A pair of premieres
Hip hop choreographer Rennie Harris stages bold new works for NJPAC’s Spring season.
By Jacqueline Cutler
Rennie Harris, the Philly-born choreographer and educator who bridged cultures by pushing the dynamics of hip hop dance from the streets onto the mainstage, will premiere two major works in New Jersey for the Spring season – and both are at NJPAC.
On March 2, his eponymous company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, debuts the evening-length Lifted, a dance that speaks to the power of the church in helping the broken to soar; it also features a full gospel choir. As Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrates its 60th anniversary, Harris’ Lazarus, an homage to dancemaker Alvin Ailey, makes its New Jersey bow in Prudential Hall during the company’s Mother’s Day weekend engagement. The performances are part of the Arts Center’s M&T Bank Dance Series.
The narrative for Lifted, Harris explains, centers on a bereaved orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle. “He hangs out in the street,” he adds, “and then he sort of gets into trouble.” This storyline is expressed through gospel music and Harris’ take on house dance, steps that came from the clubs of New York and Chicago (unlike the grittier origins of traditional hip hop).
He formed Puremovement, the longest-running, touring hip hop company, in his hometown of Philadelphia in 1992. A scholar of the movement, teaching at universities around the country, Harris cites off the top of his head that 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx is the birthplace of hip hop because DJ Hartwig lived in the nondescript building. Harris also shares that the term “hip hop” traces back to the 1930s.
“The Lindy hoppers would say, ‘I am going hip-hopping tonight,’” he remarks.
Although Harris teaches dance, he admits the notion of taking class to learn how to move struck him initially as absurd. No one taught him. When he was 11, a neighborhood priest noticed the kid had moves and offered to take him to a ballet class.
“What do you mean people go to school to dance?” Harris recalls saying. “I could not really wrap my brain around it. It was as if all of a sudden cars can fly.”
Growing up, he listened – and moved – to his mom’s classic R&B. Harris also watched Don Campbell and the Lockers on The Carol Burnett Show.
"I was told by my mom – and I really don't like to admit this part – that I used to stand in the middle of the floor with a broom when Tom Jones came on television," he says. Naturally, Harris was dancing; he’s always been a dancer.
Harris started his first dance group before he was a teen. Over the years, his strong, riveting style has attracted fans around the world. As part of President Obama’s Cultural Exchange Program Dance Motion USA, Harris toured the Middle East and has been hailed as the choreographer of street dance.
Other dance greats took note and Judith Jamison, then artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, asked Harris in 2005 to contribute choreography for a section of Love Stories, alongside her and Robert Battle. After Battle became Artistic Director in 2011, Harris created Home, then Exodus. Lazarus, a continuation of this series, will be performed on May 10 and 11 at NJPAC. (The May 12 program features a Timeless Ailey collection of excerpts from the company’s trove of beloved danceworks.)
“At the end of the day, aesthetically, Mr. Ailey is a witness to the work,” says Harris, who is the company’s inaugural artist-in-residence. “(Lazarus) is not specifically about his personal life, but rather his life in the world, and his response to the world.”
When approached about creating this piece for the 60th anniversary season, Harris knew he did not want to go for the biographically obvious: Ailey leaves Texas and moves to New York. Instead, Harris wanted to translate Ailey’s journey into a universal experience.
“His life was symbolic of all black folk at the time,” Harris says. “His parents or grandparents were sharecroppers, and he had to live through civil rights, and navigate through that and navigate as a choreographer. The world was not conducive for black dancers. It is important to acknowledge that journey rather than his personal journey.”
Lazarus is divided into three sections, with steps developed from what Harris describes as blood memories. A self-described “big sci-fi fan,” Harris imagined what the result would be if “I fused my blood with somebody else and now I got their memories and their culture.” For Lazarus, blood memories include slavery and Jim Crow laws. The piece, which is set to the music of Darrin Ross, Nina Simone, Odetta and others, then moves into the civil rights era, leading to the final section Harris refers to as “awake.”
“The last section is where it gets fantastical,” Harris notes. “There is this lead character who moves through each of those sections as the spirit crossing from one life to the next. By the time he gets to that final place, it gets fantastical. And what we get from that is transitioning, moving forward. Throughout that whole thing, Mr. Ailey is conjured up as a guide.”
Between Lazarus and Lifted, Harris explores complex themes – a man’s quest for justice, a boy’s search for solace – and if that feels ethereal, so be it. It’s very much rooted in reality as the performers take us to church through the magic of dance.
Jacqueline Cutler is a freelance entertainment writer whose work appears in national publications. And she adores dance.
More dance on tap
Among the artists and companies appearing in the M&T Bank Dance Series are:
MOMIX: Best of MOMIX
January 19, 7:30pm
January 20, 2pm
Combining illusion, magic, beauty, fun and inventiveness, Best of MOMIX features everything that MOMIX, the famed company of dance-illusionists, is known for.
Year of the Pig
Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company
February 2 and 3, 2pm
Colorful costumes, twirling ribbons, dancing dragons – they’re all here in Year of the Pig, a spellbinding dance and music celebration of the Chinese New Year, courtesy of New Jersey’s acclaimed Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company.
Maurice Hines: Tappin’ Thru Life
with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra
February 16, 3 and 7pm
Broadway legend Maurice Hines takes audiences through his incredible career in this jazzy, song-and-dance celebration that pays tribute to his brother, Gregory Hines, and other performers who inspired him. Co-starring the Manzari Brothers.
Rennie Harris Puremovement: Lifted
March 2, 7:30pm
Rennie Harris and his exhilarating Puremovement dance company – pioneers in a new genre of hip hop/street dance – bring their latest, evening-length work, Lifted, set to house and gospel music.
Jersey Moves! Festival of Dance
Carolyn Dorfman Dance
April 6, 7pm
The stunning dancers of New Jersey-based choreographer Carolyn Dorfman’s multi-ethnic company are known for high-energy, technically demanding dance and powerful storytelling.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
May 10 and 11, 8pm
May 12, 3pm
The Ailey company marks six decades of achievement and celebrating the human spirit with the New Jersey premiere of Rennie Harris’ Lazarus – based on the life and legacy of Alvin Ailey – and a Timeless Ailey program. The iconic Revelations concludes each performance.
Jersey (New) Moves! Emerging Choreographers
June 14, 7pm
NJPAC’s annual contemporary dance series showcases new works by six of the state’s very best up-and-coming choreographers, each mentored year-round by some of the modern dance world’s leading dancemakers.
Dec. 20, 2018