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

Rennie Harris, RHAW

Rennie Harris, RHAW Photo: Brian Mengini

Rennie Harris, the hip-hop choreographer, presents his company RHAW, or Rennie Harris Awe-inspiring Works, at the New Victory Theater. In this interview, he talks about the challenges of choreographing hip-hop, as well as his views on Lil Buck, the jookin sensation, and his recent work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Rennie Harris Awe-inspiring Works is not a statement, but a company. Formed in 2007 by the award-winning hip-hop choreographer as a training group for Rennie Harris Puremovement, the company shows dancers in the RHAW. With the group, Harris has found a way to teach young dancers professionalism and dance history, while getting back to the basics of hip-hop. Beginning Friday 17, the company performs at the New Victory Theater; in honor of the occasion, Harris spoke about his vision of hip-hop. 

Time Out New York: How did RHAW come about?
Rennie Harris:
There were a lot of younger dancers who wanted to dance with the company, but they needed to be trained in how we operate as a hip-hop concert-dance company. So it’s sort of a training-performing company. But it was a way for me to be able to access dancers that were already in the mind-set of hip-hop as a concert dance and theater form, so that I wouldn’t have to go through the process of having to train someone on the spot and to get that person to think a certain way. There aren’t that many hip-hop dance companies in the States at all, so there’s really no reference. There’s nothing teaching street dancers the basics of theater and theater etiquette, and what it means to be in a company versus a crew and the whole nine. This helped that process for me, of having to wait six months to a year to have a dancer recultivated into a different culture and then hope that that dancer is able to deal with it. Because everything is a little bit more regimented in a company, as you know. It’s not as loose as a crew. It’s not as democratic as a crew.  

Time Out New York: How long does it take to make a Puremovement dancer?
Rennie Harris:
Before they really come around, I would say from three to five years. And not to say that I don’t put them out—a lot of times, I’ll put them out onstage just to see how they deal with it. Some swim or drown. There’s always one person you might see and think, What’s wrong with this guy? Or, Why did he pick this guy? And it’s probably someone I decided, Okay, you’re going to get your chance onstage today. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: I love seeing those moments.
Rennie Harris:
Yeah! Let’s see if you can fly if I throw you off the cliff. We have gotten some amazing dancers that way. But even in the company there’s still a three-year process. In our eyes, they’re not full company members until after the third year. The first year we’re getting to know you; the second year, the truth is going to come out; and then the third year, we’ll know if we want you or not. [Laughs] A dancer gets comfortable in that second year, and the real person comes out. This is not Broadway, this is not a video, and you’re not on tour with a rapper. Some have those delusions when on the road. We have rules and regulations and docking systems have to be in place in order to control any craziness that could happen because they think they’re on a world tour.

Time Out New York: Tell me about the name, RHAW or Rennie Harris Awe-inspiring Works. What does that mean?
Rennie Harris:
It was a twofold thing. One was to have them so I could actually work on some crazier stuff; two, I wanted them not to make that much of a statement politically. To not have to worry about, Is this too racy for the audience? I wanted them to be family-friendly and to go back to the basics of hip-hop; I wanted to choreograph hip-hop works that were definitely hip-hop or street dance—there was no denying it—and to present it in the traditional street-dance way. But with a slight twist in regard to dynamics of structure. The choreography has to change in order to cover the space. I still wanted to do that, but I wanted to do it to hip-hop music, to house, to street-dance music. You’re going to feel like you saw a hip-hop show with a twist. With RHPM [Rennie Harris Puremovement], we’re pushing more of the boundaries; most of our music is not hip-hop at all. It’s Marvin Gaye, it’s Zap Mama; the closest we come is maybe a house song. So the way I see it is that we’re pushing the vocabulary to go beyond how we understand hip-hop should be presented. Maybe it’s a house piece in silence. Maybe it’s not all about pushing the energy or the spirit of hip-hop, but rather pushing the vocabulary to be viewed differently than it has been.

Time Out New York: I love that because it broadens it.
Rennie Harris:
Yeah, it just makes you think. Right now I’m working on a piece with RHAW, actually, called Love, American Style. It’s evening-length, and it’s all rock music. You know you’re watching hip-hop, but when you see hip-hop done to rock music you know you’re watching something different. It just looks different because of the music.

Time Out New York: What rock music are you focusing on?
Rennie Harris:
We’re using Chicago and Nirvana and maybe a few songs from Queen. It’s not ready. I just did its third workshop; we’re going to do one more and then we’re going to start marketing and see if anyone takes a bite.

Time Out New York: Is that what you mean when you said you could do crazier stuff with RHAW?
Rennie Harris:
Yeah. Let’s put it this way: crazy for hip-hop, not crazy for me.

Time Out New York: Right. Can you experiment with them more because they’re younger?
Rennie Harris:
Yeah. I feel like I can do more and the mentality is different. They’re younger, and it’s not because they’re younger that it makes them sharper, but just the way they think is on a different wavelength than the older RHPM dancers. They’re just quicker. Everything’s quick; everything’s instant. They come in and they’re of the age of now, now, now. So the return is quicker. I can literally go in and set three different works in a week on these guys; with RHPM, it’s just a longer process. It’s not that they’re not quick, but they’re just older and as we both know, as we get older we start to create lots of boundaries and limitations. We need a lot more information. When they’re younger, they just do. The questioning is not as much. When you’re older, everyone has questions.

Time Out New York: And they just want to please you as well.
Rennie Harris:
Yeah so the process is different. And I like both. RHPM challenges me mentally, and RHAW challenges me viscerally.

Time Out New York: Do they perform together?
Rennie Harris:
RHAW dancers dance with RHPM as part of their training process, so you’ll see dancers that are in RHPM and in RHAW—they do both. When they move up, they have to learn the repertory for RHPM and then eventually they’ll move completely over. I am working on a piece where all of them are involved and for Love, American Style, I may use some RHPM dancers.

Time Out New York: At the New Victory, the first work is Brother. Can you tell me about it?
Rennie Harris:
Well, you know honestly there’s really nothing to it—most of the stuff I choreograph, there’s no plot or no straight narrative; it’s just more or less about being respected—that’s what the song says, but the movement doesn’t necessarily reflect that. The movement is just the movement and to me it’s really dance for dance. There’s not major narrative.

Time Out New York: What is the music?
Rennie Harris:
I can’t even remember right now. [Laughs]

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