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“The Jazz Continuum” at Jacob's Pillow. Photograph by Jamie Kraus

All That Jazz

LaTasha Barnes' “The Jazz Continuum” at the Joyce Theater

Performance
“The Jazz Continuum” by LaTasha Barnes
Place
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, October 11, 2022
Words
Cecilia Whalen

LaTasha Barnes was dancing the Lindy Hop before she even knew it. In a 2021 interview with the New York Times, Barnes, who has come to international acclaim for her excellent performances in jazz and hiphop styles, said that the first time she tried Lindy partnering, her body already knew what to do. “I’ve felt this before,” she said, and, after consulting her grandmother, learned that she had actually been doing those moves since childhood.

Barnes hadn’t known what the dance was then—her family had never specified the grooves with which they celebrated at social gatherings—but her body was familiar with it. This was a revelation. Not only did she hold within her dance history, but she began to recognize similarities between this and the newer Black dance forms that she was practicing currently, such as house and popping. Lindy Hop was actually not dance history, but dance present. And every other dance that she was doing, well, “it was all jazz.”

“The Jazz Continuum” at Jacob’s Pillow. Photograph by Jamie Kraus

This is the inspiration for Barnes’ “The Jazz Continuum,” which has now completed its run at the Joyce Theater. “The Jazz Continuum is a negotiation of Black dancers‘ and musicians‘ relationships to jazz and all the technologies they have also birthed,” she says. It is a seamless and exciting celebration of Black dance forms, including hiphop, house, vogue, samba, and, of course, jazz, performed by a group of dancers, brilliant in all of the above. Accompanied by a live jazz ensemble and a D.J., the dancers revel in community while respecting the individuality of each dancer in solo moments, who would break out, center themselves, and then let loose to the hollering and applause of their peers.

Like the show, Barnes has a varied embodied history. Family lore recounts Barnes moving in her mother’s womb to her father’s DJing. She continued dancing as a child for social occasions (as her grandmother reminded her). After high school, Barnes joined the U.S. Army and became a sergeant first class. She was a powerlifter and an athlete; then, after being hit by a car, she turned to dance as therapy, studying popping, then house, and other hiphop styles (which Barnes had already unknowingly experienced as a young person, too). She takes all of these with her when she dances today: She is light and high-flying as a Lindy Hopper, grounded and sharp when popping, in the pocket in house, and overall inseparable from a beat that evidently lives inside her. She is one of those special dancers where you know that what she’s dancing is true. As a performer, she has you in the palm of her hand.

LaTasha Barnes’ “The Jazz Continuum” at Jacob’s Pillow. Photograph by Jamie Kraus

Barnes has plenty of style and sass, and she likes to play around with her partners and the audience, turning around and pointing to her shaking booty or raising eyebrows before breaking into fast footwork. She can easily steal the show but knows that she is not what “The Jazz Continuum” is all about. Despite her lightheartedness, Barnes insists the dance is to be taken seriously: It demonstrates “our efforts to inhabit/embody [the continuum] generatively towards our next phase of being,” her artist statement reads. Acknowledging a responsibility to this inheritance, the dancers invest parts of themselves, “offering to the continuum something new,” in order to ensure its deliverance to future generations.

“The Jazz Continuum” is mission-driven and generous. In jazz tradition, it takes time to feature all of its dancers and musicians, as well as recognize the ancestors who made the project possible. After solos and ensemble moments, dancers would look up to the ceiling and sometimes raise a hand to the white, ringed, intertwined light fixture, a reminder of the clouds of witnesses who surround us.

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