Minnesota Daily: Breaking out of the box

Callie Sacarelos, Minnesota Daily 2/6/14

Rennie Harris Puremovement infuses street hip-hop with soul and substance for the stage.

Hip-hop is a freeform artistic expression — the dance element grew from kids in the South Bronx socializing over a boom box and a scrap of cardboard in New York City.

When this free, typically un-choreographed movement is put inside the boxy confines of a stage, the challenge is to keep the spirit of hip-hop alive.

Rennie Harris Puremovement is the first and longest-running hip-hop theater company in the United States. Its works demonstrate founder Dr. Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris’ ability to transform a traditionally improvised dance into choreographed routines without losing originality and emotion.

Harris and his company strive to present hip-hop that predates moves seen in the mainstream, as in “America’s Best Dance Crew,” “Step Up” and popular music videos.

“It’s great to be able to have the audience experience a theatrical side of hip-hop and not the commercially exploited stereotype they see in videos,” Assistant Artistic Director Crystal Frazier said. “We’re not just up there doing a medley of songs, bouncing off the walls. We create really deep and passionate pieces. Sometimes people understand it, and sometimes they don’t, but that’s the whole point of art.”

Harris began his dance career at age 12 in Philadelphia with the formation of his first dance crew, Cobra III.

He was part of a few other groups throughout the ‘80s, including the Scanner Boys, who are credited with pioneering the Philadelphia hip-hop dance movement. He formed Rennie Harris Puremovement in 1992.

Company manager Rodney Hill said he grew up watching the “kickass street group” The Scanner Boys and went on to work with Harris in 1999.

“You learn something new every day that you thought you knew but you really didn’t know,” Hill said. “I come from the entertainment world rather than the performing arts world, so it’s hard working with him because he’s about keeping the integrity of Puremovement.”

Frazier said she had to work hard to maintain that integrity as the only female in the company when she first started in 1997.

“I really had to step my game up. Nothing got watered down because I was a woman,” Frazier said. “Their energy overpowered mine, which helped me become a stronger dancer because I had to push myself to keep up with them.”

Harris creates works that are inspired by what he sees and experiences in his everyday life. The pieces include breaking, popping, locking and other expected styles of dance, but they also portray a range of emotions and comment on issues such as violence, racism and sexuality.

“That’s what I love about Rennie. He takes what has gone on in the world, today and in the past, and makes it his own,” Frazier said. “So many people’s minds have been blown because they weren’t expecting storytelling and organic movement. It’s not just flips and people spinning on their heads.”

Hill said the works are like any other classic form of dance, with a story and substance behind it.

“That’s what we’re known for,” he said. “We’re the first and longest-running hip-hop theater, so we have to set the bar for everybody else behind us.”

Artistic Director Raphael Xavier said although the works come from Harris, it’s the dancers’ responsibility to express their personal identification with hip-hop.

“Do it for you, not anybody else,” he said. “Put your name on it.”

See the full Minnesota Daily article here.

What: Rennie Harris Puremovement
Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Cost: $16-39

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