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Holy Hip-hop

Rennie Harris returns from Africa bearing gifts and 'Facing Mekka'

Listen for the sound of the tabla drum, sitar or a corner boombox.

That's the sound of Rennie Harris' versatile hip-hop dance company, Puremovement, coming to Portland for its first local engagement in six years. Harris will unpack a new full-length work, 'Facing Mekka,' which was inspired by a pivotal trip the 38-year-old choreographer took to West Africa in 1997.

'Facing Mekka' draws on aboriginal dance forms, ceremonial African dance, Angolan dance and Brazilian capoeira to illustrate the genesis of hip-hop. These pure movements Ñ and not the elastic urban dance styles that characterized the majority of his earlier work Ñ are what Harris, something of a hip-hop historian, says are the dance form's real origins.

' 'Facing Mekka' is a recognition of the spiritual journey,' the dreadlocked Harris says. 'For me the dance itself is the connection to a higher self and to a higher being.'

Harris' journey began in the '70s in a gritty North Philadelphia neighborhood. When he was 8 years old, he saw someone get shot. When he was 16, he fired a gun at another kid. Later, Harris recounted these and other violent episodes in his autobiographical solo dance 'Endangered Species (1994).'

Harris gained national attention in 2000 as the choreographer of the hip-hop ballet 'Rome and Jewels,' a retelling of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' as a black gangster melodrama. Inspired by Jerome Robbins' choreography in 'West Side Story' and the '70s cult classic film 'The Warriors,' the ballet changed the Capulets and the Montagues to the Caps and Monster Q's. The all-male cast of dancer-actors reflected the energy, madness and swagger of black life in America, as told through various dance styles such as break dancing, stepping and house.

In one way or another, Harris has been moving his feet his entire life.

'The first time I consciously remember dancing, I was going down a soul train at a birthday party when I was 8,' Harris recalls, referring to the social dance in which two lines of people face off, the dancers at the end of each line making their way down the middle, showing off moves as they go.

The concert will include a solo performance by Harris titled 'Lorenzo's Oil,' which blends aspects of the Japanese avant-garde art form Butoh with the slow-motion 'popping' movement that is his specialty. 'Popping has the same internal aesthetic as Butoh, so there is a connection between them,' he says. Popping is one part of 'locking and popping,' both principal maneuvers in the hip-hop dance repertoire.

In 'Facing Mekka,' Harris turns from what he's called the spectacle of hip-hop dance in order to explore its Afro-Caribbean roots. By 'spectacle' Harris means the way in which hip-hop culture is now used to sell audiences everything from cars to Sprite. By going back to its roots, Harris means to reclaim hip-hop.

'The best thing to do is to be part of hip-hop and to help define it so we aren't written out of it,' Harris says. 'Even in rock 'n' roll you don't get the sense that today's practitioners are honoring the old black cats that really pushed the art form. That's the part that's a little scary. So when Eminem stops mentioning Run-DMC, or whoever inspired him from black culture, the information can get lost.'

In essence, Harris says, 'we have to begin to become the gatekeepers so that NSYNC doesn't define hip-hop.'

Some people, though, capitalize on the misinformation. 'I mean, the guy who choreographs for NSYNC and Britney Spears teaches master classes pushed as 'hip-hop,' even though he knows that's not hip-hop,' he says, referring to choreographer Darren Henson.

'He's selling all the dance videos, and he's the number one guy who is not telling the truth. The Electric Boogaloo crew trained him and he's teaching all these moves, but he's not mentioning the legends that came before.'

Local dance instructor Mariecella Devine runs a studio in Southeast Portland that offers hip-hop dance classes for all ages and levels. She has seen Harris' company perform three times.

'It's like, 'What don't these guys do?' ' Devine asks. 'Incredible gymnastics and the tightest old-school locking and popping. The range is amazing.

'The 'sellout factor' is there in hip-hop dance,' Devine says, 'because it's everywhere now Ñ in the Disney commercials and the car commercials. Little girls in L.A. whose moms are trying to get them into the videos. The difference is between what's raw and what's manufactured.'

The difference, she says, is that 'these guys go way back to the roots.'

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