There was a popular saying during the Great Depression: "You can't be sad and dance at the same time." It was a fitting axiom for a period in which swing dancing became a national pastime in America, and yet, it could just as easily refer to the late '70s, when yet another spate of economic shortfalls ushered in the high-flying Disco Era. The day's dramas were often set aside with assistance from a parade of R&B-bred divas and a new dance craze, the hustle, seemingly named for what contemporary America was going through.
Given the economic uncertainties of the current age, Midsummer Night Swing (MNS), Lincoln Center's annual three-week dance party under the stars, is nothing if not a beacon of certainty: to say nothing of fun. This year marks the 22nd season of the series, which brings world-renowned dance bands and deejays together with agile, fleet-footed crowds in Damrosch Park, now its permanent home. "We like to think of it as an open-air ballroom, where there are stars offstage as well as on," says series producer Bill Bragin. "The participatory dynamic is key. While the best concert can be a spectator sport, a great night of dancing has a different energy." The 2010 season (June 29 _July 17) is shaping up to be the most accommodating MNS ever, thanks to a more spacious, newly-designed dancefloor in Damrosch and the park's sprawling, comfortable floor plan. "Not only is there more space on the actual dancefloor," says Bragin, "but in contrast to the former fountain plaza home on Josie Robertson Plaza, there's also more seating around it and better sightlines for people just flowing through the grounds checking out the vibe. They often get hooked, too." (No doubt encouraged by the handpicked dance instructors who start each off evening with beginners classes.)
Although Midsummer Night Swing shares a name with the Swing Era of the '30s, one of its hallmarks has always been diversity, in recognition of New York's many hometown ethnic communities as well as Lincoln Center's interest in hosting outstanding music from far afield. Several evenings cater to folks who lindy-hop, shim-sham and jitterbug (most notably the season kickoff "Battle of the Bands" and the finale tribute to Illinois Jacquet, which also features the Ambassador Prize Dance Contest in honor of lindy pioneer Frankie Manning), but high-steppers who salsa, merengue, tango, hustle and two-step will also find nirvana in the park. It's a celebration of the dancefloor's A-list worldwide, with Bragin searching internationally and locally for bands equipped to keep everyone moving.
One of the season's highlights, the July 12 arrival of Nigerian bandleader Femi Kuti's Positive Force, is a tip of the hat to an event taking place further down Broadway. Kuti's band updates Afrobeat, the hypnotic funk style invented by his late father Fela Anikulapo Kuti, whose life as a provocateur is currently the subject of the Broadway bio-musical Fela! To enhance the evening's kinetic sizzle, Maija Garcia, the associate choreographer of the Broadway production, will be on hand as dance instructor, along with members of the company, while Sahr Ngaujah, the acclaimed actor in the title role, will deejay classic Afrobeat tracks.
As the season's signature brand, however, swing at MNS is given to extravagance, opulence and drama. This year's "Battle of the Bands" offers a rematch between local pillar George Gee's hard-driving orchestra and west coaster Bill Elliott's smooth-as-silk large band from Los Angeles. "The competition was good-natured when Bill and I took this on tour several years ago," says Gee, a denizen of Count Basie-esque stomp. "But let's face it, does anyone like to be challenged on home turf?" Meanwhile, July 7 offers a one-time-only spectacular (starring hometown faves JC Hopkins Biggish Band) that stands the Swing Era tradition of all-male orchestras fronted by "chick" singers on its head. Joey Arias, Justin Bond and Lea Delaria, downtown divas who've impressed audiences with equal parts poignance, chops and wry humor, are the night's chicks. Hitting more conventional, but no less exciting, notes are trombonist Wycliffe Gordon's sextet (July 10), bluesy standard-bearer Catherine Russell's The Cat and the Hounds (July 14) and Midsummer's official closers, the Illinois Jacquet-inspired Harlem Renaissance Orchestra with special guest saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master Frank Wess.
The number of surprising debuts at MNS is proof that the event evolves with the music of the times. On June 30, Argentine composer Carlos Libedinsky's Narcotango shows off the beat-consciousness that is revamping traditionalism in Buenos Aires, while Bogotš's fiery ensemble La-33 (pronounced "treinte y tres") slashes into innovative arrangements on July 3 that are helping Colombia to rival New York as salsa capital of the world. The Time Jumpers, a Nashville ensemble outfitted with all-star sessioneers, remembers Western swing as it was played in honky tonks on July 1. Up from Louisiana on July 6, the New Orleans Moonshiners warm up lindyhoppers with some sainted le jazz hot.
Some will find it wondrous that the 20-piece Orchestre Septentrional d'Haiti managed to survive at all in a field crowded with practitioners of konpa, Haiti's rhythmic calling card, because many are half their size and considerably less expensive. Chalk the Orchestre's six-decade tenure up to precision and late founder Ulrick Pierre Louis's arrangements. Obviously, the commitment of old-school Haitian dance pairs doesn't hurt, either. On July 2, Septentrional d'Haiti comes to Damrosch to convert the next generation.
Like Haitians, Latinos in New York hold tight to their dance traditions even as time-honored genres like salsa and Dominican merengue seem to take a back seat to contemporary fare on the radio. This is just one reason that the crowds who come out to hear veteran merenguista Tony Swing (July 9) and the dynamic salseros in La Excelencia (July 16) will be cross-generational. Both performers are reminders that the music of el barrio is still the foundation of everything contemporary.
One thing Midsummer Night Swing has recently been most clever about is realizing that even though many millennial dance experiences have become exclusively deejay-driven, a magical balance can be struck between live and programmed music. The July 8 show does this with a Southeast Asian slant, by casting Red Baraat, the rising-star Indian dhol (double-headed drum) and brass band known for its prickly percussive marches, in a symbiotic relationship with DJ Rekha, the maverick who almost singlehandedly put the Indian groove bhangra on the local cultural map.
On the other hand, Loser's Lounge founder Joe McGinty assembles a mixed bag of scene-makers for "Ladies Night" on July 15, an evening devoted to the songs that ruled the clubs during the halcyon days of disco, when "hustling" seemed like the only cure for the blues. Think Donna Summer, Grace Jones, the singers in the girl groups Silver Convention, Odyssey, and Sister Sledge. McGinty's minions provide Midsummer revelers with a gateway to the past that feels a lot like the present. Thankfully, you can't be sad and dance.
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