The pioneering hip-hop choreographer Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris took his first stroll down a Soul Train line when he was 8. Unlike the name of the funk song that he danced to, he remembers exactly how it felt.
“Everyone in my neighborhood could dance,” Harris said in an interview from Boulder on Wednesday. “I never really thought I was one of the best dancers.”
Harris' latest achievement might suggest otherwise. The North Philly native was just named one of eight performing artists receiving a 2020 Doris Duke Artist Award. The honor, announced Thursday by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, is accompanied by a prize of $275,000.
Harris is widely regarded as the pioneer of street dance theater. In 1992 he founded Rennie Harris Puremovement, a hip-hop and street dance theater company that’s dedicated to bringing hip-hop culture into contemporary dance.
In 2012, Rennie Harris Puremovement collaborated with DanceMotion USA, the Obama administration’s cultural exchange program. Puremovement served as citizen-diplomats, touring Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan.
His notable works include Lazarus (2018), Lifted (2017), Straight Outta Philly (2016), Exodus (2015), and Heaven: A B-Girl Ballet (2014). Harris has received two honorary doctorates, in the arts and humanities from Bates College and in the fine arts from Columbia College Chicago.
In high school, Harris would gather dancer friends and spectators for local concerts, talent shows, and cabarets.
“Right out of high school I just went on the road,” he said. “I never intended to be a dancer or choreographer. I never thought about having a career. It just literally happened that way."
Hearing that he’d been selected as a Doris Duke winner, initially “I was shocked, I didn’t know what to say, to be honest with you,” Harris, 56, said. “As an artist, you move through spaces without realizing that other people are watching you.”
This year’s other Artist Award winners are Ana María Alvarez (Dance), Andrew Cyrille (Jazz), Sean Dorsey (Dance), Michael John Garcés (Theater), Cécile McLorin Salvant (Jazz), Dael Orlandersmith (Theater), and Pam Tanowitz (Dance).
They were nominated by peers in their respective disciplines. The award is intended to invest in established individual artists in contemporary dance, jazz, and theater work who have made significant contributions to their field. The awards program started in 2012.
“We’re very concerned with being sure that the cohort of awardees looks like America,” said Maurine Knighton, program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. “That starts with the [50 to 60] nominators who are previous Doris Duke artists, scholars, producers, and others working in the disciplines we support."
Harris says his life experiences inform his choreography and that, through the craft, “I’m realizing that my experiences are not just unique to me.” When he was younger, Harris didn’t have a stable home. He moved around from relative to relative, from house to house, before settling in with his mother when he was 8.
“Your childhood really shapes the person you are and the relationships you have,” said Harris. “So from that to the racism to the discrimination to all the things that come along with life, that inspires me because it’s still relevant. There are still a lot more layers to peel back.”
The award, Harris says, gives him a sense of the reach and impact of his work. “Even though I’ve been around a long time, I’m a street dance choreographer so I’ve always felt by myself in that way.”
Harris plans to use the prize money to pay debts and to save for his retirement. He said he has some money saved, “but nothing like where it should be.”
When his mother died six years ago, Harris sold most of what he owned, with the exception of his car. He’s been on the road ever since.