Raphael Xavier is known in Philly primarily as a dancer-choreographer, but his interests go in many other directions. Last fall, he hardly skipped a beat directing his creative energies while recovering from a back-leg alignment injury. In addition to dancing and choreographing, Xavier composes music, paints large abstract canvases, and is a performance poet and a stand-up comic.
Xavier said one feeds the other and looks to break down barriers in all of the allied arts and with dance in particular. Xavier will explain it all to his Philly audience (or at least as much as he wants us to know) in his upcoming FringeArts piece ‘The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance.’
“And it works visa-versa” Xavier intimated in an interview this month. He will be observing, sometimes intently, his audience too. The show was the result of a performance disaster at the Performance Garage in 2008, but has since developed into what he Xavier said in an interview earlier this month “the best work I’ve ever done.”
Sitting in his favorite neighborhood café in Queen’s Village on 9th St. Xavier was just returned from New York and performances at Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) where he was healthy and back onstage with his piece ‘Point of Interest’ which was a hit at Koresh’s 2015 Come Together festival.
He said he was also meeting with choreographers for future collaborations and with vocabulary distinctly different than his own. “I can take from them and visa-versa…to expand choreographically, that’s what I want to do with other artists,” he said.
It is an approach that he’s had since he played Tybalt in Rennie Harris’ groundbreaking Rome and Jewels in the late 90s, Xavier says, “When I was in Rome and Jewels it hit me that I could create something of my own,” he explained.
“The one thing about Rennie’s approach is that I knew he was already very different from anything else. I went into his company with a different mindset. What he taught me only enhanced what I was already thinking.
At the time Xavier was self-taught, virtuosic and innovative in hip hop and breakdance forms. Since then he has advanced cross-pollinated choreographic ideas and specific training techniques within those idioms called Ground-Core.
“I knew I couldn’t sustain flipping and spinning for ever, my body couldn’t handle doing it all week in performance anymore. So choreographically, I thought, let me take this apart.slow it down, so people can see the technical aspect of what this dance form is all about. So if I have to perform all week I know I can do it.”
He also “wanted to showcase breakdancing and other variations in more unexpected ways. Same with music I composed, I didn’t want it to sound like what audiences expected in hip-hop.
Xavier’s performance history and his dance theories are put in wry context in The Unofficial Guide, which he has toured and refined for several years.
The piece was inspired in a moment when Xavier was ready to leave dance, after in a serious injury eight years ago. It was also a period in which the dance industry was hit hard by the economic recession. Xavier was starting to switch careers to stand-up comedy, performance poetry and as a composer.
He instantly connected to audiences as a comic, enrolling in the LA School of Comedy and quickly on the club circuit. “Two mentors at the LA school, James Harris and Sunda Croonquist, literally threw me onstage at the comedy clubs. I told Sunda I couldn’t just jump in and she just said ‘Go.’ I learned to keep rolling until it connects. But you still have to pass with the club owners once you are out there, to get to return. So it’s sink or swim.”
A year into it, Xavier was headlining in comedy clubs in cities across the country, but “I was missing dance,” he intimated “and dance opportunities kept jumping in front of me.”
“During the recession, dance companies were turning down some gigs because presenters weren’t offering enough money. So I thought that I could fill in with a comparable show for less money, move smaller works. So I was started getting more offers to fill in more spots around the country. I made a piece called “Black Canvas” which did really well. Then choreographer Susan Hess gave me a residency at her studios in Philadelphia,” Xavier recalls.
Xavier had assembled a group of local breakers and he was set to perform at the Performance Garage but “for whatever reason, it was performance time and I had no dancers. So I was onstage and started joking with the audience, describing what I had in mind, but then I just started dancing it, without explaining it. I didn’t tell them there were supposed to be other dancers. But it suddenly occurred to me to tell them this was ‘the unofficial guide to audience watching performance.”
Admittedly “pretty raw” the first time out, Xavier continued to develop it as a bio-history with acclaimed conceptualist choreographer Ralph Lemon in 2012, resulting in a series of successful tours around the country. “It all came together as me being the official guide to my dance life. “
For the upcoming FringeArts performance Xavier is joined onstage by poet Jeigh-Mrlei-Nelson and dancers Cameron Beckham and Jerry Valme. Set to original music by Xavier, the choreography is set, but allows for in- the- moment dance improvisation.
“In stand-up when you are in front of that audience, all your senses are completely heightened, you hear and see everything that is going on in the audience…” Xavier says with a laugh “then it’s all nerve.”
[FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard] February 11–13, 2016; fringearts.com.