Rennie Harris brings hip-hop dance to Ordway Center

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2014 - 1:50 PM

Choreographer Rennie Harris says the explosive movements of his dancers have spiritual and philosophical meaning.

Choreographer Rennie Harris.

Photo: ROSE EICHENBAUM,

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For more than 20 years, Rennie Harris has toured the world with Puremovement, his ensemble of fluid, lyrical movers. On big stages in Europe, the United States and the Middle East, the choreographer and company founder has presented movement forged in urban crucibles.

The dynamic pieces that he has made, some of which will be showcased Friday at Ordway Center, are explosive responses to music.

“If you hear a car crashing, you turn and look,” said Harris, 50, in a recent phone interview. “If you hear a baby cry, you can’t help but respond. It’s natural to do those things, just like it’s natural to move to sound.”

Yet it’s more complicated than that. Hip-hop dance is part of the disruptive cultural force best symbolized by rap music. The accompanying movements include styles from the 1970s that predate hip-hop, namely robot-style locking and shoulder popping, and break dancing. In addition to the stereotypical headstand spins and other feats of physical dexterity, the style includes a fusion with jazz.

An unplanned career

All creatures dance, but humans have a panoply of movement vocabularies influenced by history and surroundings, said Harris, who grew up in North Philadelphia and is still based there. When he started, he was just doing what he knew — framing movements that he saw in house parties or in street battles. Now, he has become a leader in the field in a career that he did not plan.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be — I liked to paint, too,” said Harris, who also teaches at UCLA. “But dance was the thing that paid me. I’ve tried to quit, but what else would I do?”

He discovered his future at 12, when he saw legendary street dancer Don Campbell on “Soul Train,” the Saturday-morning show that was a staple for many American households, black and otherwise. Inspired, he formed a duo with his brother, practiced the dances, then competed in a church program. They won.

From then on, his future was set, even if it meant working in companies that did not pan out.

Finally, in 1992, he founded his eponymous ensemble, one that has hewed to the central tenets of hip-hop.

“We are individuals all moving in the same direction,” he said last Wednesday. “That’s the foundation of hip-hop, which is built on innovation, creativity and individuality. And it’s more than hip-hop. That’s the foundation of music and art and life.”

New work at Ordway

Harris’ program for the Ordway includes the first preview of “Nothing but a Word,” a suite Harris is developing into an evening-length work.

“It’s about the journey from street to stage,” he said.

The evening also includes “Church,” which is set to house music, a dance music style that emerged in Chicago.

And his company will do some older pieces from the 1990s, such as “March of the Antman,” “P-FUNK” and “Continuum.”

All these works have philosophical and spiritual meaning, he said. It’s not just dynamic virtuosos doing breathtaking leaps and somersaults.

“When you see a dancer stand on one hand, that’s a confirmation of where they are in their lives,” he said. “In order to get to that place, they have to train, have an understanding of themselves and their spirits. That tells the story of their discipline and responsibility and training.”

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  • RENNIE HARRIS PUREMOVEMENT

    When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $23, 651-224-4222 or www.ordway.org.

    Ordway series looks at African and African-American culture

    Rennie Harris Puremovement kicks off a series that puts African and African-American culture center stage at Ordway Center.

    At 6:30 p.m. Wed. there is a free session on “Hip-hop Philosophy: A Way of Life.” There also are free sessions in b-boying and funk dances (6-7:30 p.m. Wed.), and a master class with the company (6:30-8 p.m. Thu. $10).

    The Puremovement show also marks the launch of an exhibit in the Ordway lobby that features the works of artists those works share themes with the onstage. The works represented are by visual artists Catherine Kennedy, Jaques Elate Joss and Shirley Jones alongside creations by composer and instrument-maker Douglas Ewart..

    South African a cappella stars Ladysmith Black Mambazo will do a concert (7:30 p.m. Sun.) introduced by public speaker Naomi Tutu, daughter of that nation’s spiritual leader, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

    On Feb. 19, Senegal-born Cape Verdean chanteuse Maria de Barros comes to the Ordway to sing coladeiras, a calypso-like style of music with a corresponding dance.

    The celebration also includes “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” the Tony-winning Broadway musical (March 25-30) and Step Afrika!, a group that fuses black fraternity step shows with African styles (May 31-June 1).

    “This festival demonstrates to the community that we are an asset with a range of activities and offerings for everyone,” said Patricia Mitchell, president and CEO of the Ordway, which faced vocal criticism for its 2013 presentation of “Miss Saigon.”

    Robin Hickman, who has helped the Ordway with its community-engagement efforts put the Ordway’s festival in context.

    “I know that my friends in the Asian-American community are still hurt behind the ‘Miss Saigon’ stuff and this does not take away their grief,” she said. “But this is worth celebrating. The Ordway is doing good work here.”

    ROHAN PRESTON

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