Street Dance on Stage: Rennie Harris Puremovement at The Vets

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Rennie Harris Puremovement at The VETS February 24, 2017. Part of FirstWorks Artistic Icons Series. Photo: Erin X. Smithers.

By Olivia J. Kiers

In 1992, Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris founded his dance company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, to advocate for the importance of hip-hop and other street dance practices as an art form. Now, 25 years later and head of the nation’s first and longest-running touring hip-hop company, there could be little argument that Harris is achieving his goal. Through his thoughtfully crafted choreography and his dancers’ energy, Harris takes the audience on a journey, expanding the boundaries of what we expect from street dance.

Rhode Island’s FirstWorks—a Providence-based non-profit that presents celebrated artists—did New England’s performing arts enthusiasts a great service by inviting Rennie Harris Puremovement to perform in its Artistic Icon Series on February 24, just one day before Harris was honored at Brown University’s Rhythm of Change Festival.

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Rennie Harris Puremovement publicity shot. Photo courtesy Rennie Harris Puremovement.

There was an electric atmosphere in The Veterans Memorial Auditorium that evening. Those who arrived early enjoyed FirstWorks’ JumpStart pre-show in the lobby, which was presented in partnership with the Rhythm of Change Festival. The pre-show featured four acts—local hip-hop group RawKin’ RhythMix, the stunning Troupe Yeredon from Mali in West Africa, and student performances from Wheaton College’s multicultural dance company TRYBE and Trinity Academy of Performing Arts. It was a sampling of performative elements from around the African diaspora, the perfect appetizer for Harris’ tradition-blending and convention-breaking philosophy. By the time the main event—the new Nuttin’ But A Word suite, developed by Harris for the 25th Anniversary Tour—began, the crowd was primed and ready to go.

Every dancer performed with full conviction, their enthusiasm inspiring and contagious. The hours flew by far too quickly. When the company took a moment to prepare for its final piece, This is for the Ancestors: Students of the Asphalt Jungle, the lights came up over the audience, and as the music continued, many stood from their seats to dance, keeping the momentum going until the dancers returned.

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Rennie Harris Puremovement at The VETS February 24, 2017 part of FirstWorks Artistic Icons Series. Photo: Erin X. Smithers

Yet the evening was more than just a joyful celebration of style. Harris’ role as innovator and instructor was felt throughout the evening, especially in the projected video introductions interspersed between sets that explained certain aspects of his choreographic decisions and philosophy. In one video, Harris made a point of saying that he did not want to perpetuate the culture of African American-as-entertainer. Hence, Harris’ productions have a definite pedagogical bent. Even this show’s title—Nuttin’ But A Word—reveals an aspect of the African-American experience likely unfamiliar to non-minority audience members. It’s a short version of “You ain’t said nothing but a word,” a phrase that affirms that speaker’s ability to rise above disparagement or criticism and then deliver his own vindication. This sentiment is key to Rennie Harris Puremovement’s stance as both proponent and challenger of the hip-hop tradition.

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Rennie Harris Puremovement at The VETS February 24, 2017 part of FirstWorks Artistic Icons Series. Photo by ERIN X. SMITHERS

Harris outlined—in the printed program and one of the video interludes—what he calls the Three Laws of Hip-Hop: individuality, creativity and innovation. “There is nothing about the Three Laws of Hip-Hop that suggests stagnation… There is nothing about these laws that suggests that we as practitioners of the form should only adhere to its foundation.” To that effect, Harris took on the elements of house dancing and locking (a style of funk dancing) in the first half of the evening in works like Continuum and Unlocked, challenging his dancers to push these forms out of their natural habitat. This was accomplished in part by musical selections some would consider to be on the fringes of hip-hop. Harris paired his dancers’ cyclical (and often humorous) comings and goings in A Funny Thing Happened? with the haunting rhythms and refrains of “Man With a Movie Camera” by the British electro-jazz group Cinematic Orchestra. While not typical hip-hop fare, A Funny Thing Happened? conveyed a real sense of the street with its continual motion, underlying performative tensions and gradual shifts in energy.

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Rennie Harris Puremovement at The VETS February 24, 2017 part of FirstWorks Artistic Icons Series. Photo: Erin X. Smithers

Even pieces with a more straightforward approach to street dance did not rely simply on the showmanship so often associated with it. Harris expressed his interest in subtlety, what he described as “the one to seven on hip-hop’s 10-point scale.” And so the evening’s thrilling moments became climaxes within plots built by layer upon layer of nuance within more familiar popping, voguing, and B-boying frameworks. Nuttin’ But A Word reached toward theater, thanks to each dancer’s individuality and Harris’ choreographic wit.

As the audience filed out of The Vets and into the misty Providence night, the air was filled with fragments of hummed music and laughter. Many walked with a new rhythmic confidence. To the hip-hop uninitiated, witnessing Rennie Harris Puremovement was a conversion experience. To those for whom hip-hop is a way of life, it was a celebratory evening of affirmation and inspiration.


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