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Harris is very specific about what he’s looking for, but the cast is still trying to grasp what he wants. “We’ve sat down and had conversations with him about the piece,” Flagg said, “because most of us come from a dance tradition where we need everything to be black and white. We’re used to the choreographer telling us what it’s about, and then we try to express that through the movement. Rennie’s not like that. He told us, ‘It’s whatever you think it’s about.’ At first we stood there with our mouths open. But he also said that ‘facing Mekka’ means facing yourself. For everybody in the cast that’s going to be something different.”
The prayer analogy is apt, Flagg said. Once she heard it, Rennie’s coaching started to make sense. “I started asking myself, ‘How would I move through a prayer?’ Even when I wasn’t dancing, just in my life as I moved through the day — doing the dishes, whatever. You need to stop thinking about the movement. You have to let it get into you deeply.”
Moving from this internal state is central to Harris’ creative enterprise. “In the everyday communing of black culture,” Harris says, “there’s always a sense of spirituality. So when we’re talking about honoring the spirit of hip-hop, we’re really talking about honoring black culture. The hybrid that’s being projected for us — what’s on MTV — is not hip-hop. I say this as the voice for a lot of hip-hop dancers and MCs and rappers. People only see the dynamic acrobatics, and they really don’t understand that it’s not about that. Yes, you can stand on one hand, but how did you get to that point? You have to understand the subtleties of gravity and weight. Your mind has to be so focused that you’re completely one with yourself.
“In a battle, one guy can do a flip but another guy can come out and totally take this guy out of the pocket, even though he didn’t flip, and the reason why is because he commanded and demanded the time.”
Harris was raised a Roman Catholic, but his church has always been on the streets and in the clubs. He started out as a step dancer at the tail end of the craze in the early ’70s, later adding to his repertoire moves culled from Soul Train. When he was 12, he was asked to captain the Scanner Boys, a crew that backed such acts as Run-DMC until it disbanded in 1992, a year after Harris founded Puremovement. At 13 he choreographed his first piece, and at 14 the Smithsonian Institution paid him to perform and “explain what it was I was doing.”
He and his dancers remain regulars on the Philly club scene. According to Dixon Gottschild, “That’s where the real stuff comes from, the raw material he shapes for the stage, that kind of sensual energy that you get from the circle. Rennie once told me that the way he’d like to die is dancing on the dance floor. He didn’t mean the concert-dance stage.”
RENNIE HARRIS PUREMOVEMENT: Facing Mekka| At FREUD PLAYHOUSE, UCLA | April 23–26, 8 p.m.; April 27, 7 p.m.