As someone who's been dancing his entire life, Rennie Harris conveys a notion of dance that is based in day-to-day reality. "Your whole day is improvisational," he says. "You deal with what comes to you in that moment." With Rome & Jewels, his "hip-hop ballet" that's been touring sold-out theaters around the world, the reality that director/choreographer Harris presents is one of the street -- particularly the streets of Philadelphia as experienced by young African-American men.
In spite of the title, Harris insists this is not a modernized Romeo and Juliet. Still, the performance mixes Elizabethan text with Ebonics, and the Capulets and Montagues are now the breakdancing Caps and the hip-hop-dancing Monster Q's.
But the true source of Harris' concept is West Side Story, he says, which he first saw at age 14. "I decided I could do a better job," he explains. For years he played with the idea of doing a hip-hop interpretation of the musical. But at some point, Rome & Jewels took on a life of its own, with the dance and narrative evolving as Harris added new layers to the performance using text, DJs' turntable mixes and even live video feed. An even more notable departure from the original story line is the physical absence of Jewels, who is seen only through Rome's eyes.
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With the focus shifted to Rome, who is caught up in the battles between the Caps and Monster Q's, Harris' piece refers not only to the realities of gang wars, but to a bigger sense of struggle. In the case of hip-hop gaining a presence in the vast world of theater, Harris says Rome & Jewels is "serving its purpose."