The Very Moving Rennie Harris
The Very Moving Rennie Harris:
Rennie Harris and street dance grew up together. Today, he’s celebrated as the pioneer of hip-hop dance theater, but it took a while before he ever got paid.
♪ Life is an eternal line
♪ It's what I want
♪ It's what I want, it's what I want, it's what I want ♪
- [Jim] Some people learn to dance.
Others, like Rennie Harris, pioneer of hip hop dance,
are born to it.
♪ It's what I want, it's what I want, it's what I want ♪
♪ Do do do do, do do do do
♪ You are the strong and you are mighty ♪
- [Jim] Harris grew up in north Philadelphia
in the 1970s.
And from the very beginning he was constantly in motion.
- My mom would used to say, "Turn off that radio!"
It'd be like 6:30 in the morning,
I'd turn on the radio, start dancing,
dance into the bathroom, come back, you know.
Or I'm at the table, I'm dancing.
My mom would like, smack me
'cause I'm trying to animate what water
with a glass of water without trying to spill it.
You know, trying to.
And so, like, it's really a part of your day to day,
like, for those who are are like, who love,
who are just like (sighs)
for some reason we just have to move.
- You are a dancer, you don't just dance.
- Right, exactly.
- [Jim] Harris, the oldest of seven,
was raised in a Catholic home
and studied briefly for the priesthood.
But ultimately, religion didn't call to him
as powerfully as movement.
For him, dance binds body and spirit.
It has a unique power to heal.
At age 12, Harris formed his first dance group
with his brother and a friend
to compete in a church talent show.
By age 15, he had founded The Step Masters
and a popping crew called The Scatter Boys
who would go on to perform with the who's-who
of 1980s hip hop acts.
Including Salt 'N Pepa, Run-D.M.C.,
and Grandmaster Flash.
When he was passed over for the movie "Krush Groove,"
the last in a string of popular films
about street dancing, a discouraged Harris
headed back home.
In 1991, after a year of scraping by,
a Philadelphia based dance company
offered him $1500 to create a work
that would premier the following year.
He still remembers getting that call
from Michael Pedretti from Movement Theater International.
- It was the first time someone offered me
money ahead of time, a year before the gig.
And I told him, I said, "Hey man,
"I might not be here."
I said, you know.
He said, "What do you mean?"
I said, "Well, they just had a shoot out
"right out side of my room at my house.
"I could be not here."
I said, "Well, I'll take your money
"and I don't know if I'll show up
"but if I show up, we'll do it."
And so he gave me half the money,
and I was like, I showed up
and the company was born from that moment.
- [Jim] Today, Harris's touring company,
Pure Movement and his youth spinoff Rhaw,
short for Rennie Harris's Awe-inspiring Works
have been thriving for more than 25 years,
performing across the world,
in Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond.
Major dance companies around the US
have also commissioned work from him.
Harris develops each piece on site,
based on the town at hand.
But since so much comes together organically
in rehearsals, it's often impossible for him
to make, let alone communicate the master plan.
- Almost every project that I've done,
whether with my company or another company,
I've always heard whispers of,
"I don't think he knows what he's doing."
And, you know, it used to hurt my feelings
but then I kinda got over it
because yeah, that's the part that you're expecting me
to create expression via a formula.
I don't approach it that way.
It's a difference than just, you know,
making a salad or soup.
You know that that's a pepper
and what the pepper's gonna do.
You know what the tomato's gonna do.
With bodies or spirits, you know,
you don't know what you're gonna get.
All right guys, we're back.
- So when it comes to like,
a normal recipe for what a choreographer
would normally do, their normal process,
Rennie just takes that recipe
and he just rips it all up
and scatter it all around.
And say okay, let me see what I can get outta this.
He trusts the dancers, and we trust him.
- Rennie allows for people to be themselves.
To be the individual.
So for me, I'm a breaker, I'm a complete b-boy.
I know how to different styles,
but he allows me to be me and shine as me
throughout his work.
- You gotta be willing to take it somewhere.
And he trusts that you can do it.
It's just that you also have to believe in him
and believe in his vision
and believe in yourself at the same time.
- [Jim] In the past few years, Rennie Harris
has had to learn to trust his dancers more than ever.
Now in his mid 50s, the choreographer
has had both his hips replaced.
He just can't move the way he used to.
- I can't really actually demonstrate the movement.
I have to, like convey the movement
to the dancer and like,
slowly process them through this movement.
So in that way, I don't know if the body
was sort of betraying me,
but sorta going through a transition to say okay,
I need to slow you down
and let's see what you, you know.
Let's hone the practice, let's hone what it is
that you're doing in a whole other way.
I feel like I have a completely different insight now.
- [Jim] And for many of his dancers,
Harris's work hits close to home.
His dances delve into the social,
the political, the personal.
Everything he brings to the stage an honest representation
of his own experiences and observations.
And this authenticity is what makes his dancers,
including eight year company veteran, Phil Cuttino Jr.
trust Harris's vision.
In 2019's "A Day In The Life," Cuttino closes the show
in a duet about two brothers
who, while hanging out in their own neighborhood,
become involved in a violent altercation
with the police.
It ends when a cop shoots Cotino's character dead.
- The reason why that piece is so important to me
is because I got shot before, like.
It wasn't by a cop, but it was like,
through crazy street violence and all that type stuff.
So, it was just crazy to really see
all of these different dynamics
and ways of, he's being my real reality.
And to have to die on stage in front of like,
hundreds and hundreds of people sometimes,
that stuff is crazy.
To really like, live that moment,
and really like, tell that story
and help people understand.
- [Jim] Harris has always been driven
by a desire to help people understand
both themselves and others.
To find catharsis
by pouring his deepest emotions into dance.
- Work is actually a relief
to get the thought out, process,
and then to watch it morph in the body to say,
you know, there's still breath in what you're saying.
I put this pain in this body
but that pain is not really radiating the pain
I'm really feeling, but it also there's a pain
and I begin to see the beauty in that pain,
the humanity in the pain
that I'm putting into the body, right?
And so then that effects me in a whole other way.
Like, it's almost, it kind of releases me
from that thing.
- [Jim] Present at its birth,
Rennie Harris continues to create dance
that reflects his life, the communities that shaped him
and the evolution of hip hop
from the street into an international cultural phenomenon.
(upbeat orchestral music)
- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.