Notice of Online Archive

  • This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of the last page update.

    For questions about page contents, contact the Communications Division.

Philadelphia dancer-choreographer Rennie Harris will present Rome & Jewels, his much-praised adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Broadway’s West Side Story, at 8 p.m. on October 2 and 3 at Lafayette’s Williams Center for the Arts. The “hip-hop opera” is teeming with hip-hop, rap, spoken word, and rave, in the timeless tale of star-crossed lovers. Tickets cost $15 and may be purchased by calling the Williams Center box office at 610-330-5009. The show contains strong adult language and situations. Viewer discretion is advised.

The first full-length work of Harris’ career, Rome & Jewels enlarges PureMovement, his core all-male dance company, into a multidisciplinary cast of actors, turntable musicians, rap artists, and street dancers to replay the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and its classic pop-culture modernization, West Side Story. The performance is an astonishing blend of breathtaking, kinetic dancing, hard-driving music and imagery, and street theater of remarkable fidelity, both to the Shakespearean original and to the urban truths of contemporary American society. It made its debut in June at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.

“Rome & Jewels will put black Philadelphia on the international arts map,” writes Elizabeth Zimmer in a review for The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Not a ballet in any conventional sense, Rome & Jewels nevertheless exploits grand gestures as much as proliferating dance versions of the story doHarris has built a wedge that will open the doors of America’s art centers, displaying hip-hop as clear cultural expression, compelling to all races and generations.”

Adds the Philadelphia City Paper: “With Rome & Jewels, Harris moved closer to his ideal ofpure movement. It is exhilarating.” “Rennie Harris is a contemporary urban griot who has made hip hop gesture his language of story-telling and conjuring,” notes critic Suzanne Carboneau. “He formed his company, PureMovement, in 1993, as a place where he could explore hip-hop without concession to commercial interests. In the name of the company was embedded a philosophy: ‘Pure’ movement refers to Harris’s self-imposed mandate to explore movement that embodies his aesthetic and thematic concerns. It seems also, of course, a reference to Harris’s conviction that dance is not only a physical experience, but one that also embodies a moral universe. Harris continually reminds his audience that hip hop is an extension of traditional African dance and culture, the latest in the succession of American vernacular forms, including the cakewalk, animal dances, the Charleston, the lindy hop, rhythm tap, bop, funk, and disco, that are derived from an African aesthetic.”

Rome & Jewels demonstrates that hip-hop is a “remarkably eloquent medium for carrying a sustained and complex narrative,” says Carboneau. It stretches Shakespeare’s plot with underlying motivations and plot twists to explain the characters’ behavior. The story is expanded to ask what it means to Harris, an African-American man, at the turn of the millennium. “The result is a work that speaks to us with an immediacy that addresses who we are at this time and in this place,” adds Carboneau. “In boldly crossing cultural, geographical, and temporal boundaries in creating Rome and Jewels, Harris not only shows us who we are today; he is also able to reveal that our ties with the past are deep and profound — that across time and place, there are human concerns that speak to all of us.”

Harris grew up in the inner city of North Philadelphia. He started dancing at eight years ago by emulating dance moves from the TV program “Soul Train.” He was 14 when the Smithsonian Institution included him in a folk dance program. Harris began dancing professionally at 15 and touring at 19. The year he formed his current company, he also created Endangered Species, a solo work. Harris teaches at colleges, universities and dance companies in the U.S. and abroad.

The artist explained his philosophy of dance to the Richmond-Times Dispatch: “I aim for dance that puts people in a different space. You can’t solve all the problems [in society], but you can recognize them and move on. African dance is about celebration. You go through the struggle and then celebrate. I don’t know anybody who has ever danced and not been happy. The spirit of hip-hop is the spirit of celebration.” The presentation of Rome & Jewels is made possible, in part, by a touring grant from the National Dance Project, with funding support from the Doris Duke Foundation. The performance residency is also supported by grants from Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour and by the Mid Atlantic Foundation for the Arts.

Categorized in: News and Features