Celebrity Series of Boston hosts winter’s hottest week of dance
Celebrity Series of Boston hosts two intimate and wildly divergent dance performances that tackle big ideas in January, showcasing the work of two acclaimed companies led by award-winning and sought-after women choreographers of color.Company SBB//Stefanie Batten Bland’s evocative and thought-provoking Look Who’s Coming to Dinner takes inspiration from the similarly titled 1967 Stanley Kramer film. LaTasha Barnes’ The Jazz Continuum brings her ecstatic celebration of jazz music and Black American social dance styles.
Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, by Batten Bland fits the category of dance theater, evidenced by the show’s main narrative: a series of solo, duo and full ensemble segments suggest relationships among a gathered group at a festive event, where a visitor arrives to claim space at the party’s literal and figurative tables. The tables, set for dinner guests, morph to become walls, doors, screens, containers and, at one point, a mode of transportation. The company’s seven dancers are similarly flexible: their characters embody movements that are joyful, sorrowful, attacked, imprisoned, emphatic and resigned.
The piece leans on the film’s themes of race and family politics and the search for commonality. Snippets of dialogue set the tone and provide comment on some scenes. The piece is set to music by Paul Damian Hogan, a mix of soft and beat-filled ambient, synthesized instrumental, and piano music. Choreographed, directed and designed by Batten Bland, the piece is a moving and absorbing expression of social, political and racial issues. Performances of Look Who’s Coming to Dinner are followed by opportunities for attendees and performers to gather and discuss the work over refreshments in the Plimpton Shattuck lobby. Saturday evening’s performance also features a post-show, onstage discussion with Batten Bland and company artists.
Barnes’ exuberant show The Jazz Continuum conjures a different kind of party – one a century in the making – where dance and music from generations past meets the vibrant contemporary styles that developed from them. The energy is high with more than a dozen dancers and musicians (and an occasional crossover between the disciplines) exploring the growth and development of uniquely American jazz and Black American social dance styles.
Solos, duets, quartets and full-group dance numbers show a throughline from Jazz & Lindy Hop, to House Dance, Waacking, Hip-Hop and much more. The ensemble creates a convivial vibe, encouraging each other from the perimeter of the performance space, sharing powerful movements in a circle then opening to the audience, which Barnes describes as “both an acknowledgement and an invitation to give back to the continuum.” The musicians play similarly – jazz is a musical conversation between the artists and their instruments, after all. Barnes calls out the “mind-bending artistry” of an onstage DJ/turntablist who helps sculpt the soundscape with scratching and beat layering with doses of Soul, House, Hip-Hop and more. Like the music form for which it’s named, The Jazz Continuum centers improvisation; it evolves from show to show, iterative and responsive to the communities where it is presented and their audiences.
“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. Look Who’s Coming to Dinner is unlike anything we’ve ever served to our audiences. The Jazz Continuum is infectiously fun and incredibly smart. These two productions further Celebrity Series’ commitment to present stories from diverse artists. We’re proud to partner with these two brilliant creators and we know that their works will speak – in so many different ways – to audience members from many communities.”
In addition to their performances, Batten Bland and Barnes will lead community events in Boston. A US Army veteran, Barnes will visit and hold a workshop for veterans in the city, along with community workshops to engage the Swing and Street Dance communities in Boston and Cambridge through a multi-day residency at the Dance Complex.
Look Who’s Coming to Dinner plays at NEC’s Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre for two shows only: Sat., January 14, 2023 @ 8 PM and Sun., January 15, 2023 @ 3 PM. The Jazz Continuum plays three performances at NEC’s Plimpton Shattuck Black Box: Thu, January 19 @ 8 PM; Fri., January 20 @ 8 PM; and Sat., January 21 @ 8 PM. Tickets are $75, and available online at celebrityseries.org or by phone at 617-482-2595.