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Rennie Harris is bringing back street dance Shakespeare to Philly

Catch ‘Rome & Jewels’ this weekend, celebrating 30 years of Rennie Harris Puremovement.

Rennie Harris Puremovement performs "Rome & Jewels" this weekend, at Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Rennie Harris Puremovement performs "Rome & Jewels" this weekend, at Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.Read moreRENNIE HARRIS

When Rennie Harris watched the movie West Side Story as a child, he wondered why it didn’t include street dancers.

Every time he saw the movie, he swapped out the dance scenes in his mind.

In 1998, he brought that vision to life with his hip-hop masterpiece, Rome & Jewels, for his company, Rennie Harris Puremovement.

Rome & Jewels ran sold-out shows and won three Bessie Awards. It also won a Shakespeare Theater Award, and was nominated for an Olivier Award.

But it hasn’t been seen in Harris’ native Philadelphia since 2007 nor anywhere else, for at least a decade.

Rome & Jewels is back. It opens Friday at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts as a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Puremovement.

“I was thinking about a work that was pivotal, that came in a moment in time where it just shifted the trajectory of the company,” said Harris, who is considered one of the best hip-hop choreographers in the world. “And that was Rome & Jewels. So I thought it would make sense to do the work, to present the work in honor of the company’s 30 years.”

For the piece, Harris choreographed many types of street dance and created modern versions of the characters. His Benvolio is Ben V. and Mercutio is Merc. Rome & Jewels is set in Philadelphia.

“The monologues you hear reference Philadelphia,” said Harris, who is featured on the December cover of Dance Magazine, wearing a Phillies caps. “There’s no set, per se, but that’s mostly where it happens.”

Rodney Mason has been playing the role of Rome since that original 1998 show. Tybalt (Brandon Albright) is also from the original cast, and many of the other dancers performing this week joined the cast in the early years.

This would be unthinkable with most kinds of concert dance. But hip-hop is easier on the body, Harris said.

“There’s no time limit for a street dancer,” said Harris, who dances every day but no longer on stage. “Like, you know, I’m 60, right? I broke my ankle last summer … I’m still formidable on the dance floor. Eighty-five to 90% of everything I did then, I can still do now.”

Reprising roles meant Harris and his team could remount the work without a lot of teaching and changes.

The piece is a tour de force, but it’s not for everyone, Harris notes, particularly not for children under, 12.

There’s cursing, heavy topics, and sexual innuendos, but Harris points out that the Bard used all those devices. Even the ballet version of Romeo & Juliet has a bedroom scene.

“When people think of hip-hop, they think, ‘Oh, the circus is coming into town, let me bring my kids.’ They don’t look at it as any other form of formidable genre dance.”

Although he regularly sells out performances, getting booked into theaters is still a struggle.

“When they want us to hire us, they wanted to pay us as if we were just starting out. We need at least about 60 or 70K to do the performance, but they will offer us like $20,000.”

That’s why Rome & Jewels is a rarity. But this year, Harris is artist-in-residence at Penn Live Arts, the performance series at the Annenberg..

“This is the first major support that we’ve gotten since we’ve been in Philadelphia,” Harris said.

And yet, his work for other companies is prized. He has created major works for troupes like Philadanco and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His Lazarus, for Ailey, was considered one of the best works choreographed in 2018. His next commission is for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Harris has honorary doctorates from Bates College and Columbia College, won a Doris Duke Artist Award, and was selected as one of four ambassadors for the United States as part of President Obama’s cultural exchange program, Dance Motion USA.

As Harris spoke, he was driving along a snowy Colorado highway to teach at the University of Colorado Boulder, as he does each fall. Teaching in other cities and choreographing for other companies are essential to give him an income.

“I always tell my students, ‘Listen, if I’m teaching, that means I need the work.’

“If I was supported the way I was supposed to be supported as an artist, I wouldn’t be teaching. I’d be home making work. I wouldn’t be setting work on other companies, because I would do my own company.”

And yet audiences flock to see Harris’ work. As of Wednesday night, most of the seats for Rome & Jewels at the Annenberg were already claimed.

Rennie Harris Puremovement in “Rome & Jewels.” 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9, and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10. Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. 215-898-3900.