After a 2007 spinal injury forced him to temporarily step away from dancing, Raphael Xavier began to delve into more autobiographical themes. His piece “Black Canvas” looked back over his three decades of hip-hop dance, from schoolyard show-off to respected choreographer, as his adult self-narrated and a 13-year-old counterpart mirrored his moves.
That piece was derailed at one 2010 performance in California, however, when his dancers failed to appear by showtime. “I stalled by talking to the audience, trying to kill time and hoping they were going to walk through the door any minute,” Xavier, now 45, recalls. “But that never happened. So I started talking through the choreography.”
The direct relationship with the audience that Xavier discovered from that impromptu performance turned into “The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance,” which the Philly-based choreographer brings to FringeArts this weekend. Xavier plays a substitute teacher looking back on his life in hip-hop, with two other dancers standing in for him as a teenager and young man. The choreographer examines his life and aesthetic with a combination of dance, narration and rhymes that may never have come about if it hadn’t been for some less-than-reliable dancers.
“If I was someone who didn’t like taking chances,” Xavier says, “I probably would have told the audience, ‘Yo, I don’t have any dancers. I apologize, but I can’t perform.’ But I’ve been breaking for 30-some years and it’s built on improv. You don’t know what vocabulary or choreography are when you start out. You just do it. You crash, you turn it into something; you fall, you turn it into something. You make a mistake, you go in another direction and turn it into something.”
Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, Xavier discovered breaking in the early ’80s, at the height of its short-lived mass popularity. As he recalls, “Something that was very new got old quick. I discovered it in ’82 or ’83 and it was gone by ’85 or ’86. But if you can remember, everybody and their parents were breakers. They wanted to pop, to moonwalk, to backspin, and then all of a sudden it was corny.”
The passion for dance had already seized hold of Xavier by the time the trend moved on, and he continued to practice out of the public eye. A decade later, Rennie Harris established Puremovement, the first hip-hop dance touring company, and in 1998 Xavier joined the troupe. A few years later he struck out on his own and has been creating his own work ever since. This fall, he’ll premiere “Raphstravaganza,” a circus-style performance with acrobats, BMX riders, street performers, and live music by avant-jazz composer Bobby Zankel.
"The Unofficial Guide to Audience Watching Performance" plays Feb. 11-13, 8 p.m. at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd. $29, 215-413-1318