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Late-1970s North Philadelphia was crumbling under violence and poverty. Rennie Harris didn't make it any safer for himself by jamming safety pins through his clothes and painting checkers on his sneakers well before Vans sold them that way.
"They'd yell at me and call me gay. I'd get into a lot of fights," he remembers of late-night walks home from punk clubs.
That same contrarian spirit has helped Harris become one of the most acclaimed choreographers working in any genre today and a pioneer in using hip-hop dance movements to tell narrative stories. He's been awarded two honorary doctorates and enough major dance prizes to stage The Nutcracker with the trophies.
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And he's also become known for his prolificacy; in the span of a month, Harris has opened his new version of Romeo & Juliet at the Joyce Theater in New York and, at the Adrienne Arsht Center this weekend, will premiere Love American Style, a full-length narrative set to classic rock and punk music.
"When you get an urge to go to pee, you go to the bathroom," Harris explains. "Me, I get the urge to create something, and I go do it."
The new show is a co-commission by the Arsht and several other performing institutions around the country. "The way that Rennie uses the vocabulary of hip-hop is not simply trying to tap into the angst of locking or the pure energy of boogaloo; the motion is the expression of the emotion," says Scott Shiller, executive vice president at the Arsht.
Harris' move into choreography was far from a carefully plotted career path. "I never planned to do this," he insists. "It wasn't until I was in my late 30s, actually, that I accepted I was a choreographer. Before then, I got paid, so I danced. I got paid to choreograph, so I was a choreographer. I'm still upset with the system. It's the same, but in fine arts, everyone is passive-aggressive, whereas in the commercial world, it's completely aggressive."
Harris got his first big taste of the commercial world through 1984's Fresh Festival, hip-hop's first major national tour. Harris and his Magnificent Force breaking crew performed on a bill with Run D.M.C., Kurtis Blow, and the Fat Boys. Sponsorship deals with Swatch and Reebok followed.
He was just out of high school when the tour began but had already been harvesting acclaim for years.
"When I was 13 or 14, the Smithsonian was documenting hip-hop, sending people into the field to document it as African folklore," Harris says. "They got to Philly, and my group was very popular at the time, so people sent them our way."
The interviews led to a 15-year-old Harris delivering lectures at the Smithsonian and Temple University, explaining his culture to outsiders. In some ways, he has never stopped.
"Hip-hop adapts to it environment. It can be on the corner, in the Arsht, or if I'm in the cafeteria and we want to start jamming, we do it," Harris says. "I don't know ballet, modern dance, jazz. They're just movements, and they're my voice, because it's what I grew up in."
Like Merce Cunningham or Alvin Ailey, Harris now more than 20 years of enduring repertory pieces he has authored for his Rennie Harris Puremovement. Love American Style was born almost two years ago, when Harris dropped an idea after his last Puremovement performance at the Arsht.
Shiller recalls, "We were having dinner after his show, and he said, 'I have this idea for a piece that uses Queen music to tell this passionate story.'"
The Arsht immediately offered support for the idea, adding the then-formless project to its roster of some 20 commissions in various stages of development. The portfolio spans jazz, dance, plays, musicals, and a few unclassifiable pieces. Most of the projects are kept secret until ready for their debuts.
"The most important part is the incubation," according to Shiller. "It's as important that these artists fail privately as it is that they succeed publicly."
Love American Style's nod toward classic rock may seem incongruous to Harris' hip-hop background, but he says there's logic to the choice.
"The foundation of all that is R&B and rock music, so in that way, Queen and the Ramones are black history," Harris says. "And the punk clubs were the only places you could hear hip-hop, the first places to accept it. The regalia of early groups like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five — it's all punk-influenced."
For the past five years, he has been working also with a newer group, RHAW (Rennie Harris Awe-Inspiring-Works), which, aside from incorporating younger dancers and community outreach projects, brings an adventurism to his style. This is the group that will be in Miami this week to perform Love American Style and lead dance workshops in Miami-Dade public schools.
"Hard work was foreign to them at first. It's the instant-coffee generation," he says. "They expect things now, now, now, and it's hard for them to take the time to brew, to develop."
When Harris tries to figure out a show, such as the Arsht commission gave him time to do with Love American Style, "a lot of it has to do with breaking down my own brainwashing... People ask me when I started dancing," Harris continues. "But no one taught you to walk. How did you learn to press your toes, lift your foot and your knee? Your body is perpetually falling, and your legs just catch you. Consciousness and rhythm come to you intuitively."