The Chronicle asked me to do a short Q and A.
“Rennie Harris changed attitudes in the dance world when his “Rome and Jewels,” a 2000 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” proved that hip-hop could be presented as artistically ambitious concert dance. Harris followed up with the enrapturing 2003 “Facing Mekka,” which – instead of a story line – focused attention on fiercely beautiful female dancers. More recently, Harris has pushed beyond the commercialization of hip-hop with his tour de force “100 Naked Locks.”
This week Harris brings his company, Puremovement, to Stanford, where he’s serving this winter term as visiting artist at Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts. We spoke to Harris by phone from Philadelphia, where he’s made dances – on the streets and in the studio – for more than two decades.
Q: With “Romeo and Jewels” were you consciously thinking about making hip-hop “work” as concert dance?
A: I almost think it wasn’t intentional – it was an aftereffect of creating the work. “Rome and Jewels” was more a product of hip-hop culture. It confirmed you could make an evening-length work with hip-hop. But “Facing Mekka” was more choreographically challenging. It works because you’ve got so many layers of music: live music, recorded music, text.
Q: Do hip-hop choreographers still have to think about how to frame their work for the concert hall, or are we past that?
A: Sadly, hip-hop has gone in a different direction. When I did “Rome and Jewels,” other crews were coming up doing hip-hop as concert dance. Then TV came in, shows like “America’s Best Dance Crew,” and this killed the concert movement. To each generation his own, but – now a whole generation of kids who were teenagers when I did “Rome and Jewels” don’t know anything about our work.
The real innovation is happening everywhere else but in the U.S. Like all these crazy cats in Korea, for instance – they do a lot of popping. They’re the next level of taking it to the theater, past their street culture. You see, unlike dancers in the U.S., they have three layers. Here the street culture of hip-hop already is our culture. There, they’re forced into the process of pulling it into the theater because it is not their native culture.”
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