Acclaimed dance performance celebrating jazz's influence will engage local dancers in Ann Arbor stop

This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

For renowned dancer/choreographer LaTasha Barnes, named Best Dance and Breakout Star by the New York Times, "dance [is] a manifestation of community." And the Richmond, Va. native will be building community here in Ann Arbor as she engages local dancers in a Jan. 19 performance of her celebrated show "The Jazz Continuum" at the Power Center.
"It's not a 'show' in the traditional sense," Barnes says. "…Internally, we call it an offering."
"The Jazz Continuum" features Barnes and more than a dozen other dancers, along with performing musicians and a DJ. Barnes has presented "The Jazz Continuum" in Boston, New York, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The show has garnered rave reviews from the New York Times and the Washington Post.
 Latasha Barnes, center, in "The Jazz Continuum."
Barnes says the "Continuum" intends to "look at what jazz has contributed to our current fabric of popular culture." To do that, she explores traditionally Black social dance forms, such as house, hip-hop, the Lindy Hop, and others — all of them influenced in one way or another by jazz.
"We begin to really highlight the exchange as far as what jazz gave to each [dance form] and then show those forms in alignment with each other," Barnes says.
Much of Barnes' work focuses on Black identity, self-actualization, and "the artistic legacy that our ancestors left for us," as she puts it.
"[T]he notion of creativity, of freedom, of liberation, and a celebration of self — that is the throughline through all Black music and art," Barnes says.

"The Jazz Continuum."
Barnes calls the "Continuum" a "veil lifter" that "really does expose to communities how powerful their own cultural significance really is."
She says the show also "resituate[s] the Black gaze upon the prowess of jazz," an art form that has had an enormous influence on popular culture as a whole, but that often goes unrecognized by white audiences.
"I'm really honored to facilitate … making space for people to really unapologetically celebrate who they are and what they've contributed to the world," Barnes says.
"The Jazz Continuum" is not a static choreographed routine. The performance shifts from city to city in what Barnes calls "an exercise and an experiment in improvography," using a term invented by the late Gregory Hines, a dancer, actor, and choreographer renowned for his tap dancing.
The mercurial quality of the show is partly due to the fact that it often incorporates new talent in each city where it is performed. Barnes routinely invites local dancers to participate in workshops, rehearsals, and, if possible, the show itself. In D.C., that meant incorporating dance styles unique to the D.C. area, like hand-dancing and Beat Ya Feet, into the performance.

"The Jazz Continuum."
For her Power Center appearance, Barnes has invited the Detroit-based dance collective House of Jit to collaborate with her. Specializing in jit, a fast form of footwork native to Detroit, the House of Jit has performed internationally and alongside the Detroit Pistons, among other notable acts.
Gabby McLeod, a leading member of the House of Jit who goes by Queen Gabby or the Queen of Jit, calls Barnes "an amazing artist," "an amazing teacher," and "one of the greatest dancers of this generation."
McLeod says she admires Barnes' work because "it just seems organic. It seems effortless. It seems like it comes from the soul."
"Anybody can teach you a step," McLeod continues, "but can you really show me where it came from, where it starts and where it ends and how it flows in between? I feel like … you can see all that within [Barnes]."
For her part, Barnes says, "My aim is to make people better dancers, not to teach them how to regurgitate choreography."
In preparing for "The Jazz Continuum," Barnes says "there are touch points that I want to exist and … I do offer guidance as far as tone — if there's a need for that." But Barnes doesn't dictate to her dancers, prescribe heavily choreographed routines, or tell them she needs them to be on "stage right or stage left or in a circle," as she puts it.
"I generally allow the artist that is contributing in a particular moment to contribute in the way that they feel the most called to," she says. "That is my role as artistic director, facilitator of this space — creating a space that calls everyone in."
McLeod says she's looking forward to Barnes' workshops for precisely that reason. She says they're "not about just the movement — you're connecting to everyone's story, you're connecting to everyone's history."
"As far as being able to generate art from your body, not just wear someone's art, I think [this] is a deeper and more personal place to exist from," Barnes says.
"That requires a lot of introspective work. It's not just movement education — it's self-education and self-actualization … and teaching people tools to access themselves," she says. "And not just themselves, but the artistic legacy that our ancestors left for us."

The University Musical Society will present "The Jazz Continuum" in Ann Arbor. Tickets and more info are available here.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Photos courtesy of UMS.
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