A critic once remarked that hip-hop choreographer Dr. Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris has “one foot in the streets and one foot on the stage.”
I shared this quote with Harris, who countered with: “Dance belongs wherever a person puts it.”
It’s a fitting philosophy for Harris, who, at age 53, is widely regarding as one of the most innovative minds in his field, reimagining and repurposing hip-hop choreography in a number of inventive contexts. His curriculum vitae is impressive, ranging from opening for LL Cool J as a teen, to staging a rap interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Now, the native Philadelphian and the dance troupe he has presided over for a quarter of a century, Rennie Harris Puremovement, will present “Straight Outta Philly” at Eisenhower Auditorium on Friday.
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An encomium to their home, the show is a collaboration between RHPM and the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco), helmed by the accomplished modern dance choreographer Joan Myers Brown.
“I’ve known ‘JB’ since I was a teenager,” Harris said with affection.
Harris and Brown’s rapport is reflective of Philadelphia’s African-American arts community. The city is huge, but the scene, especially in its storied R&B and rap circles, is close-knit and familial.
A walk through Harris’s neighborhood in the 1980s or ’90s would leave a music nerd’s head spinning.
“I’d see Musiq Soulchild coming around one corner; slap hands with him,” Harris said.
“Go around another corner — there’s Jill Scott! Will Smith’s younger sister danced in Puremovement’s female group for a while. You might have heard P!nk singing in a club on the weekends — she would come up (from the suburb Doylestown). We had all these faces that would go on to be famous, but at the time there was a very close sense of community. I think the community was strong because we all knew the music was dope.”
“Straight Outta Philly” sees RHPM and Philadanco using strong physicality and impressive footwork to examine social, political and economic concerns of not only Philadelphia, but urban areas as a whole. There’s even a detour to Harlem for Philadanco’s piece “A Movement for Five,” concerning the assault trial of the “Central Park Five” in the late 1980s.
The themes are serious, though Harris reiterated that the intent is not to lecture, and welcomes different receptions to the troupes’ performance.
“I’m not interested in controlling art. I’m not interested in controlling sequences,” Harris explained.
“That’s what television does, that’s what Broadway films do. They tell the audience how to feel. I just try create an experience. I’m pulling from my creative core, then I’m moving through the space of what exactly to do with the art I make. People may see ‘Straight Outta Philly’ and they may be moved, they may be inspired. They may have the knowledge or the dance vocabulary identify the dancers’ exact steps and styles. And they may not, but that’s cool. Get whatever you’re supposed to get out of it.”
Harris said any style of dance can be a vehicle for communicating ideas, calling movement the “last manifestation of reality.”
“Movement is based on what a person physically does, as opposed to what they say or think. It is the final reflection of a human’s state of conscious. This is true of all dance. Ballet ... hip-hop ... all types.”
In tandem with “Straight Outta Philly,” Dawn Bazemore — former Philadanco dancer and creator of the aforementioned “Movement for Five” segment — will discuss the piece in a free lecture the afternoon of the performance at the Arts and Design Research Incubator in the Borland Building on Penn State’s main campus.
IF YOU GO
- What: “Straight Outta Philly”
- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
- Where: Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park
- Info: www.cpa.psu.edu