December 2016 | Raw and Awesome

Raw and Awesome: Rennie Harris’ second company delivers training, culture, and reality shock

by Joseph Carman
Right: Shafeek Westbrook dances in Rennie Harris’ JAM/Hip Hop Bows, which features music by Michael Jackson. Left: RHAW dancers perform a scene about schoolyard dynamics, from Harris’ LUV: American-Style. All photos by Brian Mengini

Right: Shafeek Westbrook dances in Rennie Harris’ JAM/Hip Hop Bows, which features music by Michael Jackson. Left: RHAW dancers perform a scene about schoolyard dynamics, from Harris’ LUV: American-Style. All photos by Brian Mengini

As a dance form, hip-hop emerged from the streets, and its spontaneity, energy, and individuality reinforce its appeal. So when you place hip-hop in concert form, as choreographer Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris has done successfully for 25 years, it’s vital to retain that freshness while instilling it with discipline and stagecraft. Enter Rennie Harris Awe-Inspiring Works (RHAW), a second company to the acclaimed Rennie Harris Puremovement.

“There is no street dance academy,” says Harris, “so to transition street dancers to theater, I realized I had to start a second company. When these dancers come out of high school or when they’re starting college, they’ll do about four years with me. And if they decide to stay and dance, or move on, that’s cool. It’s a way to train them in etiquette and how to be professional.”

RHAW, founded by Harris in 2007, has acted as a direct channel in preparing dancers for Puremovement. It can be quite a change for street dancers; Harris finds that even seasoned freestyle dancers who have worked commercially, dancing in music videos or performing with musicians on tour, have a hard time adapting to concert dance rules. “They have higher expectations financially, and sometimes there’s more of a diva mentality,” he says. Through RHAW he brings dancers under his wing and teaches them the essentials of form, instruction, and choreography for the hip-hop world. “They learn technique and street dance history, as well as how to teach hip-hop and lecture about street dance history,” he says.

Nearly all of the current dancers in Puremovement have trained and performed with RHAW. Rodney S. Hill, a former Puremovement dancer and production assistant who helped Harris develop RHAW, is now the manager of both companies and director of RHAW.

In LUV: American-Style, a young man (Brandyn Harris, kneeling) is judged and then incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit.

In LUV: American-Style, a young man (Brandyn Harris, kneeling) is judged and then incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit.

Harris’ rise

Harris was born and raised in North Philadelphia. Since age 15 he has taught classes and workshops in street dance. He founded Puremovement in 1992 to expand the art form and teach the history and culture of street dancing, as well as to contextualize it as art through dance theater pieces. In his work as a teacher, choreographer, and director, he stresses the importance of viewing hip-hop as a modern indigenous art form. He embraces the marriage of African American and Latino traditions with fresh voices in dance and recognizes and promotes the significant role of women in hip-hop.

Harris’ Bessie Award–winning full-evening work, Rome & Jewels, tells an updated version of the Romeo and Juliet story by fusing classical text and hip-hop vocabulary. Among his other outstanding works are Legends of Hip-Hop, Heaven (set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), Students of the Asphalt Jungle, and Facing Mekka. Through the work of Puremovement and RHAW, company members have taught hip-hop dance and culture to at-risk children in Philadelphia to encourage their creativity, academic skills, and self-esteem.

In 2012, Puremovement was selected as one of four American dance companies to serve as ambassadors for President Obama’s cultural exchange initiative DanceMotion USA. During a Middle East tour, in addition to performing, the company dancers taught hip-hop workshops in Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.

Harris has choreographed two works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Exodus (2015), which explores the role of movement in effecting change, and Home (2011), a work inspired by stories of people living with HIV. He was one of the first hip-hop choreographers to set works on ballet companies, including Colorado Ballet, Ballet Memphis, and Pennsylvania Ballet. Other commissions have come from Dallas Black Dance Theater, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Giordano Dance Chicago, Group Motion, Lula Washington Dance Theatre, and Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco).

Brandyn Harris performs in Brother, choreographed by his father, Rennie Harris, who told Time Out magazine that the piece is “about being respected.”

Brandyn Harris performs in Brother, choreographed by his father, Rennie Harris, who told Time Out magazine that the piece is “about being respected.”

RHAW up close

Typically 8 to 10 dancers work with RHAW at any given time; they range in age from 15 to 20. Harris seeks artists who are hungry to learn. “If they’re set on Hollywood or anything [commercial] like that, I say this is not for them; they should go to Hollywood first,” he says. “And then come check me out afterward.”

Some of the RHAW dancers have been recruited from dance battles and clubs, from RHAW workshops, or through recommendations from other dancers and choreographers. Younger dancers may not have completely mastered any hip-hop styles, whereas older dancers need to be proficient in one or two. Ultimately, they learn five styles, including house dance, popping, locking, breaking, and—primarily for the women, because they are proficient in its runway moves and attitude—waacking (in which the arms move over and behind the shoulders, combined with posing and footwork, often to ’70s disco).

Majesty Janay, a 19-year-old recently hired RHAW dancer, trained in modern, jazz, and some ballet in Durham, North Carolina. She was wowed when Puremovement performed at Duke University and gave a master class at her high school. “I already had some training in different styles under the hip-hop umbrella,” she says. With RHAW, however, “there is a big focus on making you an all-styles dancer and not allowing you to settle into one thing, like breakdancing or locking or house.” It’s inspiring, she says, “just knowing the history of Rennie and what he’s done for hip-hop as a dance style by putting it on a concert stage while keeping the integrity of street dancing styles.”

Joshua Culbreath, a self-taught breaker, joined RHAW after graduating from high school in 2010; he moved on to Puremovement four years later. Apart from learning various styles of hip-hop—he’s now proficient in house dancing, popping, and locking—at RHAW he received training in stagecraft. “They teach you how to stage pieces, do lighting plans, how to direct and choreograph a hip-hop dance theater piece, and how to talk to presenters,” says the 26-year-old. These are handy tools for Culbreath, who says he’d like to start his own hip-hop dance company one day.

In LUV: American-Style, RHAW uses locking, popping, boogaloo, breakdancing, and hip-hop to tell the story of a teenage boy searching for his purpose.

In LUV: American-Style, RHAW uses locking, popping, boogaloo, breakdancing, and hip-hop to tell the story of a teenage boy searching for his purpose.

For Harris, the priorities are hard work and commitment to the art. “I’ve had dancers who have heart who couldn’t dance and wanted to dance,” he says. “And they stayed with us for four to five years and are now dancing with the [Puremovement] company—because they worked hard. It’s about dancers’ perseverance and a consistency about what they want.”

RHAW in the studio and onstage

Harris has honed his preparatory company by teaching his dancers what he had to learn as a hip-hop dancer. “When I was on tour for the first time at 18, everything was crazy—it was like organized chaos,” he says. “Street dance culture is not necessarily disrespectful, but once things get organized and you have a company versus a crew, there is a different type of respect, engagement, and environment when rehearsing.”

Last year Harris choreographed the Breakin’ Convention at the Apollo Theater in New York City, and Puremovement collaborated with local street artists. When they were scheduled to begin rehearsal at 9:30am, the street dancers, who had performed in shows with Madonna and other stars, showed up at noon. “When you get to top levels with stars, it’s almost like you’re a star too,” Harris explains. “And when that ride is done, you’re still thinking that. I have to demand a certain type of professionalism.”

There’s a parallel between street dancers and jazz musicians, Harris says. “We want to get paid in cash,” he says, laughing. “ ‘Call me the day of the show. I’m not going to practice; I’ll just show up.’ For me, because of my specific choreography, I need more than that. My work is not based on solo dancers. All of my dancers are solo dancers who learn how to do choreography. They’re amazing at what they do by themselves; it’s about trying to get them to move together most of the time.”

LUV: American-Style is inspired by and performed to classic rock songs such as “Flash” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, and “Colour My World” and “Free” by Chicago.

LUV: American-Style is inspired by and performed to classic rock songs such as “Flash” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, and “Colour My World” and “Free” by Chicago.

Harris creates most of the choreography for RHAW, although he sometimes brings in artists such as Raphael Xavier, a dancer/rapper/choreographer who is sometimes referred to as an “inmoc-ographer” (innovative movement conceptualist). Xavier, who began performing with Puremovement in the 1990s—and still occasionally makes a guest appearance with the company—acts as a mentor to the RHAW dancers and choreographs for them in his specialty, breaking. He helps them with their footwork or teaches them how make the movement cleaner.

“It’s a tug of war between Rennie and the commercial world,” says Xavier. “But Rennie has a knack of finding a certain kind of person who is willing to make that transition [from the commercial world]. You have to take that rawness and tailor all that stuff in a way that looks polished and professional when you put it onstage. He appreciates them as dancers and gives them opportunities to make them stronger performers and better company members. He can groom those kids better than that other world can.”

RHAW performs at a wide range of venues: dance festivals, bar mitzvahs, family festivals, and lectures/demonstrations, as well as at prestigious Manhattan theaters such as New Victory Theater. “They perform at the top and low end,” Harris says. “That’s part of their training. They have to do all of it. We don’t pick and choose for RHAW.”

The young troupe also conducts many residencies at schools, touring in vans. But the climate for touring has changed, Harris says. “It used to be you could go out for six to eight weeks; now you might go out for two. If you can get five gigs in a month, that’s great.”

RHAW has also performed and taught hip-hop master classes at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. “We’ve done outreach with RHAW in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, and Westchester,” says Hill. “We’ve also toured to Africa and Asia.”

RHAW dancers (left to right) Courtney Klinger, Samantha Schneider, Mariah Tlili, Macca Malik, and Neka French perform Moncell Durden’s El Barrio, set to the George Benson song of the same name.

RHAW dancers (left to right) Courtney Klinger, Samantha Schneider, Mariah Tlili, Macca Malik, and Neka French perform Moncell Durden’s El Barrio, set to the George Benson song of the same name.

One of the troupe’s crowd-pleasers is the final showstopper JAM/Hip Hop Bows, a tribute to Michael Jackson. Choreographed by Hill, it features the King of Pop’s music and a blaze of onstage hip-hop fireworks. Similarly, Harris’ LUV: American-Style, a hip-hop dance theater piece about a young man’s search for identity and purpose, set to classic rock songs by Nirvana, Queen, and Chicago, also brings down the house.

A vision of training

In 2009, Puremovement dancer Crystal Frazier launched RHPM Kidz, which holds workshops to teach children hip-hop vocabulary and help them increase their fitness, strength, and flexibility. Asked if he’d like to start a full-time hip-hop school for children and teens, Harris pauses. “I feel like I need to still ‘Johnny Appleseed’ around the country with that mission,” he says. “So I didn’t start a school. I’m just now thinking about it, actually, now that I’m in my 50s.”

Harris thinks of RHAW as “a mobile academy” that teaches the dancers about more than dancing. “All these tools they can apply to anything they do,” he says. “When you’re training, you’re not just training for dance, because dance and movement are about living. So when you stop moving, you die. What I teach RHAW dancers is that they’re going to be able to apply this [training] to life and make a living based on what they learn here. I would say that’s true for most dancers who think they’re going to dance class. No. They’re going to life class.”


Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for numerous publications. He received a BA in journalism from The New School in New York City and lives in Palm Springs, California.