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."
In hip-hop, many dances begin in the circle, which has cosmic meaning, said Harris.
"Planets and stars spin in a circle — the moment they stop rotating is the moment they die," he said. "The circle, for us, is spiritual and for protection. In the circle we can see each other's backs. It's a place of support and love. It's a place where we give each other the chance to shine."