Review: Raphael Xavier, Getting Out of the Boxes, Barely

As choreographer Rennie Harris established decades ago, the dance language of hip-hop – developed in the streets and in battle – can be ...


As choreographer Rennie Harris established decades ago, the dance language of hip-hop – developed in the streets and in battle – can be as broadly and deeply expressive as any other dance form. He showed that it can be transferred to the stage, and also transformed into a metaphor.

Raphael Xavier, a former member of Harris’ company, Puremovement, is following in his footsteps. In “The Musician & the Mover,” which had its New York premiere at New York Live Arts on Thursday, Xavier has something to say with and about B-boying. He just couldn’t find the most forceful way to say it.

There is more than one mover in the show. Xavier, who is 51, is joined by two talented young dancers, Joshua Culbreath and Martha Bernabel. And rather than one musician, there are four: a quartet of accomplished jazz artists, playing mostly in a post-bop vein. Xavier is also a poet, and the cryptic and highly condensed poetry he recites is the dominant voice of the production.

If Xavier begins by talking about the musician, the moving and an addiction to art, he soon moves on to his primary concern: what bothers (the critical voices in the head, the weight and wounds of the story ). It introduces the metaphors of the box, the auction and the boxing ring.

Alongside poetry, these metaphors take physical form. The dancers carry boxes and push them across the stage. They dance briefly to the voice of an auctioneer. They take turns pretending to fight an invisible opponent. In each mode, the dynamic is Sisyphus: push the squares to one side and then back again. Get knocked down and get back up to fight again. And again and again.

But these choreographic concepts are bare bones, and what they contain is largely incomplete and uninviting. The dance is strangely imprecise, superficial, without juice. The B-boy idiom itself seems locked in, inhibited. There’s not much music in the movers, and the music – even with heavy percussionist Kimpedro Rodriguez on the bass drum – doesn’t help much. The moments where the dance and music are meant to be in sync aren’t exactly, and the unison points seem to only reveal how Xavier can’t quite keep up.

If all this is conceived as a representation of a frustrated art, it is too successful. Likewise, Xavier’s poetry seems to dance around a subject that has been obscured – something about his own struggle or perhaps the patterns of exploitation and neglect in the history of B-boying. Generalization and abstraction dissipate the impact of its message.

As a dance production, “The Musician & the Mover” picks up in a late solo for Culbreath during which he steps out of a light-defined box, breaking some B-boy power moves – spinning and sliding over his head – which are otherwise avoided in the choreography. But the most powerful part of the hour-long show is the solo that follows, for Xavier.

Here, finally, the language of B-boying begins to speak, and through the body of a man who has been doing it for almost 40 years. On the ground, he twists and freezes, his weight on his elbows and head, legs in the air. Slowness and parsimony, visible effort, become expressive. As he spirals on his shoulders and back, his legs trace patterns on the ground, his movements leaving sweaty shapes. These shapes are not boxes. These are circles.

Raphael Xavier
Through Saturday at New York Live Arts; newyorklivearts.org.

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