Dance company brings signature take on hip-hop to Lied Center

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Back in March 2012, with the Middle East still reeling from the aftereffects of the Arab Spring, the U.S. State Department, in partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, sent a group of hip-hop dancers to the conflict-addled region on a cultural diplomacy mission called DanceMotion USA.

The Philadelphia-based Rennie Harris Puremovement dance company spent two months in Israel, Palestine and Egypt that spring — teaching, performing and sharing the joys of hip-hop.

“The response was powerful,” says company manager Rodney Hill during a bitterly cold afternoon on the Kansas University campus.

The 40-year-old dancer and choreographer taught a series of free master classes at KU's Robinson Center earlier this week as part of a partnership between the school’s dance department and the Lied Center, where Rennie Harris Puremovement will perform its program “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Word” on Friday evening.

“When we went to Palestine, of course we were driven around in a bullet-proof van, but we didn’t have any Secret Service-type security with us,” says Hill, who insists the country wasn’t nearly as violent as how it’s portrayed on the news. “We didn’t have to worry about that, because a lot of people knew Rennie Harris, and a lot of people love to dance.”

By the time Hill and his friends embarked on the tour, the genre had already found its way into the youth culture of the Middle East.

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Rodney Hill, company manager of Rennie Harris Puremovement, teaches a master hip-hop class Tuesday in KU's Robinson Center. The dance company will perform Friday night at the Lied Center.

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Hip-hop dance company Rennie Harris Puremovement will be performing Friday night at the Lied Center.

If you go

Hip-hop dance company Rennie Harris Puremovement will be performing at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Ave. Tickets cost $20-$30 for adults and $11-$16 for students and youths, and are available at the Lied Center's website.

The Internet, especially social media and YouTube, have made access to Western entertainment easier than ever, even for those living under the most repressive governments.

“They’re self-taught just like the hip-hop dancer who’s dancing socially in the community here in the states,” Hill says of the people he met overseas. “It’s the same thing.”

Hip-hop is for everyone, says Hill, who has performed in venues across the world with artists such as Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent and The Roots. It’s a constantly evolving genre that originated on the streets, with moves developed and shared between friends in neighborhoods like The Bronx and Brooklyn.

“A lot of people in the past, and even some people in the present, have thought that hip-hop dance is unteachable,” Hill says. “But you can teach it — it’s proven. I’m here at KU, teaching hip-hop master classes.”

Hill would know. Growing up in north Philadelphia’s Richard Allen Homes projects — the parents of another famous alumnus, Bill Cosby, lived four houses down, he says — Hill first started dancing with his neighborhood friends. There was no formal training, he says.

It was there that he first met Rennie Harris, the artistic director and choreographer of Rennie Harris Puremovement.

He remembers watching through the windows of the Salvation Army Community Center as his future boss Rennie Harris rehearsed with his dance group, The Scanner Boys. Hill and his buddies would steal Harris’ moves and hurtle insults at them, provoking the rage of the older boys.

“They would chase us down the street, and then when they got close to the projects, they would stop because everybody knows if you weren’t from Richard Allen, you couldn’t come into the projects — you didn’t know anybody,” Hill says, punctuating the story with a laugh. “But that’s how I met Rennie, from him chasing us.”

During Friday’s performance, Harris will have a pre-taped “conversation” with the audience via projector screen, explaining his creative process between each piece.

It’s Hill’s favorite part of the show, which will include “a lot of Campbell locking, popping and house” styles.

The program’s title “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Word” alludes to the transcendent realm the dancers reach when truly “bringing the audience into their performance,” Hill says.

“It’s the freedom of letting the music take your body to another level,” he says, describing the spirit of hip-hop. “If you’re a performer and you’re loving what you’re doing, the audience is going to feel that. We have a way of capturing the audience so that they take that journey with us.”