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Raphael Xavier blends jazz and breaking in ‘The Musician & The Mover’ at ICA

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

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Raphael Xavier blends jazz and breaking in ‘The Musician & The Mover’ at ICA
Raphael Xavier performs “The Musican & the Mover” with Chris La Plante (left) and Joshua Culbreath PHOTO: GARRET PARKER

Moving the street-honed art of breaking to the stage, choreographer and dancer Raphael Xavier brings his evening-length work “The Musician & The Mover” to the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston this weekend. 

Global Arts Live presents this Boston premiere of the program, which Xavier choreographed during a New York Live Arts Live Feed residency. “The Musician & The Mover” is performed by three breakers, including Xavier, who also directs the show, and a jazz quartet. At the ICA, Xavier, Emily Pietruszka, and Joshua Culbreath will share the stage with pianist Sumi Tonooka, bassist Jocko MacNelly, percussionist Kimpedro Rodriguez, and saxophonist Bobby Zankel. 

A breaker for almost 40 years, Xavier, 51, has continued to adapt the dance form that he discovered while in middle school. “I saw breaking on ‘Soul Train’ for the first time,” he said in a recent interview. “When I started, I couldn’t stop. It was like a puzzle. I keep doing it because there’s always something new to move to or figure out. Now that I’m older, I have to adapt to my body changing. And my mind of course.”

Raphael Xavier PHOTO: BRIAN MENGINI

A 2013 Pew Fellowship grantee, a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2016 United States Artists Knight Fellow, Xavier has explored breaking as a choreographer and composer as well as a dancer. Based in Philadelphia, he lectures and performs worldwide and teaches breaking at Princeton University. Brenda Dixon Gottschild, professor emerita of dance studies at Temple University, has written that Xavier “transforms a bravado dance style into an introspective meditation.”

A turning point in Xavier’s career as a breaker — a dance form not known for longevity — was his stint as a member of Rennie Harris Puremovement. At age 28, Xavier was hired by Harris, the dance company’s revered founder, to join its European tour. “I wanted to take breaking into the theater,” says Xavier. “When I got involved with RHPM, I knew then it was possible.”

Xavier’s exploration of breaking includes development of a technique he calls Ground-Core, a practice he devised while healing from an injury. “When breaking, you’re already on the floor and can’t fall,” says Xavier. “From there you can learn what is possible — or not — while moving through space.”

Extending the reach of breaking with such works as “The Musician & The Mover,” Xavier is also changing the form. Instead of a pounding soundtrack, the dancers move to the nuanced expressiveness of live jazz. The hip-hop staple of battling, in which dancers compete for bragging rights, will gain a global showcase at the 2024 Olympics, which will introduce breakdancing as a sport. But at the ICA, says Xavier, “We’re not battling. We’re dancing. That’s where the maturity comes in.”

Mining the kinship of jazz and breaking, “The Musician & The Mover” offers something new. Both art forms began as African American improvisational street performances. “They are full of spontaneity and freestyle, individual approaches,” says Xavier, noting that for both performers and audiences, “You have to watch and listen.”

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