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Nashville is starting to hit the national map for amazing art and entertainment. OZ Arts Nashville is leading this charge with an incredible new lineup of shows and exhibits pushing past the traditional norms of Music City. This includes a new show from famed Hip Hop Choreographer, Rennie Harris. We had a chance to chat with Rennie and learn more about the Puremovement he has made famous, what mad him bet on hip hop early in the game and why he choose Nashville for his latest show exhibit.
You are known as a hip hop dance legend. Can you share your journey in carving out a voice and presence for hip-hop?
In high school, I became co-captain of a group called The Step Masters, then The Scanner Boys, and for a brief stint of time after high school, I became a member of the Magnificent Force (NY), who toured and opened for rap groups such as Afrika Bambatta and The Soul Sonic Force, West Street Mob, Kool Mo Dee and the Treacherous Three, Super Nature (Salt and Peppa), Grand Master Flash and Furious Five, Doug E Fresh, Brandy, Madonna, Run DMC, and Jam Master Jay, Newcleus, LL Kool J, Aaliyah, and Sugar Hill Gang, to name a few. After touring, I finished my commercial run as a choreographer and dancer with the legendary Cathy Sledge of the famed Sister Sledge. In 1992, I performed with my childhood group, The Scanner Boys, for the last time at “Dancing in the Streets” at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, right before starting my company Rennie Harris Puremovement.
In the beginning, I didn’t think much about what I was doing. Unbeknownst to me, though, I had an agenda. When the smoke cleared, I understood that I was pushing street dance vocabulary, its aesthetic, and texture if you will. Later, I began to use multi-media, poetry, script, and live Hip-hop musicians such as beatboxers, bucket players, and DJs. This really opened me up creatively. I used to think of Hip-hop culture as only pertaining to dance and not the other elements. Incorporating the other elements made me realize the sky was the limit, there are no boundaries with this. Although there are unspoken laws of Hip-hop and Street dance culture, there are no rules on how to approach it in the theater.
Puremovement was such a game-changing endeavor, when you look back as you approach 30 years, what were some key moments that helped shape your career?
When I was young, I saw West Side Story and immediately thought to myself, “why aren’t there street dancers in this movie?” I re-imagined it with street dancers every time I watched the film. Little did I know I’d grow up to become a choreographer. Some years later, around the mid to late 1990s a thought popped into my mind: “Do a Hip-hop version of West Side Story.” Immediately I began to create the work in my head and in my dreams when I slept. I was consumed with the idea. By 1996-97, I started to work out choreographic phrases with the company. I also secretly began casting dancers. I cast Duane Holland as Romeo (in my head). One day before the start of rehearsal, one of the dancers, Rodney Mason, walked through the door and yelled aloud, “Yo Rome, thou art a villain, so what’s up”?! BOOM! Goes the dynamite! Down goes Liston in the first round. That night I began writing the working script, and sometime during the creation process Ozzie Jones, D. Sabela Grimes, and Rodney Mason jumped on board and began writing. And, as they say, the rest is history. Rome & Jewels broke ground nationally and internationally, winning 3 Bessie awards, a Shakespeare Theater Award, and a nomination for the United Kingdom’s Lawrence Olivier award. This work confirmed the importance of Hip-Hop as a cogent and viable dance form.
You have worked with so many different artists and dancers, do you have a favorite experience, show or tour that had a lasting impact on you?
I was first inspired by Don Campbell and The Campbell Lock Dancers on the Carol Burnette TV show. I remember seeing his group when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. My earliest memory of Don’s influence on me was at a girl’s birthday party when I was dancing down a makeshift soul train line. At some point I heard someone say, “he’s a good dancer.” Later when I was about 12-13 years old, I was with my brother and childhood friend nicknamed “Brainy.” We entered a dance contest at the church’s Saturday “Baazar” and won. This was the official beginning of it all.
What made you choose Nashville for your upcoming show?
This tour came about when Mark Murphy of OZ Arts reached out to us. I’ve known Mark for a long time and he has presented my work in other cities including Seattle and Los Angeles. This will be our first time performing in Nashville. I love every moment I’m able to enlighten someone with my work, with my teaching, and with my vision for Hip-hop and Street Dance. That’s what we’re hoping to do here.
What are you hoping the people in Nashville take away from the performance?
It’s not for me to say what someone takes away from a performance. I’m just telling a story. But I do hope people will come out, keep an open mind, and have a conversation about the work. To me, that conversation is the most important part — to unpack what you liked or didn’t like, what you connected with. That’s what makes a lasting impact.
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