brothers violently assaulted by police.
During the interview, Harris reflected on the worldwide response to the murder of George Floyd and the bravery of Black Lives Matter activism over the summer during the pandemic. He spoke of the danger of politicians fomenting conspiracies and the inevitable violence of the Insurrection at the Capital in January.
“Well, America started with violence, and so many people refuse to talk about it. So much of our language is passed in a nation built on slavery. It is still an open question that needs to be answered. How do we rectify that?”
“If you are a musician, a painter, a writer, a dancer, a singer, a choreographer, you are in a zone of higher consciousness. So, at any given time, this sort of freedom is threatening to many in authority…they want to suppress it, or own it because it is something that they can’t control.” Amen to that.
-For tickets for the Livestream performances go to www.annenbergcenter.org
Watch live at 7 PM on April 1 to participate in the chat and artist Q&A. Available on-demand through April 3.