Swing today: 'Our dance is modern because we're alive right now'

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Swing today: 'Our dance is modern because we're alive right now'
Caleb Teicher, foreground, at a “Sw!ng Out” rehearsal with, seated from left, AJ Howard, Evita Arce, Joshua Mclean, Nathan Bugh and Gaby Cook in New York on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Teicher’s “Sw!ng Out” at the Joyce Theater aims to bring swing onstage in a program that’s part variety show, part hangout. Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- Choices picked out of a hat: It’s a gambit of magicians and improv comedians, a way of showing an audience that chance is at work and that performers are creating on the fly.

That’s the effect it has in “Sw!ng Out,” a new swing-dance show that opened a two-week run at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday. At one point, cast members play a game called Luck of the Draw. A pair of performers’ names are picked out of a hat, then they dance the next tune together.

It sounds simple enough, but the game encapsulates several ways that “Sw!ng Out” is distinct, even groundbreaking.

Since the selected dancers must improvise with each other to a song they haven’t chosen, they must be fluent speakers in unrehearsed social-dance communication. This isn’t a choreographed simulation. And since the names aren’t segregated by gender, the pairing might be Jack and Jack or Jill and Jill, as well as Jill and Jack. Every dancer must be prepared to lead or follow or switch back-and-forth.

All this is representative of contemporary swing dance. The dance originated in Harlem in the late 1920s, in a form called Lindy Hop, and became widely popular in the ’30s, the swing era, with big-band jazz. In recent decades, most shows, films and commercials using swing dance have tended to treat it as an ambered period style or a costumed caricature. But “Sw!ng Out” is trying to bring onstage swing as it lives today — the historically rooted but ever-changing music and dance as practiced by young people who have devoted their lives to it.

“Our dance is modern because we’re alive right now,” said Caleb Teicher, the dancer and choreographer, who leads the show’s six-person creative team. Or as Nathan Bugh, another member of that team, put it: “We achieve modernity by just doing what we do.”

Teicher (who uses the gender-neutral pronouns they and them), Bugh and the rest of the gang — dancers Evita Arce, Macy Sullivan and LaTasha Barnes, as well as composer and bandleader Eyal Vilner — are all respected members of New York City’s swing-dance community, vetted by its elders. They all express a deep sense of responsibility to the history of the form — and to its future, too.

So while “Sw!ng Out” includes some canonical routines, like the “Big Apple” number choreographed in the ’30s by the great innovator Frankie Manning, it’s also fueled by the team’s own innovations and personal styles. Similarly, while the music — played onstage by Vilner’s 10-piece big band — largely sticks to period standards like “Shiny Stockings,” the arrangements are new, tailored to these performers, the improvisatory sections responsive to the dancers’ improvisations.

In structure and tone, “Sw!ng Out” aims for a balance between what Bugh called “the variety show” and “the hang.” Variety-act solo turns, surprise guest appearances and full-group numbers that spin and fly at crazy speeds intertwine with sections in which the dancers just shuffle slowly in a close embrace or stand arm in arm, facing the band and listening. After the show — and a break for the band — they invite the public onstage to swing out in a jam session.

“I hope that it’s a great show that people are moved by,” Teicher said. “But I also hope that it moves them to move.”

At a recent rehearsal, the wail and drive of the music was matched by the dancers’ cheers and laughter as they reacted to the spontaneous wit of their colleagues. Choreography and improvisation, leader and follower — such binaries blurred in the swirl and swing.

Afterward, a similar spirit prevailed as the creative team gathered to discuss the development of the show, which was called “Swing 2020” before it was delayed by the pandemic. In the back-and-forth of conversation, as the colleagues quoted one another, they demonstrated the collaboration necessary to, as Teicher said, “make a six-person creative team not a dumpster fire.”

Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: The Joyce approached you first, Caleb. Why was it important to assemble a creative team?

CALEB TEICHER: Because this is not a solo project. That’s not how Lindy Hop works. So I collected a brain trust of people whose perspectives would be as indicative of the community as possible.

EVITA ARCE: Caleb has a knack for understanding which personalities complement and balance and support each other. It’s felt like a family.

Q: Was racial diversity important? The cast and the band include Black performers, but LaTasha Barnes is the only Black member of the creative team.

TEICHER: We’re constantly aware of how our identities communicate with the history. This dance started in African American communities. It has now turned into a predominantly white community doing a historically Black dance. We’re trying to maintain the diversity but not in an artificial way.

BARNES: Sadly, there aren’t as many African Americans still doing this dance who are desirous to perform. It’s very frustrating.

TEICHER: But we’re hoping that more African Americans find their way to this dance and feel connected.

NATHAN BUGH: Yeah, we hope the show is like a big advertisement.

BARNES: Honestly, “Insert yourself here.”

BUGH: But we’re not going to lie and drag in someone because their skin color is correct. Everyone onstage is actually doing the thing they do.

Q: Is there a tension between “doing what you do” and preserving tradition?

ARCE: I feel a huge responsibility to my mentors. I’ve battled with how much do I try to preserve everything they taught me versus finding my voice. More and more, it’s allowing yourself to be yourself in what you’ve learned.

BARNES: That’s the beautiful part of having a lineage. It’s in the acknowledgment of the gifts they’ve given us that we make space for everybody to bring themselves to the dance, so it can continue. I give myself to the Lindy Hop, but I bring all of myself along.

Q: Is a more fluid approach to gender roles part of that?

BARNES: Actually, that’s inherent to the Lindy Hop. Like [the famous partners] Al Minns and Leon James or Shorty George and Big Bea.

ARCE: If there wasn’t a guy asking them, ladies would dance together. Or guys would dance together, wanting to show off or learn how to lead. But it has changed in classes recently. Now everyone learns to lead and follow. As a teacher, I thought that would mess with their brains. Completely the opposite: They understand so much faster.

TEICHER: It’s very normal now. As a nonbinary person, I’ve found a lot of peace. This is a space that doesn’t care what I am and will let me dance whatever role I feel like. I also feel that the terms “lead and follow” can be misleading. Each negotiation is different. That’s the whole point of doing the Lindy Hop.

ARCE: That’s a really valuable skill that a lot of people miss out on and that we practice all the time, because we change partners.

TEICHER: Evita likes to say that the social skills of Lindy Hoppers tend to be super developed. The level of communication that the dance requires is stunning. When I meet someone I can sometimes tell they’re a Lindy Hopper by the way they talk.

MACY SULLIVAN: It’s about being able to listen and also being able to ask for what you need.

ARCE: And that’s something that can’t be experienced in the isolation of no social contact. To come back to it now is like hugging someone you love after not seeing them for a long time. I hope the audience feels that, too.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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