I have to admit that when think “Wynton Marsalis” I don’t think “Brooklyn.” But this past weekend the jazz virtuoso came across the bridge and did several performances of his latest work. It was a collaborative suite of dance and music with Tony Award winning choreographer, Garth Fagan.

This was not the first time the two artists joined forces. Twenty-one years ago Fagan and Marsalis jointly created Griot New York, a moving piece that explores the challenges and triumphs of contemporary city life. Excerpts from Griot NYC and their new piece Lighthouse/Lightning Rod were performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) this past weekend. The latter was commissioned by BAM to be a hallmark performance to commemorating their 150th Anniversary.

And it was quite the event.

It had all the trappings of a high-cultural affair that features the performances of such famous artistic heavyweights. The night had a certain Manhattan panache to it. There were lots of black cars with drivers milling about, there were lots of ladies in ball gowns (there was a BAM Gala preceding the performance), and even composer Philip Glass, Captain Picard (actor played by actor Patrick Stewart), and the Brooklyn Nets were in attendance. For my low-key and easy-going Brooklyn sensibilities it was a lot to take in.

But all of that is besides the point.

The art that Fagan and Marsalis created was beautiful. From the first note and movement I kept thinking that this is not just a dance or jazz performance, but it truly is dance theatre. The presence of live musicians and the energy that they bring adds a dimension of interaction that is often absent from these types of dance concerts. The performance became 3D. Musicians were talking to dancers and the audience. The dancers were talking to musicians and the audience is responding to all of it. A sense of liveliness would be present in any such performance, but it is doubly true when the choreography is by Guggenheim Fellow Garth Fagan, the music is composed by multi-Grammy Award-winning Wynton Marsalis, and the music is performed live by The Wynton Marsalis Septet (comprised of Victor Goines – clarinet and saxophone; Wess Anderson – alto saxophone; Ali Jackson – drums; Eliot Mason – trombone; Dan Nimmer – piano; and Reginald Veal – bass). What is more, after the performance we were shocked to learn that three of three of the dancers we just watched contort their bodies and explode with energy were in the 50s:  Steven Humphrey, Norwood Pennewell (P.J.), and Natalie Rogers.

I had not seen their first work, Griot New York, but Fagen’s attention to the micro-movements of his dancers – the twirl of the hand, the stretching of the foot, the arching of the back – was as dramatic as a center stage lift. And it was all set to the music that traveled the lineage of jazz to include waltzes, calypso, and swing each scene was rife with emotion, whether it was sensuality, levity, or anticipation. In the duet “Spring Yaounde” set to Marsalis’ mellow trumpet solo, the male and female dancers held literally took our breath away as they bended and held each other. I found her bare chest not to be shocking as much as it heightened her vulnerability the emotional investment of the audience in the piece.

The second act, Lighthouse/Lightning Rod opened with a giant statue of a woman, who conjured an image of a gilded statue of liberty. The stage design work of Guggenheim Fellow, Alison Saar, literally set the stage for the Garth Fagan Dance Troupe to travel through themes of loneliness, relationships, and the internal push-pull against society. In “Lightning Rod” were two women in bright dresses performing a lovely lyrical duet while all about them other women, dressed in maids clothing, rush frantically in every direction. It is a striking visual juxtaposition of how we all try to create peace in the midst of chaos.

The Fagan/Marsalis performance was a poignant reminder of how beautiful art emerges when talented musicians and choreographers unite to create a shared vision of an artistic idea. I found it more than coincidental that the Marsalis/Fagan performances were happening the same weekend Jay-Z was nearby opening up the Barclays Center to the world. Within a couple of blocks of each other you had two men who (for better or worse) are the people around which the narrative of hip-hop and jazz pivot. Both Jay-Z and Wynton Marsalis have done more than most in institutionalizing their respective genres and cementing its influence in American culture.

In some ways their performances felt as if if Madison Square Gardens and Jazz at Lincoln Center had been transported to a Manhattanized Brooklyn. I understand how one could easily be turned off by all the glitz and gloss that comes with having such high stakes events in performers in Brooklyn, but beyond that, the Fagan/Marsalis performances shows how Broadway choreography and Jazz at Lincoln Center can find a way to coexist in Planet Brooklyn.

The soundtrack to Griot NYC is available here.

Interview by fredara mareva

Photo credit: And all photos are used courtesy of Wynton Marsalis Enterprises


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