Headline: “Hip-hop morphs into pop culture: its original form is hardly recognizable in pop culture.”
Then again, this would never be a headline, because it isn’t news at all. Almost every art form has experienced this evolution. It’s simply the way of the world.
But it isn’t Rennie Harris’ way. And it never will be.
He was one of the first, and he remains a purist when it comes to choreography.
“You really don’t see it in music videos anymore,” Harris said. “Not real hip-hop dancing. About the only time you will see it in videos will be rap videos showing a party scene. There’s no reference to its origins, the original art, where it came from.”
So, Harris keeps the true art of hip-hop alive through his own Philadelphia-based dance company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, and when choreographing for others.
And one of the others is Philadanco, which will be coming to the Manship Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 31. Harris choreographed the dances, Awake, for the company in 2011, and The Philadelphia Experience in 2007. The company will be performing Harris’ work when it visits Baton Rouge, though Harris won’t be making the trip.
“Oh, I’ve been to Baton Rouge before,” he said. And he enjoyed Louisiana hospitality while here. But he’ll be in Philadelphia working with his own company.
Philadanco is short for Philadelphia Dance Company. It was founded in 1970 by artistic director Joan Myers Brown and tours nationally and internationally.
Brown developed the company with the intention of providing a dance institution for African-American students who were not welcome at the time in other schools and companies. The Philadelphia-based company’s mission is, “To present the highest quality of professional dance performance, and to provide exceptional training for the improvement of skills for emerging professional dancers and choreographers in a nurturing environment while increasing the appreciation of dance among its many communities.”
And Philadanco achieves part of that high quality by commissioning outside choreographers to create dances specially designed for the company.
Harris is one of those choreographers. Still, he isn’t just any choreographer.
Harris’ own company is the first and longest running hip-hop dance touring company not only in the nation but the world. He formed Rennie Harris Puremovement in 1992 and is known as a pioneer in the genre of hip-hop dance.
He has received numerous awards for his theatrical hip-hop concert dances and has received an honorary doctorate from Bates College. He’ll soon be receiving another from Columbia University.
Harris has broken ground as being one of the first hip-hop choreographers to create works for ballet companies, including the Memphis Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and, of course, Philadanco.
He’s worked with such popular acts as Salt-n-Pepa, Granmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Doug E Fresh, Madonna, Brandy, Sugar Hill Gang, Sister Sledge and Run-DMC and conducts hip-hop dance workshops throughout the world.
But it’s through his own company that he strives to preserve and disseminate hip-hop culture, one that he sees getting buried in the mainstream.
Rennie Harris Puremovement’s mission is to re-educate about hip-hop and its culture through its artistic work, lectures, demonstrations and discussions.
“When hip-hop started coming out, a lot of dancers were dancing jazz,” Harris said. “So, they started learning hip-hop, and when they went to auditions, they could dance both jazz and hip-hop.”
So, hip hop began its evolution. “Ninety percent of what’s done today is jazz,” Harris said.
“The hip-hop movement is being redefined, and it’s going in that direction. It’s being classified as American, when, if anything, its roots are in the African-American community. It’s part of the heritage, from slavery through the present.”
But even Harris acknowledges that the world has a way of incorporating art into its mainstream.
“There are changes,” he said. “There’s always a fork in the road. Theoretically, there is a foundation, progression and evolution.”
But Puremovement continues to hold to its core values.
As for Philadanco, Harris makes clear that not all of his choreography is hip-hop.
“The piece I choreographed for them, Awake, is actually called house dance,” he said. “The idea came to me after watching Spike Lee’s School Daze, where everyone of all races were fighting, and someone yelled, ‘Stop!’ That was the moment that inspired Awake, the moment when we all stop fighting.”
But is Harris in a battle to preserve the roots of hip-hop dance? Maybe. Mainstream pop culture is a powerful force with which to reckon.
And who knows? His victory just might make headlines.