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The dance world was taken by storm 10 years ago by Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM), an audacious troupe of male dancers led by Philadelphia choreographer Rennie Harris. The astonishing new company brought a thrilling hip-hop aesthetic to the concert stage with gravity-defying spins, handstands, flips, and contortions, plus heavy doses of swagger and attitude.

Some of Harris’ dances celebrated the sheer joy of physical movement, drawn from the trendy styles of dance clubs and pop media, while others addressed the tougher side of urban life, the African-American struggle for identity and salvation. Harris’ powerful solo dances, such as the now-classic “Endangered Species,”evoked struggle, self-awareness, and bitter catharsis.

This early work led to the creation of three larger-scale projects, all of which were performed at Lafayette. RHPM will present a full-decade retrospective of these important landmarks in Harris’ personal and artistic journey 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Williams Center for the Arts.

Tickets are free for students, $4 for faculty and staff, and $20 for the public. They can be purchased by calling the box office at 610-330-5009.

Harris and his dancers will give an informal preview of the program noon Friday, Feb. 3, at the Williams Center.

The first of Harris’ three major works was Rome & Jewels, which places the Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story themes in a contemporary urban setting, recast as a series of hip-hop “battles” between urban gangs, played out in combative movement by dueling teams of dancers. Harris won a 2001 New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie) for his choreography for Rome & Jewels.

His second full-evening project, the Legends of Hip-Hop tour, showcased “old school” performers and grew from RHPM’s annual Illadelph Legends festival, which celebrates Philadelphia-area and national hip-hop pioneers. The third large-scale work, Facing Mekka, which had its world premiere at the Williams Center in March 2003, is an epic journey of faith, spirituality, and cultural identity, explored through dance, music, and stagecraft.

The Feb. 4 performance will include sections of Rome & Jewels and Facing Mekka as well as several major ensemble pieces for the Puremovement troupe, showcasing the b-boy physicality that first brought Harris’ choreography to the dance world’s attention. Harris will also revisit “Endangered Species”as he performs his newest creation, “Prince Scarecrow in the Emerald City.” The two works are deeply engaging, both as autobiographical studies of identity and struggle, and as contrasting assessments of way stations on a fascinating life journey.

“Harris, well known for his boundary-pushing synthesis of hip-hop and modern dance, is also committed to treating the vital, evolving hip-hop dance scene as a serious tradition, deserving of documentation,” states the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Rennie Harris Puremovement has performed to soldout audiences at venues in the U.S. and abroad, including Grad Halle de Parc de la Villette in Paris, Reichhold Center in St. Thomas, Kennedy Center in D.C., MCA in Chicago, Holland Dance Festival, Kiasma Museum in Helsinki, Spoleto Dance Festival, Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, and Nervi Festival in Italy.

Harris is a 1996 recipient of the Pew Fellowship in the Arts for Choreography and has received awards from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Pew Repertory Development Initiative grant, City of Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and Philadelphia Dance Projects Commission. He is a 2001 recipient of Chicago’s Black Theater Alvin Ailey Award for best choreography. He received a total of three Bessie Awards for the production of Rome & Jewels. Harris won the Herb Alpert Award in 2003 and has been voted one of the “most influential people in the last 100 years” of Philadelphia history.

Growing up in the inner city of North Philadelphia, Harris started dancing at eight years old 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 age 15 and touring at 19.

Harris is well versed in the vernacular of hip-hop, which includes the various techniques of b-boy (often labeled by the misnomer of “break dancing”), house dancing, stepping, and other styles that have emerged from the urban, inner cities of America. He has brought these social dances to the concert stage, creating a cohesive dance style that finds a cogent voice in the theater.

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.”

Intrigued by the universality of hip-hop, Harris seeks inspiration from other forms, including Angola and Brazilian Capoeira, West African dance, and performance art. As a pioneer in performing, choreographing, and teaching African-American hip-hop, he toured the country and abroad with the first organized hip-hop tour in America, the “Fresh Festival” starring Run DMC, Fatboys, Curtis Blow, and Whodini, as well as working with Kool Moe Dee, West Street Mob, Salt ’N’ Pepa, and other noted hip-hop stars. Since the age of 15, Harris has taught workshops and classes at many schools and universities.

His Lafayette performance is made possible by Pennsylvania Artists on Tour, with funds provided by Vira I. Heinz Foundation, William Penn Foundation, Pew Charitable Trust, and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

The nationally recognized Performance Series at Lafayette attracts more than 10,000 people each season. It has been cited for performing excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project, Chamber Music America, Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, Pennsylvania Arts and Humanities Councils, and Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

The 2005–06 Performance Series is supported in part by gifts from Friends of the Williams Center for the Arts; by provisions of the Alan and Wendy Pesky Artist-in-Residence Program, the James Bradley Fund, and the Ed Brunswick Jazz Fund; and by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour, the Dexter and Dorothy Baker Foundation, and New England Foundation for the Arts.

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