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The remounting of Rome & Jewels at the Annenberg Center this weekend sets a landmark in Philly dance. It’s been many years since we’ve had a chance to see this award-winning take on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which launched Rennie Harris’s international fame. And its return, which honors his company’s 30th anniversary, offers a perfect reminder of Harris’s place in dance history—at the very center of the form known as street dance theater. Harris, still based here, was the first and is the foremost choreographer wringing theatrical depth from social dances that emerged from city areas like North Philly, where he was born and raised, during the latter 20th century. When his dancers spin, our feelings get turned around; and when they dive, our spirits plummet.
Get into the rhythm
Rome & Jewels, Harris’s first full-evening work, sets its story in the streets of Philadelphia, and Harris has described the title as an “encoded jab at the hip-hop community.” “Rome” signifies roaming, and “Jewels” jewelry. “In my opinion, the hip-hop community is always roaming or rather searching for the golden grail/money, as if it were their only means of rising out of their current situation,” he commented. Since 1998, when Rennie Harris Puremovement performed Rome & Jewels at the Wilma, Harris has choreographed several other full-length dances, including the acclaimed Lazarus; based on Alvin Ailey’s life, Lazarus was the Ailey company’s first two-act work. But Harris’s approach and style remain straightforward and consistent. “I go into the studio, I make choreography, and I add on from there,” he told BSR in a recent interview. And the genre known as GQ, a Philly style that grew from the cha-cha in the 1960s, is important to him still: “GQ influences all the movement that I make—the rhythms of GQ.”
Though people commonly refer to a broad range of street dances as “hip-hop,” that’s a misnomer, Harris said. “Hip-hop is not an umbrella term for the different dances that come out of different cities. You have crumping in LA, turfing out of the Bay Area, jitting from Detroit. Breaking came out of New York, but it became the national cultural dance of hip-hop, around 84 or 85. People wanted to follow that brand.”
Harris often features improvised solos in his choreography, as an homage to street dance culture. But the rest of the material is thoughtfully set. “One of the things I realized early on was, people would often look at us and say, how much is improvised? The idea was, African Americans are improvising—there’s no structure, and therefore they’re not intelligent. I’m careful to choreograph every little bit of what I do because of that.” On Friday and Saturday, Philly audiences can see several original cast members—including Rodney Mason as Rome—play out Harris’s powerful command of narrative, alongside lots of inventive dancing.
What, When, Where
Rome & Jewels. Choreography by Lorenzo (Rennie) Harris. Presented by Penn Live Arts. $29-$54. December 9, 2022, at 8pm, preceded by a 7pm pre-show talk; December 10, 2022, at 2pm and 8pm, at the Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-3900 or pennlivearts.org.
Proof of vaccination is no longer required. Face masks strongly recommended.
Penn Live Arts accommodates the needs of individuals with physical disabilities. For more information, view their accessibility page.
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