Published by The Dance Journal. Reprinted by kind permission.
Like many artists, dancer Raphael Xavier has a difficult time describing exactly what he does for a living. “I usually say I’m a working artist,” he explained during a recent rehearsal at the Painted Bride, “but people always want to know what does that mean? So then I tell them dance is my real job and when they want to know what kind of dance, I say hip hop. Then they’re like, ‘Oh okay, cool. My kid does hip hop.’ But when I tell them I’m a breaker, they say, ‘Really?’”
Xavier’s latest project, The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance, will premier at the Bride on November 13th as part of this year’s First Person Arts Festival. Autobiographical in nature, the work features poet Leigh-Mrlei-Nelson and three dancers including Xavier.
Warming up for rehearsal, the artists fixate on their wrists, pulling their fingers back toward their chests as they stretch the heels of their palms forward into space. As the run through begins, 22 year old Jerry Valme and 19 year old Cameron Beckham slip seamlessly from improvised solos into choreographed trios with Xavier in which they carve invisible half circles into the stage. Clever rhymes like “City slickers move quicker” and “Nothing could stop me, my body was like origami,” punctuate their windmills, tracks and knee drops.
Interestingly, Unofficial Guide, which unfolds along the lines of a high school classroom, began as a mistake. Xavier was working on a Susan Hess modern dance project but his dancers didn’t show up. “I had to figure out what to do in the moment,” Xavier recalled. Somehow, the combination of his dry humor and monotone explanations worked and people laughed. Director Ralph Lemon helped him develop the work and encouraged him to not shy away from vulnerability, including song lyrics written by the artist as early 1983.
Although Xavier has performed shorter iterations of the work around the country, this is the first time the full 45-minute piece will performed in its entirety. Xavier has never had any formal dance training—he got his start watching the New York City Breakers on Soul Train— but his work has been extremely well received. In 1999, he became the first artist to ever receive 3 simultaneous awards from the PA Council on the Arts and in 2004 he was selected for a Dance Advance grant.
He credits Philadelphia’s own Rennie Harris with giving him the perspective he needed to move forward. “Before I was taking breaking and rap and putting them onstage but I didn’t know how. Now I can see things in my head and place them onstage.”
The work’s ambiguous title is deliberately “silly, rebellious, sarcastic and devilishly smart,” not unlike Xavier. He noted how changing the emphasis (for example “The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance” vs. “The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance”) completely changes the meaning. “The audience becomes my class,” he remarked. “This is bigger than we all know it to be.” November 13-14, 2013, firstpersonarts.org. Tickets.