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Jazz at Lincoln Center kicks off autumn with the return of a powerhouse collaboration
Dance and jazz have an illustrious intertwined history. But Spaces -- a full-evening collaboration between legendary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and innovative hoofers Lil Buck and Jared Grimes -- is particularly thrilling. The program sold out during its two-night 2016 debut. Next week from September 13 to 15 it returns to launch the fall season of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Marsalis serves as artistic director.
Organized into ten sections that evoke different members of the animal kingdom, Spaces features a vibrant score by Marsalis and sensational dancing by two exponents of distinctive movement languages. Under the guidance of director/choreographic consultant Damian Woetzel, Lil Buck and Grimes channel the spirits of various creatures while juxtaposing their contrasting virtuosic styles.
Lil Buck (neé Charles Reilly) is known for Jookin, a hypnotic street dance that originated in Memphis. He's expanded the form by using his sneakers almost like toe shoes in performances at New York City Ballet, the Vail Dance Festival and even on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Meanwhile Grimes, an exceptional tap dancer, has performed on stage (Broadway's After Midnight, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at Encores!) and choreographed high-profile musicals at Arlington's Signature Theatre.
The two had never danced together until Marsalis and Woetzel tapped them for Spaces' original run, but the pairing immediately set off creative sparks.
"I think we both hold true to the energy of constant growth," says Grimes about the ease of their working relationship. "Once we got in a room together, we just established an open-minded setting and began to build on our ideas as if we shared the same genre of dance."
"I've always wanted to work with a tap dancer," adds Lil Buck. "I knew that with the different rhythms and the footwork that I do, that would be incredible. When we started working, we had an amazing energy together. The chemistry was great. We both have the blessings of the feet, and that made it so much fun when we were building and rehearsing it."
Together, the duo crafted the choreography in a studio with the full Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra playing the score. "We were in there with the whole band, Wynton leading it, right there in our faces," recalls Lil Buck. "It was incredible. His music just puts me in a place where I don't want to stop dancing. There's a certain rhythm about the way he plays -- it keeps me in rhythm."
Even though Marsalis came up with the concept and composed the music before the dancers joined the project, they say he was open to their ideas. "It's always a collaboration," says Grimes. "It feels like a bunch of scientists in a lab working together to create the best ingredients for each moment we want to elevate."
Without costumes or sets, the dancers only have their bodies to communicate the creatures as they alternate between duets and solos. Grimes brings his intense ferocity and dynamic rhythms to "King Lion," while "Like a Snake" gives Buck an opportunity to showcase his amazing fluidity. They join forces in playful sequences about chickens, frogs and bees. "Jared and I home in on the essence of the animals," Buck says. "We are not so much trying to emulate them but to find a language in movement. There's a nice blend of choreography as well as improvisation."
Grimes says that improvisation is what makes Spaces so exhilarating. "It's huge with this piece," he says. "We maintain a structure throughout the show, but within it we are free. Buck and I instinctively match each other a lot as the show builds. Every performance we do is different -- it's like jazz. No particular changes, just ever-changing."
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top image: Lil Buck and Jared Grimes in Spaces. Photos by Lawrence Sumulong.
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