“It’s Paris. It’s 1913. It’s Stravinsky’s music to Nijinsky’s groundbreaking new choreography. It’s too much for the audience, and a riot breaks out. It’s Philadelphia. It’s 2011. It’s Stravinsky’s music mixed with Arvo Part’s and funneled through the millenial mentality of Darrin Ross and, to top it off, the always new choreographic genius of our own Nijinsky, Rennie Harris. Audiences have seen so much since 1913 that nothing starts a physical riot. Nevertheless, Harris’s genius sets off a riot in our minds and souls. As the choreographer continues to redefine hiphop with new movement invention and conceptual ideas, he also redefines what we call concert dance. We are invited into a world of myth where the tables are turned and the young virgin to be sacrificed is a beautiful b-boy. The power and agency of women doing this movement vocabulary opens up another level of truth and beauty and turns us around. We must see with the eyes at the back of our head.” –Brenda Dixon Gottschild-2011
In the beginning I didn’t think much about what I was doing. Unbeknownst to me, though, I had an agenda. When the smoke cleared, I understood that I was pushing street dance vocabulary, its aesthetic and texture if you will. I discovered many things along the way. For example, I discovered that most of the vocabulary of street dance isn’t designed to travel through space. Soon, I realized I wasn’t responding to the environment but rather becoming the environment by way of its vocabulary. This process gave me a very unique perspective, allowing me to define and explore the vocabulary of various street dance styles and aesthetics.
Later, I began to use multi-media, poetry, script, and live Hip-hop musicians such as beat boxers, bucket players, and DJs. This really opened me up creatively. I used to think of Hip-hop culture as only pertaining to dance and not the other elements. Incorporating the other elements made me realize the sky was the limit, there are no boundaries with this. Although there are unspoken laws of Hip-hop and Street dance culture, there are no rules on how to approach it in the theater.
I find it important to create from a place of innate inspiration while simultaneously employing method and technique. For me, the first phase of creating a work is to begin by creating movement vocabulary. After that, I move on to movement phrases. It’s my belief that the movement reveals the work, it determines the aesthetic of the work. Once the movement and vocabulary phrases have been created, I can then begin the process of blocking and spacing. Finally, I start the process of narrative, if need be. Sometimes I see a story within the movement vocabulary, and sometimes not. Whether I employ a narrative, abstraction, or dance for dance’s sake, I begin cleaning and re-staging the work based on whether or not I decided on a clear narrative/theme.
Researching and theorizing about a new work isn’t part of my methodology. I teach students to create from their core, on the spot. This promotes acknowledgement of choice, voice, and individuality, extending beyond Hip-Hop, as it addresses humanity in the simplest way. Live each moment, embrace each moment, and always be present in the moment as it is in these moments that we experience universal truth. The term Hip-hop means to “open your eyes” or “re-open” your eyes. Needless to say, without this insight I would not be in the position I am today. I see my work as acknowledging moments of clarity and forging through old structures and rules of engagement. Without acknowledging these “moments of clarity” I doubt I would have been able to create the one work that took the dance world by surprise, “Rome & Jewels,” a Hip-Hop adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Winning many awards, and specifically the William Shakespeare Award for classical theater, it was the longest running Hip-Hop theater production to date. This work confirmed the importance of Hip-Hop as a cogent and viable dance form. In closing, I didn’t set out to become a choreographer or director, but I have accepted my calling and I am loving every moment I’m able to enlighten someone with my work with my teaching and with my vision for Hip-hop & Street Dance.
Since the age of 15, I have been dedicated to educating the public about Hip-Hop dance and culture. Exploring ways in which to bring this form to the community, concert stage, and academia, I’ve been inspired to educate popular “culturalists” (mainstream thinkers and the “neo” Hip-Hop generation) not only about Hip-hop’s history and relevance today but also its humanitarian foundation and philosophy. Like many original American art forms, this is a discipline founded in the African Diaspora, and as much as we associate Hip-Hop with youth, its progenitors were primarily born between 1955 and 1965.
Most are mis-informed about its practitioners. They (public) have a preconceived notion of what Hip-Hop dance and culture is. My philosophy as an educator is the direct result of being born before Hip-Hop became Hip-Hop as we know it today. Having watched its evolution and being immersed in its revolution, I have been afforded a very unique perspective, one that is often overlooked.
There are three unspoken laws of Hip-Hop
3.) and, last but not least, innovation.
At every turn, a practitioner of Hip-Hop must be identified as an independent thinker who is creative and innovative in all he or she does. Freestyle and improvisation is “the” core method of progressiveness in our culture. We aren’t allowed to wear the same clothes twice, nor repeat the same dance movement or lyric. Simply put, improvisation embraces change rather than resisting it.
These three laws ensure the natural progression of our experience as humans. Without them we become stagnant and complacent as a race of beings. Our very existence stems from our growth, mentally and spiritually. It’s imperative that we evolve, reaching beyond the limitations we unwisely set for ourselves. Embraced by the cipher, the improvisation of dance and lyric teaches its students humility, confidence, skill, collaboration, and discipline, which are nothing more than life tools. Governed by a “poly-rhythmic” time signature, this pedagogical approach uses the philosophical understanding of the Hip-hop “cipher” — 360 degrees of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding — to teach objectivity, balance, and progression.
The way we receive information is cyclical in nature, not linear. “Structure” is worshiped as a “God”-line, when in fact it is only a guide-line. Cyclical thinking acknowledges structure as being flexible in nature. It’s ok if you deviate (improvisation) from the path. Maybe you will come back to the path or maybe not. It’s your choice, it’s your voice and individual right to change your time signature. Yes, this is Hip-Hop but, more importantly, this is being Human. Identifying self, loving self, and respecting self. Once we have achieved or come close to this understanding we are able to engage in what Kevin Donovan (aka Afrika Bambaata) calls “Peace, Love & Universal Truth.”