It makes sense that Dance Magazine long ago dubbed Rennie (Lorenzo) Harris the "high priest of hip hop." When the often shy, Philadelphia-born choreographer founded his company Rennie Harris Puremovement in 1992, he planted a prodigious seed in the dance world. Then and now, Harris' mission has been to examine, preserve and share the culture of hip hop, decisively away from the commercially exploited view.
Harris remembers that when he started in the '90s, it was rough; a lot of his work was direct, so picketing and policing RHPM shows was the norm. But that time also harkened the birth of his well-thought-out launch of street dance onto the concert stage. There was the politically charged March of the Antmen, the pointed look at brotherhood and neighborhoods in P-Funk, and the tour de force Students of the Asphalt Jungle. His chilling solos, Lorenzo's Oil and Endangered Species, screamed chaos, contradiction and culture. In the 2000s, Rome & Jewels, his first evening-length work, garnered a Bessie Award. Facing Mekka followed, celebrating women of hip hop.
Always with one foot in the streets and the other on the stage, time spent teaching in the studio has been an extension of his ongoing hip-hop ministry. With his signature cap, and a towel hanging from his shoulder, before any movement, he guides his classes in a fact-filled discussion on tradition, the elders, and then he breaks down the choreography (aka "routines"). This is where Harris makes all of us rethink the possibilities of bridging the streets and the stage. As he puts it, "At the end of the day it's not just street dance, it's a culture."
He's Dr. Rennie Harris now, his Illadelph Legends of Hip-hop Festival, begun in 1997, is ever strong, and he heads four companies: RHPM; the youth-driven RHAW (Rennie Harris Awe-Inspiring Works); Rennie Harris Grass Roots, with mixed-level and polycultural dancers; plus the all-female THIS WOMAN.
For his unwavering efforts he has received numerous accolades, including three Black Theater Alliance Awards for best choreography, the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, a Philadelphia Rocky Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pew Fellowship, and a Governor's Awards for the Arts Artist of the Year nod, to name just a few. Harris' cultural cipher is alive and well.
For information about the Dance Magazine Awards ceremony on December 4, click here.