To most students, the rough urban streets of Philadelphia bear no resemblance to the landscapes of 16th century England, but to Rennie Harris, the founder and director of the Puremovement dance company, the two might as well be neighbors. This weekend, those two worlds will merge at the Power Center, as UMS gives Ann Arbor the opportunity to experience its first “hip-hopera,” “Rome & Jewels.”
Inspired by, but only loosely based on, “West Side Story” and Baz Luhrman”s film “Romeo + Juliet,” the dance performance will retell the classic Shakespearean play, combining Elizabethan language, rap verse and hip-hop choreography. While “West Side Story” features the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, “Rome & Jewels” pits the “Monster Q”s” (the “b-boy” family) against the “Caps” (the “hip-hop” family).
Here, real life urban demons like teen sex and adolescent gang violence force everyone to take sides in the ongoing family feud. Harris has said, “People like to look at them as gangs I characterize them as family. If you ask a gang member about it, they say “family first.””
The families in “Rome & Jewels” are distinguished by their style of clothing, their music and their very movement. The “b-boys” and “b-girls” are characterized by dynamic break dancing, which is mostly acrobatic floor work done on bodily supports other than feet. The hip-hop family is more verbal and political, but displays an array of stylized social dances, creating a duel not only between two rival gangs, but also between two competing dance styles.
These dance styles are performed by the famous Puremovement dance company, a Philadelphia-based group founded in 1992, dedicated to preserving and disseminating hip-hop culture through workshops, classes, hip-hop history lecture-demonstrations, long term residencies, mentoring programs and public performances. The company is committed to providing audiences with a sincere view of the essence and spirit of hip-hop rather than the commercially exploited stereotypes portrayed by the media.
While Harris had originally intended to tell the tragic story through dance alone, he was intrigued by the possibility of fusing Shakespeare”s rich, Elizabethan language with the body language of hip-hop. To him, this was not only a way to blend together two forms of poetry, but also to blend together two groups of people. Elizabethan verse and rap have been thought of as mutually exclusive when it comes to readership, oftentimes considered symbols of high and low art, respectively. The synthesis of the two in “Rome & Jewels” proves both the compatibility of the two art forms and the legitimate expressiveness of hip-hop.
Harris finds the power of this compatibility in history, having observed that Shakespeare was a poet of the people, writing for an audience that he characterized as “the scourge of the earth.” Both hip-hop and Shakespeare, Harris has said, “are about tragedy, love and death.” Shakespeare knew that the way to captivate people was through rhyme and rap employs a similar technique for a similar audience. The success of “Rome & Jewels,” which has sold out in 90 percent of its stops, can attest to that.