Rennie Harris pops

A man in a black outfit stands on a black stage in the dark. A beam from above encircles him in white light. Everything else is void. He’s “popping,” a strobe effect that makes him appear to bounce. He dances slowly, quietly, to a recording of his breath and heartbeat. “Molestation is as American as apple pie,” he says, and the audience gasps. “Would you like a piece? I’ve already had mine.” Gasps. “I thought so,” and he laughs. 

This is Rennie Harris, the creativity, the energy and the spirit of Rennie Harris Puremovement, a leading hip-hop dance company with a predominantly male cast. “Not just theatrics,” says Harris. “We’re taking the hiphop form to the fine arts circle. Our work educates people about hiphop, its culture, its expressiveness and its spirit.”

About the company that performs at the Smithsonian, in Belfast and in Venice, the choreographer says, “My goal is to perform more often here in Philly than across the country and around the world. I want to educate kids, create more work for the company and build awareness and appreciation of hip-hop.” 

Puremovement faces the challenge of “Convincing everyone -- the audience, the staff, the dancers -- that I know what I’m doing,” he says. “Now is the time to restructure and strengthen the foundation of the company. I’m 39 years old, and I need more foresight, especially if I want to go back and affect my Philadelphia community. 

“Which I do. I need to look at our next 15 years. We’re beginning to do some strategic planning. I need to see on paper what my options are and where I can go. I need to assess whether I have the means to do what I want to do. On one level, I need to hire an office manager.” Harris balances these business and planning needs against his wishes for enhanced artistic freedom.

Rennie Harris’ Puremovement faces the same challenge as every other cultural organization in America today: planning a durable future without the stalwart financial backing of the past. Why is this situation recurring now? Let us count the ways. 

Performing arts organizations count on subscription revenue. But people are “cocooning,” especially since September 11, 2001, with audiences watching reruns more and live concerts less, and subscriptions have fallen from 65 percent to 45 percent. 

There’s fallout, too, from the national economic recession, which has adversely affected organizations’ investments; individuals’ portfolios and gifts; and government and foundation endowments, investments and grants. 

As a result, arts institutions are enjoying less earned income and receiving fewer and smaller contributions. Unfortunately, because of the downturn, many foundations are donating less money and only to organizations they have formerly funded. So leaders of theatrical companies and museums need to be creative in earning and raising money in order to keep their doors open. These are the stories of three organizations that are involved in strategic planning so they can keep their doors open. 

A man in a black outfit stands on a black stage in the dark -- hoping, perhaps, for a financial windfall. 

This piece was written for the annual report of the William Penn Foundation.