Think Shakespeare and the language is exalted, the setting is the Globe Theater, and the principals are, with the exception of Othello, white.
Think hip hop, and the language is vernacular, the setting is the ‘hood, and the principals are young and black.
But for Rennie Harris, founder and director of the Philadelphia-based Rennie Harris Puremovement dance company, there is no disconnect between 16th-century England and the urban landscapes of America. At the American Dance Festival this week, his nine-member company and a troupe of associated dancers will perform Harris’ Rome and Jewels, a “hip-hopera” in which the Bard meets the M.C. in a tale loosely based on Romeo and Juliet and two modern films.
The 37-year-old Harris founded his all-male Puremovement company as an extension of Scanner Boys, a group he had formed at age 14 in Philadelphia. When he was growing up in the inner city there, the 1961 movie West Side Story instantly captured his imagination. “It was the machismo of the dancers that drew me. And the neighborhood–I could relate to that,” he says. Later, he saw The Warriors, a film about gang warfare in New York City and had an “a-ha” moment. By his late 20s, he had begun writing down the ideas for a script: West Side Story meets North Philly.
Where West Side Story features gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, Rome and Jewels pits the “Monster Q’s” or “b-boy” family against the “Caps” or the “hip-hop” family. “People like to look at them as gangs; I characterize them as family,” Harris says. “If you ask a gang member about it, they say ‘family first.’” The families in Rome and Jewels are distinguished by their style of clothing, their music and their very movement. The hip-hop family is characterized by their “aesthetic, their funkiness, their street wear.”
Though West Side Story was a major influence on Rome and Jewels, Harris emphasizes that it should only be seen only as a loose framework. Rome and Jewels tells the story of conflict in very different ways and references the original blueprint for West Side Story–Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Finding contemporary ways to echo a centuries-old, classic play was not hard for Harris. “I fused Elizabethan text with hip-hop language–or Ebonics, if you will,” he says. He cites as an example a line from Shakespeare, “Thou art more lovely than a summer’s day,” after which the character Rome, speaking to an always-invisible Jewels, adds, “Word.” “Hip hop and Shakespeare both come from the same place–the street,” Harris says. “I mean, people weren’t feelin’ Shakespeare back then. And hip-hop lyrics are the only writing that comes close to the complexity of Shakespeare” in their use of double entendres and wordplay.
Ironically, for Harris, the most difficult part of staging his hip-hopera was the movement. While he has been known for integrating club-style dancing into repertory dance, he hadn’t yet created an extended piece like his current production, which lasts about two hours. “I had to get hip hop to move across the stage, so I had to strip down the movement to make it the simplest way,” he says. The “Monster Q’s” are influenced by break dancing and move low to the ground. They can cover the stage easily, but the “Caps” are given to posing and posturing. But while Harris characterizes this movement as a notch below Soul Train dancing, he promises that the Rome and Jewels experience contains “strenuous dance” that will awe audiences.
The production might be billed as a multimedia event. While the body language of the characters will power the story, Rome and Jewels offers two DJs and a videographer. The DJs serve as a “hip-hop orchestra,” who will mix music live into the score written by the company’s executive director, Darrin Ross. Pre-recorded music by the group Yes will catapult the Shakespearean tragedy into 21st-century digs, and the video segment will grab images from the dance as it is happening, sharing a glimpse of minute hand movements, or say, the grimace or smile on a dancer’s face as he executes a leap.
In the end, this production, which has been performed to critical acclaim in venues from California to Maine, is all about context–removing barriers of space and time to see the struggle of the Montagues and Capulets, or the Jets and the Sharks, in the streets of Philadelphia. And it’s about broadening modern dance, a genre that prides itself on being avant-garde, and calling attention to the hip-hop revolution that has swept the world. Rome and Jewels has played on stages all over the world, but Harris says that the dance establishment has yet to really grasp how pervasive and valid hip hop is–as a culture, not just something you hear on the radio.
But recognition is coming slowly. “I think Western culture is still locked in the box of Ballanchine,” Harris says. The success of Rome and Jewels, which has sold out in 90 percent of its stops, “has made them stand up and look around the corner.”