“When jazz musicians get older, they get wiser. When breakers get older, they get out.” That’s Raphael Xavier, who’ll turn 51 next month, musing on the plight of the mature breakdancer. The last time Global Arts Live brought Xavier to the Institute of Contemporary Art, in 2016, it was for the world premiere of “Point of Interest,” in which, at 45, he was already exploring what he could still do. Now he’s back for the Boston premiere of “XAVIER’S: The Musician & the Mover,” and though he hasn’t stopped exploring, he’s added jazz musicians to the mix. The show doesn’t quite come into focus, but as always with Xavier, there’s plenty to engage the eye and the ear.
It’s the musicians, in fact, who open the hour-long proceedings. Sumi Tonooka (piano), Jocko MacNelly (bass guitar), Kimpedro Rodriguez (drums), and Bobby Zankel (saxophone) have a good five minutes to themselves. The set (music by “Raphael Xavier and Musicians”) is heavy on honking sax and pounding drums to start; eventually Tonooka weighs in with some intense chording and MacNelly gets a chance to shine.
The first sign of any dancing is a red sneaker backing in from the wings stage right. It’s Xavier, and he’s carrying, with great effort, a chest. There are already chests on stage, and in the course of the show Xavier and the other two dancers, Joshua Culbreath and Emily Pietruszka, push them about the stage, breathing heavily, as if the weight of the world were in them. Already the presence of those chests signals that “The Musician & the Mover” is about more than music and dance.
And then there’s the poetry, by “Xavier and Mr. Lei,” a running narrative spoken by Xavier that alludes to the history of African-Americans as people and as musicians. We hear that the chests are “receptacles for the deposit of wasted thought,” and “It’s always easier to take another route when the sidewalk is closed,” and “You see, we bridged the gap and they burned the bridges.” For all that everything is clearly spoken, these ideas flash by so quickly, you might wish for surtitles. On the other hand, there’s no mistaking the piped-in snippets from an auction of enslaved people.
Xavier starts off the dancing with a solo in which he seems to be wrestling with his arms and shadow-boxing with his feet. He begins what will be the show’s centerpiece by saying, “When I first stepped into a ring of spectators.” Is this an auction ring? A breakdancing ring? Yes, but it’s also a boxing ring. Xavier, Culbreath, and Pietruszka jab with the left and hide behind former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson’s peekaboo defense. They skip rope while breaking; they get knocked down and dragged off to their corner. Culbreath, who was part of the 2016 “Point of Interest” cast, does some spectacular floorwork; earlier he had cavorted over and around a chest without touching it, like a gymnast on the pommel horse. Pietruszka has her own loose-jointed, more robotic solo.
The musicians accompany with panache, but though Xavier has linked jazz and breaking as “African-American improvisational street forms” and has cited jazz drummer Max Roach’s 1983 concert with the New York City Breakers, there wasn’t the kind of give and take we saw between tapper Ayodele Casel and pianist Arturo O’Farrill at the ART last month, just musicians and dancers performing together. The star here is Xavier. He can still flip from his back to his feet, but the point of interest, as it was in 2016, is how, easy and accomplished, he manages to look like the Baryshnikov of breaking. Xavier has said he wants to show that as they get older, breakers can get better. In “The Musician & the Mover,” he does just that.
“XAVIER’S: The Musician & the Mover”
Choreographed and directed by Raphael Xavier. Presented by Global Arts Live. At: Institute of Contemporary Art, Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, Friday Nov. 19. Remaining performance: Nov. 20. Tickets $44-$48, 617-876-4275, www.globalartslive.org.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.