Hip Hop with Rennie Harris Puremovement: The brothers at the Opera

Photo by Sherif Sonbol

Rennie Harris Puremovement, a hip hop dance company from the US, took Cairo’s Opera House by storm on Thursday 15 March; The dance group remains faithful to its ‘street’ origins, maintaining a spontaneous dynamic.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

Hip hop moves and funky grooves transported the audience to a place where dance reflects a meeting of mind, body and soul, and dancers can express their true selves.

Through the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Urban Affairs and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Rennie Harris Puremovement was selected for the dance Motion USA exchange programme. The group came to Egypt under the umbrella of the US Embassy in Cairo, for the second hip hop event organised by the embassy over the last three months.

In Egypt, the programme of the group included a series of workshops and performances in Cairo and Alexandria. On 13 March, the American group performed at the Jesuit Centre in Alexandria. On 14 March, a Hip Hop Dance Battle (i.e., competition) took place at El Sawy Culturewheel, in which multiple Egyptian groups and the American group performed dance styles they had learned and rehearsed together during the week. On 15 March a dance performance at the Cairo Opera House showcased the skills of the Puremovement group, joined in the final numbers by the Egyptian dancers.

“Egyptians have a strong and proud history of dance, including both traditional and modern forms. We wanted to engage the best Egyptian hip hop dancers with some of the best American hip hop performers. We wanted to create a link between the youth of the two countries through hip hop dance,” explains Mike Hankey, Assistant Cultural Attache at the US Embassy.

Hip hop dance is very reflective and incorporates a great deal of free improvisation within the main lines of the genre. Emerging in the African- American street dancer communities known as crews, hip hop music and dance soon became a part of the whole hip hop culture aiming to break out of all the mainstream convictions of what music and dance should be. Rejecting academic backbones, the dancers find today, that many hip hop studios and learning centres work against their core philosophy, which is linked to a spontaneous dance born within and developed by the street community.

Rennie Harris is one of the best known personalities in the American hip hop scene and a spokeperson for the significance of the “street” origins of any dance style. He also started by dancing with his group on the streets before those spontaneous expressions of the body could be described by any terminology. Just like many hip hop performers, to Harris, street dancing was part of life and a way of sharing social activities within a community freed from rules and academic limitations, reaching beyond religious, racial and economic frontiers. In 1990s, Harris created the Puremovement company to present hip hop culture and educate the masses on the hip hop spirit.

Today, Harris is lecturing about hip hop in many renowned universities; he has received an honorary doctorate for his achievements in the genre. In one of his interviews, Harris stresses importance of hip hop being a social dance and pure street expression that sees no boundaries such as those imposed on it by the commercialised and often distorted representation of hip hop promoted by media. According to Harris, it is important to know the history of the genre and its roots, reaching as far as back the beginnings of the 20th century, in order to understand the whole culture and the values it incorporates.

“Movement is the last manifestation of your reality. It is not what you say; it’s what you do,” is Harris’ message to all young hip hop dancers. Harris believes that for everything to become real or tangible, for a thought to become reality, one needs to take an action.

Photo by Sherif Sonbol

The dynamic and rhythmic performance on the stage of the Cairo Opera House gave us a glimpse of the essence and real spirit of hip hop. Enthusiasm, passion and dedication to this art form glowed in each number. From the sensual stories opening the performance to rhythmic collective performances, all artists, whether from the Rennie Harris Puremovement or the Egyptian crew, showed how this genuine form of dance bubbles with freedom of expression and at the same time remains faithful to a certain kind of aesthetic and ideological purity.

Hyped up by the dancers, the stage was a testimony to the fervour of the performers, combined with hard work and undeniable discipline. Better technical support from the opera’s sound and light engineers would have rendered the evening impeccable. Theatrical elements that surfaced in some numbers allowed the performers to tell stories of their generation: love, joy, pain, loss, departure and longing. What made the performance more appealing was that the choreography and the perfect coordination of the dance did not compromise its spontaneity. As much as the show engaged those gathered at the opera’s main hall, one only wished the audience could loosen up and enjoy it as much as the dancers were.

Rennie Harris Puremovement has now departed Egypt to continue their tour in the Middle East.

Photo by Sherif Sonbol

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