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: And until you put a swan on it [Lil Buck’s most well-known piece is set to The Dying Swan], it doesn’t exist.
Rennie Harris:
Right. As far as style, I’m trying to decipher. The gliding and the wave—all of that is from funk style, it’s from popping, that era. So I haven’t been able to really decipher what part of his movement or that particular type of movement is turfing or turf dance or is actually something different, other than a hybrid and a misunderstanding of how to do it. To me, the waves are not—they’re weak waves and the gliding is okay, but when I look at other dancers with the same style, it’s the same thing and they call it something different. They call it turfing. But at the end of the day, it is what it is for them. You know what I mean? [Laughs] And no one has ever asked me about it. I never have really spoken about it; I don’t want to take thunder from these guys, and I don’t want to hate, because I’m not hating; I’m just responding to what I’m seeing. If that’s a wave, then that wave is not as developed as it should be. If this is a glide, then let’s glide! It’s that kind of thing. It’s that kind of thing. Especially when we’re moving to an age where street dance is being processed through academia now.

Time Out New York: This is interesting. After seeing him perform, I understand what you’re saying.
Rennie Harris:
There are maybe one or two movements where I would say, “Okay, that’s different. I can see that as part of the vocabulary.” I don’t think the vocabulary has completely developed. It’s in the same space that hip-hop was in, in ’75. And by 1985, it was completely developed. Not completely, but as far as a style—you could see that it was clearly something different even though there was borrowing from others. It borrowed from the styles before it, but then it had its own voice.

Time Out New York: Do you have a school? Is it something you would want?
Rennie Harris:
I don’t. It would be nice. I’m not thinking about it though. It’s just another…

Time Out New York: Responsibility?
Rennie Harris:
Yeah. And I could do it, but I’m just saying that it’s a monster. You have to make sure that you’re prepared for it. It feels like we should have a school.

Time Out New York: Why does concert dance work for you? Or does it?
Rennie Harris:
Oh, it doesn’t really. That’s the problem. Everyone’s like, “Rennie’s hard to deal with—he’s difficult.” And it’s not that, it’s just that I’m willing to speak your language, but you’re not willing to speak my language. I have to do things the way they would want it done before I can get cookie. And it’s not the way I’m used to working, which is fine, but again I’m the one that has to cover my ass all the time. They get upset if they say, “I need a photo,” and I say, “I haven’t signed a contract.” But we have to sign a contract! So the concept of that doesn’t work. I’m in hip-hop, which is like being in an industry—it’s business. They get upset about that kind of stuff because they think that you’re…I have to call people and say, “I’m not coming until I get my itinerary” or “I’m not coming until I get the contract. I already bought the flight.” They get upset. I had someone say, “Well Rennie, it’s like you don’t trust us,” and I had to say, “I don’t trust you. I don’t know you! How can I trust you?” It’s like, What are you talking about? It’s that kind of stuff. Basic business stuff where everything is peace and love and hippie; then you get someone who says, “I need my per diem in cash when I get there, and I need to have my money at the end.” They think you’re being a diva, but really you’re like, “No, it’s business.”

Time Out New York: Why is it so difficult to put hip-hop in a theater? So much concert hip-hop is unsuccessful because it seems like choreographers look at the stage two-dimensionally. It’s flat. That’s not what I see when I see your work. So what are some of the issues in putting hip-hop on a conventional stage?
Rennie Harris:
The first issue is them. [Laughs] They’re not willing to do something different. They’re taking hip-hop and presenting it in a traditional manner. And that’s the traditional way, where it’s flat and, as you say, two-dimensional, and it’s more about the dynamics and the tricks. So that’s one. And they want to all be on ten. If hip-hop was on a scale from one to ten, the best would be ten, but no one wants to explore one or two. So because they’re unwilling to be less—they feel like if they dance less, people will think they’re wack or not good dancers. Where we would often do a show and then go into the lobby and battle because they think our show was wack because we weren’t killing it. Do you know what I mean? [Laughs] So one is the mentality and culture of hip-hop. Now hip-hop can be anywhere—we can be in a parking lot or wherever, but the one thing I think, and I don’t know why because by law, they should adapt to the theater. Every other place, they will adapt to. You can be in a parking lot, and they’ll be flipping off the cars; you could be in a place where there’s just a wall, and they’d be flipping off the wall. They use everything around them, but when they get in a theater, for some reason, they think that just being onstage is hip-hop in the theater versus the marriage of hip-hop and theater.

Time Out New York: How do you do that?
Rennie Harris:
You have to marry the movement, and you have to use the elements around you, which are the lights, the production, the whole nine. Now some of them do that, but they still do it in a traditional hip-hop fashion. They don’t take it past anything that’s abstract. Everything is right in your face. If they don’t get it, they don’t get it. I have people tell me—there are hip-hop cats in New York who can’t see Rome and Jewels [Harris’s award-winning dance based on Romeo and Juliet] and at the end, say, “That was interesting. I didn’t get it though.” For me, it’s like, How do you not get the story of Romeo and Juliet? I can see getting lost in the some of the monologue­, but how do you not get at least some of it? So it’s the mentality, and second they’re not willing to push the vocabulary past anything that’s, to them, abstract. I’ve had people call me an abstract choreographer. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: That’s funny.
Rennie Harris:
I don’t think I’m abstract. And here’s the other part to this: If they really understood the laws of hip-hop, hip-hop as a concert-dance form would be booming right now in the States. The laws of hip-hop are individuality, creativity and innovation. You cannot go out and do the same shit over. You always have to look to do something different. If they just give back to attempting to be different, then hip-hop dance theater would boom. Then you have another issue—street-dance movement is not made to travel. It was all done in a circle, a cipher, and because of that, it means you have to investigate the movement—the vocabulary of the dance style itself—to figure out what actually will get you across the floor. When you do that, what happens is that it’s a lot of fucking work. It’s more work than dancing still in one spot. A lot of the dancers who come and dance for me can’t believe how hard it is. Their bodies are not ready, they’re not conditioned to be able to dance—and on Marley, not a wood floor. So the whole thing starts to change for them because they are having to deal with texture on a floor; the vocabulary is not conducive to traveling across anything. You have to investigate everything—house, locking, popping, breaking, whatever it is. You have to identify movement that’s going to allow you to travel across the floor. Once you do that then you can create movement. It’s the actual process of using the space, and it’s harder for them because the movement is not conducive to it. The only style that is conducive to possibly utilizing that space properly would be breaking and that is done in a circle. And literally all the movement is done in a circle; it never goes laterally.

Time Out New York: Did it take a while to figure that out?
Rennie Harris:
Yes. The one thing I did know was to use the space. But I got that from hip-hop, because we always used the space we were in. We adapted to the situation we were in. So I figured, How do I adapt to the situation, my environment in this theater? And how do I take advantage of the theater? When I saw people up there doing modern dance, and they were breathing and huffing and puffing and standing in one spot and doing minimal movement, I remember thinking, Wow, how much did he get paid to do this? I can do nothing and breathe. And once I realized that, I was like, It’s on. If I could, I’d be a fucking Butoh artist and not move at all, but because I’m hip-hop, I do want to bring it at a certain point. Closer to the end of shows, it like, Okay, let’s go all out. But at the end of the day when I realized that you can have some good shit and people buy into your minimalist movement, man, you’re right on track. You don’t have to do anything. That’s a good day for me. One of the things that happened with me was that I stopped being afraid of losing. And once I stopped being afraid of losing, I was able to move forward. I’m not afraid of anyone saying, “That’s wack,” because I know that we can battle, and then we’ll see how wack I am. You don’t have to like what I’m doing, but you will know that I come from it. I do have the right to play with it as I want. It’s better than having a modern dancer say, “I’m hip-hop,” when they’re not. It’s better to have me than have someone who doesn’t come from the culture. My thing is as long as you know your history, you should be good. You have the right to do whatever you want. When you know the history, that means you’re acknowledging all of those people who created it. That’s more or less the issue. You can do what you want. And that’s the problem we’re having with this commercial stuff.

Time Out New York: In what sense?
Rennie Harris:
No one wants to talk about the pioneers—they’ll talk about them in private or at a certain event, but they’re not going to talk about them on television. Even Michael Jackson didn’t tell them the names. He just said, “Some street kids.”

Time Out New York: Were you pleased with Home, the piece you made for Alvin Ailey?
Rennie Harris:
No. I thought it was all right. I had a lot more work to do. Here’s the deal, and it’s not fair to say it specifically about Home, but I don’t like pretty much anything that I do. When I put it up, it’s never the time for it to go up. I’m always under pressure to put stuff up. I’m always under pressure to get things done, and at the beginning when I started Rennie Harris Puremovement, there was no pressure. We didn’t have any gigs. I just created, and that’s why I feel I came up with my best stuff. So I’ve never really liked most of the stuff I’ve choreographed. It’s just hard. It’s that pressure of trying to get it done. With Ailey, they did hook me up and give me a longer time. I had a month, which was great. And it was the best it was going to be in that month. But it could have been better; I could have gotten the dancers to be better. And they were at the best of their game. That group did it very quickly. It’s okay. I like it. But I’m not really happy.

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