Hip-hop takeoff on ‘West Side Story’ and Shakespeare headed for Dallas

Rennie Harris fell into choreography as a profession in that serendipitous way artists sometimes do. Someone paid him.

“I didn’t choose it,” the Philadelphia native and artistic director of Rennie Harris Puremovement recalls. “I was commissioned for $1,500 to create 45 minutes of work, which I had never done before. I had never choreographed 10 minutes. But it was a gig. Pretty much the whole beginning of my career was about economics.”

A couple of years later, Harris formed his own troupe, and almost a decade later he created his signature work, 2000′s Rome & Jewels, a hip-hop takeoff on West Side Story and Shakespeare.

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TITAS/Dance Unbound is bringing Puremovement to Dallas to perform the work as part of the company’s 30th anniversary tour.

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Harris began dancing in public before he was a teen.

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He remembers being struck by the Campbellock Dancers on Soul Train and The Carol Burnett Show when he was in grade school. Don Campbell had invented “locking,” a dance move that went on to influence Michael Jackson and become a cornerstone of hip-hop dance culture.

When he was about 12, Harris and his brother and a childhood friend won a church dance contest and formed the group Cobra III. In high school, as a member of The Scanner Boys, he opened for some of the first hip-hop music groups performing in Philadelphia.

After graduating, Harris moved to New York and began touring with rap pioneers Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Flash, Doug E. Fresh, Run-D.M.C. and The Sugarhill Gang. He danced in the New York City Fresh Festival, the first major hip-hop tour.

Philadelphia choreographer Rennie Harris, artistic director of Rennie Harris Puremovement.
Philadelphia choreographer Rennie Harris, artistic director of Rennie Harris Puremovement.(Osamu Inoue)

“When you grow up doing something, you’re not necessarily having critical thoughts about it,” says Harris, now 59. “That tour was the beginning of me thinking about what I was doing, how I was doing it physically and why I was doing it culturally. There was historical relevance behind it.”

Up until then, Harris had considered becoming a priest. “As soon as I got that tour, it was out the window,” he says. “I was making $600 a night.”

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After returning to Philadelphia, he received that $1,500 payday from an international movement theater festival, which led to other commissions and eventually Rennie Harris Puremovement. Rome & Jewels grew out of his dissatisfaction with West Side Story.

“I thought it should have starred street dancers rather than people pretending to be street dancers,” Harris says.

He also drew on the musical’s antecedent, Romeo and Juliet, reimagining the Montagues and Capulets as competing dance crews. By the late 1990s, he had begun working on the choreography with members of his company and writing a script, eventually with their help.

The idea evolved to mash up Shakespeare’s original words with street language and, like in West Side Story, play out the drama as a dance battle.

Rennie Harris Puremovement in
Rennie Harris Puremovement in “Rome & Jewels,” a hip-hop reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic romance and “West Side Story.”(JHsu Media)

“A lot of these cats were already poets or writers,” Harris says. “They couldn’t remember their lines, so they just started free-styling. They started flipping it and adding their own lines. That was an ‘aha!’ moment. I realized because they were adding pre-existing poetry they had already written, they were more believable as actors.”

Though Harris went on to create several other evening-length works, Rome & Jewels became so popular it toured on and off for decades, its cast aging along with the show. Several original cast members and understudies, including Rodney Mason, the original Rome, are part of the anniversary tour.

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Harris says he doesn’t believe taking hip-hop dance from the street to the stage is an elevation of the art form. It just happened to end up there in his case.

“Since it’s coming from the community, nobody is saying how you’re supposed to do it. It’s just an aesthetic, a vibe, a feel. It’s designed to adapt to its environment. I should be able to do Rome & Jewels in the middle of the street and still be very good. The theater is not the thing. I’m just using the environment that I’m in.”

Details

Feb. 2-3 at Moody Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St. $26-$76. attpac.org. titas.org.

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