As jazz music was evolving in the early 20th century, people were moved by it and moved to it. Early jazz dances like the Charleston and the Lindy Hop emerged as a response to swing music and, like their musical counterpart, celebrated energetic improvisation using vocabulary rooted in West African and African American aesthetics. In the 1940s, the music took a sharp new turn: the art form moved into the era of bebop, the modern, virtuosic and up-tempo style that critics complained “you can’t dance to.” While bebop musicians cleverly retorted that maybe “you can’t dance to it,” the critics were right that the tight bond which made jazz music and jazz dance inseparable was starting to loosen.
Jazz music expanded to mean many different styles. What is considered jazz dance did too, transitioning to the concert stage and most popularly to the commercial Broadway stage. Despite its myriad of new directions, jazz music maintained its distinguishing characteristic: It is an improvisational art form. When we think of jazz dance, however, besides the early forms like Lindy Hop, we tend to think of meticulously rehearsed and staged dance, often performed to pop music (and if jazz, rarely jazz music post-1950) and lacking any improvisational component. Some contemporary choreographers, such as Jamar Roberts of the Ailey Company, are using recorded or arranged compositions of post-swing jazz for thoughtful and intricate pieces for the stage. These pieces, however, at least to my knowledge, are not (and don’t claim to be) inherently improvisational. The question then arises, if Lindy Hop and swing dancing were the companions to early 20th century jazz music, what are the dance companions to post-swing jazz and the jazz of today?
For Raphael Xavier, one answer is breaking. A former Pew and Guggenheim Fellow and near 40-year breaking veteran who danced with Rennie Harris’s Puremovement dance company, Xavier highlighted the similarities between breaking and jazz in his multi-disciplinary work “The Musician & The Mover,” which ran March 3-5 at New York Live Arts.
“The Musician & The Mover” featured three dancers (Martha Bernabel, Joshua Culbreath, and Xavier, himself) paired with a quartet of jazz musicians (Sumi Tonooka, Richard Hill, Kimpedro Rodriguez, and Bobby Zankel) who were set up behind the dancers onstage. The musicians opened the evening with a dissonant funk groove. Soon after, the dancers entered, and Xavier began to speak: “The musician and The mover/ Who Arrange both tone and rhythm in color/ Are an Interpretation of sculpture from ash and chaos,” he said.
Throughout the piece, Xavier recites this poem written by himself and Leigh Nelson, which explores the roles of musician and mover, the relationship between the two, and their relationship to American society and the African American experience. The musician and the mover both have “A Prolific ability to build from the ground up and change the rules and moods to mode/ To change the tone, change the chord, change the movement to define the age of America,” Xavier said.
Breaking and jazz developed in two different ages of America, though from similar histories. Breaking emerged about 70 years after jazz did, beginning in the 1970s, and it is most often associated with hip hop music and culture. Like jazz, however, breaking was developed by African Americans and was created in communal, social spheres; it is considered a street dance style. Like jazz, breaking has roots in the African diaspora, particularly in rhythm and improvisation, and freestyling.
The piece develops with two scenarios, the first of which is an auction. We hear the sounds of an auctioneer speaking at lightning speed, to which the dancers respond with intricate footwork on the floor and standing. “Souls for sale,” recites Xavier, “Blues people are blacks people/ Here is your call and response / Buy in / Sell out / Sold off / Cell.”
Xavier is a clear speaker and impressively so, as he speaks after physically demanding phrases of breaking. As a dancer he is powerful, displaying a mastery of transitions, balancing on his head and hands, and occasionally allowing his exhaustion to show in a very natural way that emphasizes the power of both his movement and speech. The poem is well-crafted, with clever wording which follows a compelling stream of consciousness. During the performance, these poetic nuances unfortunately can be lost, as the music and dancing is equally as captivating. As a writer covering the piece, I was privy to the poem, but it might be nice to include the poem in the program for future performances, so that the audience could have my same opportunity to sit with the words afterward.
The following two sections are about a fight. The dancers move together in a square ring of light (lighting by Chris Hudacs, which really helped to provide clarity) with punching movements and illusions of training, like jumping rope. The connection to the music, throughout the piece, was remarkable—a few places in particular, such as the jumping rope which mimicked the rebounding reverberation of the drums in that moment, provided a visual representation of the music, not in a trite way, and not just rhythmically, either, but viscerally. At the beginning, when Xavier says the musician and mover define the age of America, he says it “Is Now a matter of mortar and pestle” and mimes a grinding motion. He says this to the sound of brushes on the snare drum, and it was like seeing the sound waves in the air before you.
In this section, each dancer has a chance to solo. While all three dancers were impressive and musical, Joshua Culbreath, the lithe and breath-taking virtuoso, stole the show. Culbreath glided up and down and across the stage on just his hands, then spun on his head. He flipped and turned with a control so acute of his body that he could totally release himself in moments that appeared both gravity-induced and gravity-defying.
The three dancers come together in the end, and the poem ends tragically: “Those cool cats lived in dog years,” Xavier says, perhaps referring to jazz greats of the 20th century. “Sometimes territory marked in tears/ We bridged the gap and they burned the bridges/ Stranded.” Alluding to the beginning of the poem in which the musician and the mover are described as sculptors, the last line, “And the concrete slabs became blank headstones” is heart-wrenching. Is that it? we wonder. Unless, returning to the middle of the piece, before the auction, we remember the following words: “We didn’t come here / We arrived / A story non-linear.” Maybe, then, the end is not the end, but only one stage in this non-linear narrative. Maybe the narrative is actually a continuous present, as hinted in the first section of the fight: “So I laid back / and took the music in / and quivered with the fight / quivered with the love for life / and back pedal to go at it again.” An expression of a particular moment can also be a reflection of an enduring history, be it of jazz or hip hop, or of America. The ability to express all of this spontaneously is the mystery and power of jazz; Xavier demonstrated that this, too, can be the mystery and power of breaking.