LaTasha Barnes: Let the Circle of Influence Be Unbroken
In a joyous program at the Joyce Theater, Barnes and company show the relationships among Black social dance forms. It’s all connected, and it’s all jazz.
Oct. 12, 2022 The Jazz Continuum NYT Critic’s Pick
At the beginning of “The Jazz Continuum” on Tuesday, Melanie George, the work’s MC and dramaturge, walked out onto the stage of the Joyce Theater to introduce the “beautiful Black show” we were about to see.
In a bright green jumpsuit, sequined jacket and strappy heels — dramaturgy has never looked so fabulous — she spoke about the dance ancestors at the root of the evening’s performance: people like the pioneering Lindy Hoppers Norma Miller and Frankie Manning, the house dance innovator Marjory Smarth and the early 20th-century jazz entertainer Earl Tucker, known as Snakehips. She also introduced, one by one, the 15 dancers and musicians gathered around the stage. With this simple recognition of performers past and present, the continuum of the show’s title was already coming into view.
In the joyous and riveting hour that followed, we would glimpse traces of those summoned ancestors, the ways they moved, revived and remixed in the dancers’ bodies with astonishing fluency. Distinctions between genres dissolved: the weaving, swiveling footwork of house flowering into the buoyant steps of Lindy Hop; locking, breaking and voguing jostling with salsa and samba. Envisioned and directed by the out-of-this-world dancer LaTasha Barnes, “The Jazz Continuum” emerged from her interest in the relationships — and imposed boundaries — among Black social dance forms. All of it is connected, she demonstrates, and all of it is jazz.
At the outset, George advised us to view “The Jazz Continuum” not as a performance for an audience but as an invitation into a social dance and music space. Backed by a spectacular live band, with lush vocals by the musical director Charles Turner, the dancers often return to a circular formation at the center of the stage. Sometimes tightly huddled, sometimes looser, they allow free-styling movement to pass from body to body like an electrical pulse. In this way, they dance for and with one another as much as they address the audience, generating a communal energy that emanates out. Suspended above them, interlocking rings of light suggest other circles past and future.
In another kind of circularity, dance and music become one. The dancers make visible the sound, a seamless selection of jazz, house, hip-hop and R&B; the musicians get up and dance. (George dances, too, impressively, in those high-high heels.) With a couple of emphatic notes, Christopher McBride, on saxophone, blows two groups of dancers to the ground. The gruff scratching of a turntable, courtesy of the DJ Britney Brown (also known as Bizzy) jolts through the lanky frame of Alain Lauture (also known as Hurrikane). Turner’s playful scatting seems to animate Michele Byrd-McPhee’s similarly scatting feet. Each dancer brings something special to the mix of holding and honoring so many sources at once.
To single out Barnes feels almost antithetical to the spirit of “The Jazz Continuum,” given its communal emphasis. But her brilliance must be noted, especially as it manifests in one improvised duet with Turner, inspired by a Norma Miller routine, “The Queen Swings Basie/Trickeration.” As Turner breaks down the chorus of “Just One of Those Things,” Barnes becomes a flickering image of her many influences, as she channels those before her into something singular, very much her own.
While she could certainly keep stealing the spotlight, Barnes chooses not to. At the end of the show on Tuesday, she bent down and touched the feet of each of her fellow performers: a gesture of gratitude and a blessing, maybe, to carry on the work in their own ways.
LaTasha Barnes: “The Jazz Continuum”
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.