With moves that send the body spiraling onto the floor into head spins and convoluted pretzel-like twists, breaking (break dancing) is known as a young person’s game. But at age 50, Philadelphia-based breaker/choreographer Raphael Xavier has been making moves since before many of today’s hip-hop hot shots were even born. And along the way, he’s traded some virtuosity and bravado for provocative context, careful construction, post-modern flair, and thoughtful introspection.
“It’s a very demanding art form, but there’s so much maturity in [Xavier’s] movement, it’s magnificent to see,” says Maure Aronson, director of artistic programs for Global Arts Live. On Nov. 19 and 20, the organization presents the Boston premiere of the dancer’s latest work, “XAVIER’S: The Musician & The Mover” at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Choreographed, directed, and performed by Xavier, along with two other dancers and a live jazz quartet, the new work highlights the traditions of freestyle and improvisation in both breaking and jazz. Stories and spoken text tied together with poetry provide a loose contextual frame for the piece. Similar to “Point of Interest,” which Xavier premiered in Boston in 2016 and highlighted what he called the “natural, humorous, and at times painful change of the maturing breaker,” the new work explores the struggle to be noticed, notions of success, and ideas of aging.
Yet Xavier says he’s still learning and trying to find new ways to expand the dance vocabulary. “I’m trying to get people to see that this form can grow as the artist grows,” he says. “It has to. You have to mature with the form [like] tap dancers, jazz musicians [who] get better as they get older. … It’s a natural evolution. First you identify the things you cannot do anymore, and that’s painful. Ego is a monster. But by doing that, you can identify the things you can do and move in that direction, and it’s fresh all over again. The ideas, the approach, the aesthetic keep me excited. You look forward to performing and the audience looks forward [to seeing what you do].”
Xavier’s wide-ranging aesthetic goes well beyond traditional breaking to embrace other dance and social influences. “The actual definition of breaking is to take apart, decipher, decode, put it back together,” he says. “My approach to the movement will always be breaking, but it’s movement I’ve taken apart over the years and put back together in a way that had a better relationship to the music and the space that I was working in.”
The quartet’s pianist Sumi Tonooka, who has worked with Xavier for four years, calls the choreographer honest, intuitive, and direct. “Raphael’s genius is in his vision as an artist and a Black man, and he has a unique way of combining seemingly disparate elements and somehow making them work. … He’s open and always searching.”
Originally from Wilmington, Del., Xavier fell in love with hip-hop and breaking after seeing an episode of “Soul Train” when he was in middle school, inspiring him and his friends to develop their own moves. In 1997, he joined the groundbreaking hip-hop dance troupe Rennie Harris Puremovement, touring around the world for six years before starting his own company.
However, in 2007, a spinal infection left Xavier temporarily paralyzed for 12 weeks. The experience that left him completely demoralized and changed his perspective. But, he says, “dance kept tapping on my shoulder,” and as part of his recovery, he developed a series of body awareness exercises and a new movement vocabulary he calls Groundcore. He got a teaching job at UCLA and began creating new work incorporating all the things he was interested in. (Xavier is also a painter, photographer, writer, rapper, filmmaker, and composer.) His work began generating attention, and the awards, residencies, and grants started rolling in, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and, most recently, a National Dance Project and a film grant from Independence Public Media.
Xavier says this latest piece, which is partly improvised, partly choreographed, is deeply collaborative between dancers and musicians. “When I hear something they bring to the table, it pushes me to do something new,” he says. “We’re working off each other. It’s really a conversation, which musicians do all the time. They go off and riff then come back together, and I wanted to do that with dance, a little freestyle but with elements of choreography.”
“There are so many interesting points of connection,” Tonooka adds. “From a musical standpoint, it is stimulating and inspiring because [Xavier’s] creative process is inclusive. He has such great ideas but is also open to the ideas of others. This new work is universal and personal all at once, blurring the lines and breaking barriers between artistic genre, age, race, identity.”
Presented by Global Arts Live at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Nov. 19-20. Tickets $48. www.icaboston.org/calendar
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.