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Celebrity Series starts 2023 with powerhouse dance performances

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Celebrity Series starts 2023 with powerhouse dance performances
A dancer performs in LaTasha Barnes’ “The Jazz Continuum.” PHOTO: STEVEN PISANO

Celebrity Series welcomes 2023 this month with two groundbreaking dance performances by award-winning women choreographers of color: Stefanie Batten Bland’s “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner,” performed by Company SBB January 14-15, and LaTasha Barnes’ “The Jazz Continuum,” running January 19-21.

“Look Who’s Coming to Dinner” was inspired by the 1967 film of similar name wherein two families come to terms with the interracial marriage of their children. Batten Bland says her narrative theatrical dance piece is something of a sequel to the film.

Choreographer Stefanie Batten Bland PHOTO: CHRISTAAN FELBER

“I think we know quite well who’s coming to our doors and our homes,” says Batten Bland. “I think we have our biases and our ways in which we react to our fears. To me, it’s more about looking at them fully and clearly than looking at who’s coming.”

The performance utilizes movement, music and some dialogue to illustrate a dinner party to which a guest arrives. As the piece goes on, relations are suggested between characters, and the table they eat at morphs into walls, doors and screens, moving the plot forward. “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner” pulls on the same themes as the film, those of race, family and the ongoing search for commonality. Though it’s been decades since the film’s release, the themes are still very much in play.

Company SBB performs “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner.” PHOTO: CARLOS CARDONA

“Nothing’s changed, unfortunately,” says Batten Bland. “We seem to just shift around labeling and compartmentalization to exclude a group or groups for whatever seems to suit our purpose or our hierarchical status.”

At one point in every performance, there is a breaking of the fourth wall, during which performers and audience members engage in the practice of sharing something, similar to breaking bread together. This connection aims to get the audience involved in a more tangible way and to encourage the theatergoers to examine their own biases and initiate dialogues about them.

Members of Company SBB perform “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner.” PHOTO: CARLOS CARDONA

“What strikes me is that the film does speak to a very specific classicism in terms of who has access to education,” says Batten Bland. “I think that will be interesting for the Boston community, because the more we have access to education, the more we have a right to question and interrogate ideas and systems — and that’s what this piece does.”

“The Jazz Continuum” similarly pulls on arts from the past. The joyful performance examines the development of American jazz and Black social dance styles. Barnes says the idea of a music continuum struck her when she and her father would identify melodies or beats that were utilized in multiple pieces of music across time periods. Finding these threads revealed how genres are built up over time using similar tools, with each musician inspiring others.

LaTasha Barnes and ensemble member performing in “The Jazz Continuum.” PHOTO: STEVEN PISANO

“As I explored this within music first, thanks to my dad, it ultimately led to the deeper exploration of this phenomena within dance as well,” says Barnes. “Not just in terms of shape recognition to identify steps of specific dance styles in presentation with one another, but also aiming to recognize intention, power applications, flow and other aspects of the dance forms across genres.”

The ensemble performance takes audiences through dance and music styles from jazz and the Lindy hop to hip-hop and waacking. Like jazz, the performance centers on improvisation, and both the musicians and the dancers feed off each other and the energy in the room to craft their performances. The audience, the musicians and the dancers are all working within and feeding into that same artistic continuum.

LaTasha Barnes performing in “The Jazz Continuum.” PHOTO: STEVEN PISANO

“Our offering to the continuum, which is what we intend for these presentations to be, we do with the hope that it will inspire those in witness of it to give back what they feel from the stage,” says Barnes. “Whether the feelings are in celebration, lament, empowerment or overwhelming joy, the hope would be for those of us onstage to feel what they are feeling.”

Barnes is a U.S. Army veteran, and she says she applies many of the leadership and management skills she learned in service in her dance career. While in Boston, she will host workshops for veterans as well as a series of events meant to engage the swing and street dance communities during her multi-day residency at the Dance Complex.

Both Batten Bland and Barnes are exploring important themes, from collective artistic legacy to conscious and unconscious societal biases, in beautifully developed ensemble works. Seen in tandem just a week apart, the performances are sure to provoke deep thought and long-lasting emotions.

“Stefanie and LaTasha are powerhouse talents with unique visions, unbeatable resumes and undeniable talent,” says Celebrity Series President and Executive Director Gary Dunning. “But in back-to-back performances in January, they form what I’m certain will be the most exciting dance week Boston has seen in a long time.”

arts, dance, LaTasha Barnes, music, Stefanie Batten Bland