Penn Live Arts Blog

Rennie Harris Residency in Area High Schools

Posted April 4, 2024

Image credit: Edward Epstein
In a basement dance studio at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science in North Philly, Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM) executive director and company manager Rodney Hill surveyed Geoffrey Winikur’s 11th grade class. They’d just completed a dance warmup led by Puremovement dancers Justine Diggs-Cunningham and Rachel Snider, building upon two weeks of improv games, conversation and monologue writing led by Penn Live Arts teaching artist Donnell Powell. The dancers’ visit was the third in a series of four visits to Carver and to West Philadelphia High School, comprising a school partnership in connection with our three-year Rennie Harris residency, sponsored by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Hill, a North Philly native himself, asked several students to share where they were from – neighborhoods, intersections, specific blocks. The answers popcorned back. He pressed them: what’s something you like about your neighborhood? What’s something you don’t like? The good: papi stores, community, the way people know and greet each other, family being close by, block parties. The bad: violence, trash.

The students’ answers built upon two previous sessions with Powell in which they explored how an object might represent something they valued or observed about their communities. Under his direction, students also began to develop monologues from the perspectives of those objects. With the arrival of Snider and Diggs-Cunningham, they focused on using hip hop dance vocabulary to pair movement with the emotional arcs of their writing.

While the company’s performances this season are part of Toll the Bell, a season-long project highlighting the challenges of gun violence in the city and nationwide, the school residency took a gentler approach, activating a range of creative modes to invite students to respond to what they noticed in their communities. Some observations naturally gravitated toward the problems adults might pick out as most salient, like violence; others focused on matters of personal concern to 16-year-olds, including money, sports, school and sleep.

The artists’ visits extend the model of our brand-new program which offers pre-performance visits to schools planning to attend a show in the Student Discovery Series, our long-running school-group matinee program. Philadelphia-area teaching artists learn about the themes, techniques and influences key to an upcoming performance and design a developmentally appropriate class plan to prepare and empower students for what they’ll see in the theatre. In the model developed in connection with RHPM, the number of visits increased and emphasized collaboration between company dancers and a PLA teaching artist. The program will continue throughout the company’s residency in the 24/25 and 25/26 seasons.

On March 22, students from both schools arrived at the Zellerbach Theatre along with the rest of a sold-out house to take in “The History of Hip Hop,” the company’s variable student performance program which highlights street dance movement vocabulary, dancers’ technical skill and perennial themes in Harris’s work such as police brutality and urban life.

In the case of both school partners, Penn programs were key to making the match: West Philadelphia High School is a University-Assisted Community School through the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, and West Philly dance teacher Dara Meredith has brought her students to Student Discovery programs throughout the season. Edward Epstein, Director of The Teachers Institute of Philadelphia, a Penn program that offers School District of Philadelphia teachers the opportunity to take seminars with Penn faculty during the school year, facilitated the partnership with Carver, identifying humanities teacher Geoffrey Winikur as an alum of a seminar on Black creative expression and as someone with a keen interest in Black culture, literature and performance.

Over the next two seasons, we look forward to deepening relationships with dancers, teaching artists, teachers and students, and to the inspiring ways students create their own responses to the themes driving Harris’s new work.

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