Hip-hop sage Lorenzo "Rennie" Harris has built his career around the study and preservation of that urban art form.
The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fellowship for choreography, Harris, and his Philadelphia-based dance company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, have since 1992 been preaching the gospel of hip hop to dance audiences all over the world. Mixing educational programming with main-stage performances, Puremovement carries the legacy of traditional hip-hop dance (breaking, boogaloo, popping and locking) while combining it with other styles to advance the art form.
For Harris, who learned hip-hop dancing from the streets, trying to get his current group of trained dancers to dance with the freedom of street-dancing has sometimes been a challenge.
In an interview on YouTube, Harris says: "If dancers are thinking of counting in their heads, then they are not engaged. They are on top of that rhythm and not absorbed in it. Structure is not a 'Godline,' it is a guideline. You should be able to use that structure when you need, and be able to deviate from it."
Harris' dancers will put that lesson to use as they present Students of the Asphalt Jungle on Fri., May 21. The show is part of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture's First Voice: A Pittsburgh International Black Arts Festival.
The program of four repertory works, all by Harris, will open with the 26-minute suite "Something to do with Love, Volume 1" (2006).
Set to music by Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and Ayo, the work in three parts "is a dance love story," says Puremovement dancer/company manager Rodney Hill, speaking from Philadelphia. "It's about the relationships of guys and girls out at clubs back in the day."
Parliament-Funkadelic and Groove Collective provide the soundtrack to 1992's "P-FUNK." The 12-minute dance celebrates the era in which Harris grew up, and is dedicated to dancers who fell victim to street violence -- including Harris' brother, who's survived being shot.
Also on the program is "March of the Antmen" (1992), inspired by and set to the music of Harris' friend, ex-soldier Dru Minyard. "When [Minyard] came back from the service, he viewed what was going on in the streets as being like a war, and everyone marching to the same beat," says Hill. Harris used that imagery to create a nine-minute work laced with violent overtones.
The program will close with the recently updated title piece, "Students of the Asphalt Jungle" (1995). Set to samba drum and house music, the 14-minute work is packed with flips, spins and other break-dance power moves. Says Hill, the work also "incorporates elements of traditional African dance and capoeira. It's a celebration of hip hop's African heritage."
Rennie Harris Puremovement performs Students of the Asphalt Jungle 8 p.m. Fri., May 21. August Wilson Center Theater, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $22.50-33. 412-456-6666 or augustwilsoncenter.org