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Winter Arts Preview

After all these years, Rennie Harris’s classic hip-hopera ‘Rome and Jewels’ leaves space for improvisation

Rennie Harris Puremovement will perform "Rome & Jewels" as part of Global Arts Live's 2023 Winter Dance Fest.JHsu Media

Dubbed by Dance Magazine as the “high-priest of hip-hop,” Rennie Harris has emerged over the past three decades as arguably the preeminent, most highly respected ambassador of “street” dance (street being slang for community). “Rennie is seminal in bringing hip-hop and street dance to stages across the world,” says Global Arts Live founder and director of artistic programs Maure Aronson. “He made that first leap to taking the art form and creating theatrical productions.” In addition, Harris is a committed educator, creating platforms to preserve and share hip-hop’s culture and roots.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of his groundbreaking company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, the choreographer is remounting the 2000 work that launched his international fame, the Bessie Award-winning “Rome and Jewels.” Harris’s first full-evening work reinvents Shakespeare’s timeless tale of love, prejudice, and violence as a kind of “hip-hopera” of dance and spoken word unfolding between two rival families on the streets of his native Philadelphia. Global Arts Live presents “Rome and Jewels” at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre Jan. 28.

The Globe caught up with the 59-year-old Harris by phone in California, where he was visiting his daughters before taking “Rome and Jewels” on the road.


Q. It’s exciting that you’re remounting “Rome and Jewels” and bringing it back to Boston. I saw the Dance Umbrella presentation here more than 20 years ago shortly after its premiere. Looking back, what does this work mean for you?

A. It was definitely a step up and brought a lot of attention to the company, put us on the international playing field so to speak. People started to see us differently, that street dance could hold down a narrative and be more than 10 minutes. All [my] work before was leading to that, kind of a culmination of what I learned in the first 10 years of the company — the aesthetic, the texture I learned to create with the movement itself. I introduced the idea of street dance theater versus street dance production. We’re gonna go through range of emotions.


Q. Have you updated the work for this restaging?

A. It really has not changed. I’ve just remounted it with a few edits because a few of the original guys couldn’t do it, so I’m using some of my company members. I do have some new projections, so you’ll get a bump in visuals. We did it like with Band-Aids and peanut butter in the day.

Q. Of the 12 dancers, five were in the original 2000 cast as was one of the two DJs. So you’ve got some continuity plus some fresh energy and new skills?

A. It’s fun having the [original] guys and girls back together. … My company now is a little younger and faster, so it’s funny to watch in rehearsals the older guys keeping up. That’s the best process, two generations coming together, the younger cast stoking the fire and pushing.

Q. Your choreography is tightly constructed, but you also let the dancers creatively breathe, yes?

A. It’s choreographed, but they can improvise. If they mess up, the charge is to do a solo and make it look good. But the most important part is that some of the dancers might not be tight the way people are used to in the jazz hip-hop of today. It’s more old school, 1980s style. The swag will be there, but it’s more hip-hop proper, [which] allows you to put your own signature on it. Street dance in general has always been about individuality, creativity, and innovation. As long as I keep the timing and the rhythm, I can do it slightly differently. I’m not going for everyone to be in unison at the same time. When I see the jazz style that people call hip-hop today — very western and together, syncopated — to me, it’s not culturally sound hip-hop.


Q. The original inspiration for “Rome and Jewels” was actually the movie “West Side Story,” right?

A. I loved the story and the dancing, but I thought it would have been better with actual street dancing. Like nobody is breaking? And later, I realized it was a modern-day “Romeo and Juliet.”

Q. And yet, we never see Jewels?

A. Originally, I created a work with no monologue or dialogue, just straight dance. Then I worked on it again and it was about three warring families, one all women. [When] something happened with the girl playing Jewels, I got rid of the family of women and realized we don’t need Jewels. She is a figment of [Rome’s] imagination. He is objectifying her. Jewels is this pie in the sky thing, [there are] all these other reasons for who this person could be. Maybe Rome is having a breakdown, tripping in his head?

Q. You conceived and wrote it, with Ozzie Jones, d. Sabela Grimes, Rodney Mason, and Raphael Xavier contributing, too, and text combines the Elizabethan cadence of Shakespeare with colloquial street talk.


A. Originally, I was writing Shakespeare word for word but having colloquial monologues and dialogues. What Rodney Mason did was naturally fuse the two. He really kicked that off. Then he and Sabela began to throw poetry in the middle of dialogues. It was so amazing and it made sense, poetry and slang messed all together.

Q. In the program notes, you call the title “an encoded jab at the hip-hop community. Rome = Roam, Jewels = jewelry.” Can you elaborate?

A. Hip-hop culture went from a traditional honoring to becoming about money and capitalism, wearing gold, showing off, searching for the Holy Grail. But actually the Holy Grail is within you. Rome says it at the end, “I am Fortune’s fool.” That really kind of sums it up. … It’s about money and power, but Rome also makes it about love.


Presented by Global Arts Live at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Jan. 28. Tickets $48-$69. 617-876-4275,

Karen Campbell can be reached at