Rennie Harris talks about hip-hop and RHAW, which performs at the New Victory Theater

Rennie Harris talks about hip-hop and RHAW—Rennie Harris Awe-inspiring Works—which performs at the New Victory Theater

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Time Out New York: That’s hilarious.
Rennie Harris:
If you think about it, I’m choreographing every day. I’m choreographing on other companies, I’m choreographing on students, I’m choreographing on both companies, and I’m creating stuff for a project for me and a collaborator. I just don’t remember. Plus it was choreographed three or four years ago.

Time Out New York: That’s fine. Isn’t there an excerpt from your dance Bohemian Rhapsody on this program?
Rennie Harris:
I don’t think so…well, here’s the thing: RHAW is run by the company manager. I choreograph and then I’m done.

Time Out New York: Oh! I got it.
Rennie Harris:
[Laughs] Sorry about that. I don’t know the program, I don’t know who’s going, I don’t know even when they go.

Time Out New York: Are you comfortable giving up that control?
Rennie Harris:
Yeah. I had to. I’m 50. At some point, I had to figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. I don’t know if I want to spend my next 20 or 30 years before I leave the planet doing this. At the end of the day, I had to slow down and try to enjoy life as much as I can, and this part of it.

Time Out New York: Take me through your general choreographic process. Do you teach phrases—are you the one in the front of the room?
Rennie Harris:
I just come in and start choreographing as if I was teaching a class. I don’t think about the music, I don’t think about the piece or the narrative or any of that. Once I do the choreography, I’ll start to think about the music and creating the blocking and the spacing and the patterns. And after I do that, I go into, Is this dramatic? Is there a narrative in this piece at all? Do I want to create one? If I decide there is a narrative, I start creating the narrative with the dancers after I’m done choreographically and spatially. And drama and production—I think about that. Basically I start off with choreography and then I start to layer and think about other stuff. I can’t think about those things too early; it confuses me and stops me from creating. I’ll be worried about, Am I following the narrative? If you tell me, “Here’s a story; make a piece,” I’m not necessarily that good at that. If you give me three or six months, I could probably do it. But in the time that people want work to be created, it just takes me a while. I have to really, really think about it and see if anything comes out of the music or whatever it is.

Time Out New York: As a former street dancer, when did the word choreography enter your vocabulary? When did you put it together that that’s what you were doing and that you were good at?
Rennie Harris:
We didn’t call it choreography. We called it routines. I didn’t know there was a word to describe what I was doing, but I created routines from the time I was 12 or 13 years old with my crew. It wasn’t until 1991 that someone actually said the word choreography to me—I’d heard it by then, but I never said, “I’m going to choreograph” or “I’m the choreographer.” By this time, I already had done commercial tours with rappers. I heard work and commission, and those two words were actually the ones I didn’t know what the hell anyone was talking about. “So when you do your work…” and I was like, What do you mean about work? When I go to work? I didn’t get it. And someone said, “We’ll commission you,” and I didn’t know what that meant. I knew commissioner, but that’s about it. [Laughs] So in ’91 or ’92, my vocabulary began to change, but I stayed in context with hip-hop. I didn’t use those words with my dancers. I became bilingual. Later, I really made an effort to teach myself the vocabulary of ballet; I was already teaching kids who were taking dance, and so I taught myself plié and chassé and sous-sous and jeté.

Time Out New York: Did that affect your work?
Rennie Harris:
Not at all. At the end of the day, we were doing the same thing. They just have different names for it. It wasn’t anything different than me doing the West Coast and doing a move and that move was the same that they do, but they just call it something different. A plié means “bend your knees.” [Laughs] Great. So that’s pretty much it, but I have to say being bilingual helped when I started to set work on dancers who weren’t hip-hop dancers or street dancers. I could explain to them, “This is like when you do so-and-so.”

Time Out New York: When you choreograph, do you invent new movement, or do you focus on new ways to put movement together?
Rennie Harris:
Both. Plus, I use old stuff. When I was a kid, I asked [a dancer], “Why are you doing that? That’s old shit.” And they were like, “Look, there’s no such thing as old movement. As long as you do it well, it’s good.” And I remembered that for some reason as I decided to become a choreographer or realized I was one. 

Time Out New York: Can you give me an example of something old that you use now?
Rennie Harris:
Breaking is old. Anything from locking or popping is old. That was in the ’70s. Those vocabularies—the majority of it is over 30 years old, but it’s still used as if it was brand-spanking-new.

Time Out New York: Have you seen Lil Buck?
Rennie Harris:
I saw a video.

Time Out New York: Do you have an opinion?
Rennie Harris:
From what I’ve seen, I’m not a big fan. It’s just funny how the mainstream jumps on something—how they’re the last to get something and then all of a sudden, it’s this brand-new thing: Lil Buck and Yo-Yo Ma. All the stuff that they are discovering had already been done in the ’80s. The first thing they did was juxtaposition as soon as hip-hop became the thing. Do you know how many ballet dancers and modern dancers I’ve danced with in my time? So not to take from him, because that’s great for him. That was more my initial issue—it’s about media and Euro-American culture. Like it doesn’t exist until they discover it.

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