Tossing and Catching Rhythms on Stages and City Streets


One day about 10 years ago, the dancer Jermone Donte Beacham received a message from a stranger on YouTube. He ignored it, but the stranger kept trying to contact him. Finally he decided to write back.

The stranger (now friend) was the choreographer Jumatatu M. Poe, who had come across videos of Mr. Beacham performing J-Sette, an exacting, exuberant dance form that emerged in the early 1980s among majorette teams at historically black colleges. Originally danced only by women, the form took on a parallel life among queer black men, practiced in competitive squads at gay clubs and pride parades, where gender binaries could more safely be broken.

In the decade since their YouTube meeting, Mr. Poe and Mr. Beacham have been developing “Let ’im Move You,” a prodigious, joyous, sensual and deeply considered exploration of J-Sette, made up of multiple parts: some for theaters and galleries, some for nightclubs and city streets. Over nine days this month, the series moved through the Bronx and the Lower East Side, in and around BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance) and Abrons Arts Center, at times stopping traffic.

The story of how the two met, as told by Mr. Beacham, appears in a companion publication to “This Is a Formation,” the latest part of the project, which had its New York City premiere at Abrons on Thursday. “I am scared, even as I am courageous, to share something that I have nurtured with such precious attention for years,” Mr. Poe writes in its opening pages.

While this attention can be felt throughout all parts of “Let ’im Move You,” the work itself is not exceedingly precious. In a form that prizes precision and unison, the artists experiment with ceding control, making room for spontaneity, imperfection, the freedom to fall apart. They pose weighty questions with a light touch: How do you translate a practice developed in stadiums and nightclubs into a black box theater or a public park? What does it mean to present a queer black form before contemporary dance audiences, who tend to be mostly white?

The first two parts of the series — “This Is a Success” and “A Study,” which were presented at Abrons in 2018 and returned to BAAD! on Oct. 4 — address that second question head-on. “We brought a whole lot of black people with us,” Mr. Poe said in his warm introduction, as a constellation of digital viewers popped up on the wall behind him. “In case you’re wondering if something is funny,” he added. “Or if you’re just in need of a black friend and yours isn’t here.”

Whose space is this? Who is this work for? Those questions arose again in “Intervention,” a procession through the Lower East Side on Wednesday. Wherever “Let ’im Move You” goes, it brings this free outdoor component, a kind of roving rejoinder to the insularity of the theater.

Like “Success,” “Study” and “Formation,” “Intervention” plays with the call-and-response structure of J-Sette, in which a leader demonstrates phrases for others to follow. In bright pink knee-high socks paired with wintry layers, seven dancers (later joined by a small cohort of local high school students), staked out entire blocks, signaling to one another with swiping arms, arching backs and winding hips, then suddenly sprinting to a new location. They seemed to be tossing and catching complex rhythmic messages, at once cryptic (to an outsider) and absorbing.

A small audience followed the procession, but this was just as much a work for the unsuspecting city: for whoever happened to be sitting in a cafe window or riding by on the M14 bus. The city, in return, supplied the soundtrack: “Dancing Queen” blasting from a car window; a chorus of rush-hour horns.

While “Intervention” began unannounced, “Formation” opened with an abundance of introductions, as performers escorted small groups of audience members into the Experimental Theater at Abrons. The dancer William Robinson thanked my group for being there and reminded us that we were creating the work together, then introduced us to each collaborator.

We would, after all, be intimately sharing space over the next two hours, free to roam around the black-box stage — and dance if we wanted — as the performers called and responded to DJ Zen Jefferson’s infectious mix of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Mariah Carey and more. Motifs from previous installments resurfaced: couples slowly, tenderly enmeshing between hard-hitting, exhilarating group sections; dancers filming themselves on their phones. (Audience members, at select “selfie moments,” could do the same.)

And as in other parts of the series, more performers emerged from the audience as the show progressed; Mr. Poe and Mr. Beacham recruit local dancers wherever they tour, bolstering their core ensemble. (Next year will take them to Austin, Cincinnati, Washington, Chicago and Portland.) By the time “Formation” broke out of the theater and onto the steps outside Abrons, the cast had just about doubled in size. In this way, the work seems to ripple out beyond its originators, with no limits to what it can contain.


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