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A hip-hop history: Rennie Harris Puremovement

Choreographer Rennie Harris leads a hip-hop class for the Institute for Diversity in the Arts. Rennie Harris Puremovement will perform in Memorial Auditorium on Saturday. (Courtesy of Toni Gauther)

An umbrella term for various styles, hip-hop is the culmination of social and popular dance forms from the second half of the 20th century, explained choreographer Rennie Harris in an interview with Intermission last week. “There are a lot of things people don’t know about hip-hop,” Harris said – misconceptions he addresses in choreography, performances, workshops and lectures across the nation.

His company, Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM), will perform an evening of his works from the past two decades in Memorial Auditorium on Saturday. “Something To Do With Love, Volume 1,” is Harris’ reflection on the “trials and tribulations of our relationships” and the ways they “teach us about who we are and why we are here.”

Like most of Harris’ work, the 2006 piece addresses universal themes through dance to highlight commonalities and transcend social, economic, religious and racial boundaries. Also on the program are works set to Parliament-Funkadelic and Groove Collective, along with an original composition by ex-soldier and friend of the choreographer Dru Minyard.

The company’s performances are part of Harris’ Institute for Diversity in the Arts’ (IDA) extended residency this quarter. As an IDA visiting artist, he also participated in an Aurora Forum with Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam Thursday evening, and is teaching “The Day Before Hip-Hop,” a combination lecture and technique course offered by the Stanford Dance Division.

The course covers the roots of the hip-hop genre and its deep connections to the history of African-American and Latino communities. Beginning in the classroom with the question of slavery, Harris traces paradigm shifts in consciousness that enabled the eventual growth of hip-hop. He introduces the innovators and pioneers of the mid-1960s that ushered in the dawn of hip-hop culture.

Dancer Brian Newby (Courtesy of Brian Mengini)

Later, in the studio, Harris expounds on the ideas he has proposed in the classroom, linking theory to aesthetics and musicality. He cultivates an understanding of “the small things that make the hip-hop,” with particular attention to bodies creating music and rhythm. “You become the composer, and you should know what the dance sounds like,” he told his students.

Stanford is the third institution in the U.S. to offer its students the opportunity to make such a unique foray into hip-hop history and theory; Harris has previously taught similar courses at UCLA and the University of Colorado.

Born and raised in North Philadelphia, Harris has been dancing since he was a teenager, picking up his first notions of rhythm and movement in church, in clubs and on the streets. For him, as is the case for hip-hop in general, dancing is an inherently social activity, meant to be a shared experience and part of a larger community ethos. He founded RHPM in 1992, and has become internationally renowned as a choreographer and nationally recognized for his lectures and workshops on the origins of hip-hop.

Harris strives to engage audiences with hip-hop dance on the concert stage to amend the stereotypes and negative images television has created. The media’s tendency toward a narrow and superficial portrayal of hip-hop has perpetuated a simplistic view of the form, one that doesn’t recognize its myriad influences, inventive spirit and potential to bring people together.

Hip-hop, “the only thing that’s new in this country,” and the most truly expressive voice of this generation, Harris says, will bring younger audiences to the theater, if presenters are willing to put hip-hop where ballet and modern are the standard line. Lively Arts has done just that, and will present Rennie Harris Puremovement on Saturday at 8 p.m., with an abbreviated family matinee at 3 p.m.

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