While the veteran choreographer and artistic director of the Rennie Harris Puremovement dance company is steeped in the hip-hop culture he grew up in, he's always trying something new.
There's "Rome & Jewels," his long-touring, much-honored hip-hop opera based on "Romeo and Juliet." Other works factor in elements of Japanese butoh dance, chants from various spiritual traditions, and music not typically associated with the popping, locking and acrobatic moves of hip-hop dance. Jazz, for instance, and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." During a recent interview, Harris ponders, "Imagine if you were doing hip-hop movement to Phillip Glass ..."
A writer from Dance Magazine wrote in 2007: "Harris has crafted and transformed this street-smart, urban dance form into a complex, concert-stage product that offers a mix of messages to diverse audiences — young-old, black-brown-white, working-and-middle class. This is no mean achievement."
And when people question Harris, "Is this really hip-hop?" he has one response. "Of course it is. I just remind them of the three laws."
This winter, the peripatetic Philadelphia native will spend a lot of time at Stanford University. Although he no longer performs with Puremovement, he's got a busy campus residency planned, including teaching and speaking. His company is set to perform in Memorial Auditorium on Jan. 22: a family matinee at 3 p.m. and a full performance at 8.
"We're thrilled to have Rennie on campus for the entire winter quarter. He's taken hip-hop to another level," Samy Alim, director of Stanford's Institute for Diversity in the Arts, said in a press release. "He's always interested not just in dance, but in thinking and theorizing about what movement means culturally and politically."
The performance pieces, all choreographed by Harris, provide a taste of Puremovement's appeal to diverse audiences. While inspired by individuality, Harris also strives to include "universal themes" that cut across cultural divides.
The program includes "Something to do with Love, Volume I," a 2006 collection of works set to music by Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye and other musicians. The pieces, Harris once wrote, "reflect the trials and tribulations of our relationships with our friends, families and lovers as a way of tracking our spiritual growth."
Also on the program is "March of the Antmen," a 1992 work about society's issues with war and violence. "Students of the Asphalt Jungle," from 1995, is "an acknowledgment of our African heritage," Harris says in an interview. It's set to music that he described as "a quasi-African sound with drums."
Another early company work, "P-Funk," is from 1992 and looks back at Harris' upbringing in Philadelphia in a predominantly male family — he has five brothers and a sister. The piece has a jazzy feel, with some of the music by the contemporary jazz group Groove Collective. It also seeks to capture "that feeling of camaraderie and support the way men do it," Harris says.
He pantomimes the half-hug with back slaps that men often give instead of a full embrace. He grins. "It still means a lot, even if it's not a bear hug."
Harris says that this male camaraderie is part of Puremovement's strength: men dancing together in groups or cheering each other on. There are both men and women in the company now, but in the mid-'90s there was a time when all the dancers were male. Harris recalls enthusiastic responses from audiences, and credits hip-hop for creating opportunities for men in dance. "It's OK for men to dance, and grown men," he says.
Now nearing 50, Harris was far from grown when he started on his career path. "I don't know when I actually started to dance," he says. "I can tell you the first time I got paid. I was 14."
In those early days, rap groups didn't fill coliseums. They played bars and lounges, and sometimes would hire dancers to take the stage. Harris had a busy performance career from early on. He also performed with a Smithsonian Institution project documenting hip-hop dance as folklore. After high school, Harris went on the road, touring with Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow and other acts.
Harris founded Puremovement in 1992. His goals were to preserve and spread hip-hop culture through performance, teaching, mentoring and artistic residencies.
He's long sought to cross cultural boundaries in dance and music, but he doesn't describe his work as fusion. When he adds elements of other styles, he tries to keep them discrete — perhaps a few eight-counts, clear and distinct — rather than combining everything. "All ingredients had their own unique taste before being added to the blend," he says, adding that an artist must remember that.
Along the way, Harris and Puremovement have picked up many honors. "Rome & Jewels," for instance, has earned three New York Dance and Performance Awards (Bessies), among others. In 2007, Harris was named Artist of the Year by Pennsylvania's First Lady. In the future, he'd like his company to travel more. He also aspires to open his own dance school.
Harris says he thinks life is harder today for young dancers than when he was starting out. While he remembers when MTV began, "Now everyone's on YouTube. There's so much competition." The only way to make money, he adds, is to dance on a major tour, like Madonna or Fergie, and those gigs are tough to get.
Also, Harris is leery of the "hype and glamour" that young dancers are being sold on in dance reality shows and other passing fads.
"Those opportunities will fade. Then what'll you do?" he asks. "Stay in school. Do your research. Have a plan."
What: Rennie Harris Puremovement performs a family matinee and a full performance of hip-hop dance.
Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University
When: Saturday, Jan. 22. The family matinee (an abridged program) is at 3 p.m. The full performance is at 8 p.m.
Cost: Matinee tickets are $10-$30 for adults and $5-$15 for youths. The evening performance is $20-$60 for adults. Stanford students get in for $10, and other student and group discounts are available.
Info: Go to livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS. Rennie Harris will also give a free talk after the 8 p.m. show, and will take part in a free discussion hosted by the Aurora Forum's Mark Gonnerman at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20 at Stanford's Pigott Theater.