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

Time Out New York: I know what you’re saying, but it was still wonderful. It was good to see the company trying something different.
Rennie Harris:
That’s the thing: It’s good for their audience. And I often feel like what I have to say—my ex used to tell me as I came out of a show, somebody would say, “Did you like that?” And I’d be like, “It was the worst shit I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” My ex used to say, “You can’t do that to people!” [Laughs] “You burst their bubble!” So I learned to dip out before the show was over so that I couldn’t tell them the truth because I can’t lie. I figure if they don’t see me, I won’t be caught trying to lie to them, and I realized that everybody’s story is their story. My story is the story that I created, but even though I have a story, you interpret the story totally different—unless I’m spoon-feeding you some Broadway stuff. Other than that, your experience is different. I had to realize, Wow—people see what they see, and I have to accept that. It’s not about what I see. It’s only what I see in the beginning when I’m creating it. So I get that and I realize it was about the audience having a different experience with them than they were used to having.

Time Out New York: For you, being in the studio is the best part. 
Rennie Harris:
Yes, the moment of creation­—the aha moment—is the best part. After that, I’m done. I don’t even care about lighting, I don’t care about costumes. I don’t do that. People ask, “What do you want for lighting?” I have no clue. You make it up. You’re the lighting designer. If you ask me, I want a credit for it. [Laughs] If I tell you what I think about it, I want to be credited for lighting, I want to be credited with costume. Don’t ask me. I don’t go and ask people, “What do you want me to do?” I don’t ask the lighting designer what I should do for choreography. If you’re calling yourself a designer, you’re an artist. Do what you do. As long as I like it…at the end of the day, I say yes or no and that’s the best I can do.

Time Out New York: Why is hip-hop a universal movement language?
Rennie Harris:
I don’t think it’s specifically about hip-hop. I think anything that allows you a freedom or a voice is universal. Before Fosse, Luigi and Jack Cole and Gus [Giordano], and when jazz was just jazz—a street dance—it was free. What we see today in jazz is no freedom. So it’s that freedom and when kids feel that freedom—what it was supposed to be—it’s the same spirit coming back to remind us that we have freedom of choice and freedom of voice. It comes back with different generations, but it’s the same message: You’re free. Whether it’s with rock & roll or rhythm and blues or the new version of the polka. [Laughs] Kids are susceptible to that because they know what that is. The idea of having limits on them doesn’t make sense to them. They have no limits, they have no fear; they just go. As adults, we develop all that stuff.

Time Out New York: Do you look for that lack of fear in your dancers? 
Rennie Harris:
No, I actually look for people who are committed. Professional. I tell them, “I’ll hire you for being professional, not because you have the skill set.” You can teach a monkey to dance, but I don’t know if you can teach a monkey to be professional. You call me when you say you’re going to call me, you be there when you say you’re going to be there and you communicate to me when you can’t, and then I’m onboard with you and I’ll teach you everything that I know.

Time Out New York: Are you a tough boss?
Rennie Harris:
I don’t think so. They may think so. I give them so many chances that they wrap themselves up in the rope that I gave them and kidnap themselves. By the time I come down to fire them, they’re like, “You’re right.” [Laughs]

Time Out New York: What else are you working on?  
Rennie Harris:
Other than Love, American Style, I’m working on Heaven, which I’ve already mounted three times. I’m still working on it. It’s an all-B-girl piece to Rite of Spring, and it’s about a young girl who tells the story of her grandparents. The grandfather was so in love with heaven that the grandmother killed him so he could go to heaven. We won’t really see all that; he does get sacrificed and that’s how the story starts off and basically you see the chase and you see the grandmother when they were in love and when she has him killed.

Time Out New York: Wow. Is that coming here?  
Rennie Harris:
I would love it to. I have to get people to buy into it so we’ll see.

Time Out New York: Plus, there aren’t so many opportunities for women in hip-hop as far as I can tell. I would really love to see this piece. Why did you decide to make a piece for all women?
Rennie Harris:
I did the same thing with Facing Mekka. There are guys in it, like three or four, but something like nine women and for me, I think it was just something different to do. And then to do it from a perspective of different understanding of a weight distribution and different understanding of application and movement. And the other thing was that we’ve always had women in the company, but most of the work was male-driven; especially in the beginning, it came from a male perspective although we had six women and three guys at the very beginning in ’91. It was sort of like get-in-where-you-fit-in kind of thing. And then I started to make work that was specific to women. Or I felt like I wanted all women in a particular piece as a different way of challenging choreography. It was something different. There are two reasons why the idea of women and hip-hop is not as prominent as it should be. One is media and the world we live in and society. That’s what we sell: We sell women, and we sell things. We objectify women to be a thing. And so that goes with the territory in regard to media and mainstream and popular culture. Second, I think the dynamics of women are different. Again, it’s society. I had many women who stopped dancing for me because they got pregnant and had a baby, had a family and were convinced, Okay, I shouldn’t do this anymore because blah, blah, blah. It wasn’t about hip-hop; it was just, I have a family now—I have to be serious. Or I’m going to school. I have to get serious. And those societal pressures that are put on us culturally I think have a lot to do with it, and with men, for us we have the Johnny Appleseed mentality: I’m just going to travel and I’m going to do what I want to do. Culturally and as far as gender is concerned, we’re just raised with different perspectives and different beliefs, and I think that all has to play a part in it. I’ve seen women in hip-hop all my life. I still see it. But the issue is that no one’s taken a full stance and said, “Look, let’s do this and there IS life after a baby. What are you talking about?” In France or overseas, you definitely see it. You see the whole family—the whole family is a hip-hop family breaking in a cipher. I saw the mother, the two kids and the father all breaking.

Time Out New York: That’s amazing.
Rennie Harris:
Overseas there’s a different understanding. In the States here, no. It’s like, I have to be serious now. I have to grow up. Shit, I’m 50 fucking years old, and the cats who are older than me are in their sixties created it. Hip-hop is not youth driven. Hip-hop is an urban thing. People confuse youth culture with urban culture. Or black culture. It’s like no. They’re two different things. If that’s the case, there wouldn’t be anybody over 50 in hip-hop. And most of those rappers are. No one’s saying anything, but they are. [Laughs] But at the end of the day, again, it’s a bigger issue than hip-hop. And I’m not making excuses for anything. It’s a bigger issue, and it’s an issue that can always be talked about as part of this beginning process to understanding and how to resolve it if we can do that as a society.

Time Out New York: Where would you like to perform that you haven’t?
Rennie Harris:

Time Out New York: That is such a great answer.  
Rennie Harris:
[Laughs] I came close once. It was around the time we went to war. We were booked to go to Dubai; we were in London performing and I was like, Shit we’re going to Dubai. All my friends went to Dubai in the ’80s and ’90s to perform and they were like, “Man, you are like a king over there.” It has always been my fantasy. They canceled that trip and it never came back around. I know I haven’t been everywhere. But I feel like I have.
RHAW is at the New Victory Theater May 17–26.

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