Bringing Together the Sounds and Moves of the 1940s and Today

Both the new compositions and the vintage ones rely heavily on the foundation of the blues, and the dancing is mostly all original; the routines are not recreated step by step.

Via the Joyce Theater
Some of the dancers from 'Sw!ing Out.' Via the Joyce Theater

‘Sw!ng Out’
The Joyce Theater
Through July 2

Normally I cringe when I encounter deliberately bad spelling in contemporary pop music: Boyz II Men can sing, yes, but would it kill them to use an “s” and a “to?” Yet in the title of “Sw!ng Out,” the placement of the exclamation point in place of the “i” makes perfect sense. The whole point of this revue — to use the theatrical term — is to take the basic musical and choreographic vocabulary of the big band era and build a contemporary dance work around it.

The essential part of “Sw!ng Out” is a 60-minute sequence of dance numbers featuring 11 dancers and a nine-piece orchestra — 10 if you count the vocalist. Yet this is not in any way a recreation; as the spelling of the title suggests, it updates the swing style both audibly and visually.  Musical Director Eyal Vilner, who is also a saxophonist, composer, and arranger, has written a whole new set of charts, not vintage arrangements or transcriptions from historical recordings. 

The music is a mix of Mr. Vilner’s originals plus new charts of a few classic tunes, several from the Count Basie band book. Both the new compositions and the vintage ones rely heavily on the foundation of the blues, which is a common thread running through all eras and genres of American music, and a solid link between the 1940s and the 2020s. The opening instrumental, for one, could have come from the World War II era but there are echoes of R&B numbers like “One Mint Julep” and modern jazz works like “Dat Dere.” 

Likewise, the dancing is mostly all original; the routines are not recreated step by step. The one major exception is “The Big Apple Contest,” a routine created by the late Frankie Manning, patron saint of swing dancers, for the 1939 all-Black feature film “Keep Punching.” (It’s viewable on YouTube.) Both the music and choreography use the essential language of the swing era but in a vivid modern way; neither the musicians nor the dancers, for instance, dress in period fashions — the overall effect is to show us that swing music and dancing is not only a part of the past but a pair of interconnected art forms that are well and thriving.

Swing dancing — this seems to be the preferred term for what has also been known as lindy-hop and jitterbug dancing — is essentially a social dance, meaning that the dancers work in pairs. Further, the fact that some of these “couples” are two men or two women — something you wouldn’t have seen at the Roseland Ballroom in 1940 — is a further illustration of how the swing ideal has been updated.

Just like Mr. Vilner works with the blues, Caleb Teicher, who is credited as choreographer, starts with the basic idea of dances set in twosomes, but proceeds from there: solos, trios, and what have you. This is the form of “The Rabbit,” in which Mr. Vilner’s original sets up a series of individual dancers and combinations that are mostly improvised; as in a jazz piece, the basic melody is established and then there’s a series of solos and various combinations. The order is set, but the solos are spontaneous, and, as with the music, the piece begins and ends with the ensemble.  (It’s also viewable and explained by Mr. Teicher on YouTube.)

The work expands out into all sorts of combinations, further transforming social dancing into choreography and back again. There’s a hot Latinate interpretation of the “St. Louis Blues” and one where the couples pull each other backward and forward with wooden canes. Another number has Mr. Vilner, his signature topknot much in evidence even in silhouette, coming forward to play an unaccompanied alto saxophone solo while dancer Evita Arce translates his riffs and notes into steps. Likewise, there’s a further pas-de-deux, so to speak, between dancer LaTasha Barnes and drummer Erán Fink.

Other standards feature singer Imani Rousselle, who shines on an expanded arrangement of Nina Simone’s iconic shuffle version of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” with horns added as well as the insertion of the legendary swing dancer “Norma Miller’s smile” in place of Lana Turner. She also sings a zippy version of “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” which I’m glad is not deemed politically incorrect, since it was composed by a Black songwriter.

After the main set, there’s a sort of an afterparty in which the band plays for another 40 minutes or so while the cast dance informally and the braver members of the audience are invited to join them. The musical fare here included the 1950 “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone but You),” which most of us know from Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s “Miles Ahead,” as well as another contemporary swing tradition, the “shim sham” ensemble line dance set to “’Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It).”  That latter title could serve as a mantra for the entire production.

The New York Sun

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