It could take something as simple as a step-touch to unite the generations. At least that’s the impression you might get in a room with the company of experimental hip-hop and dance group Yackez. Most contemporary dance projects are rife with young and lithe bodies, but the cast of the latest and largest Yackez production, Give It To You Stage, ranges from ages 25 to 87.
Yackez is comprised of married couple Larissa and Jon Velez-Jackson, with the former handling choreographic duties and the latter on music, writing, and uh, pro-wrestling routines. Whether it’s rapping, dancing, or throwing down in the ring, their work is high-energy, silly, odd, and even chaotic at times, going from spectacle to cartoon to pop culture critique and back again.
Part of this uniqueness (and chaos) comes from the fact that they create the bulk of their choreography from improvisation; even the group unison dances were formed through “personal improvisations” done by past and current Yackez collaborators, fleshed out on video and taught to the cast. Larissa uniquely prioritizes how each individual body moves when finalizing a dance.
“We are charged with the task of adapting each other’s highly idiosyncratic and particular ways of moving. Unlike much contemporary dance which champions the ‘neutral body,’ this work is meant to embrace and exaggerate our personal strengths and weaknesses. Weaknesses are important, as the comedic and queer aspect of the work embraces failure,” Larissa explains.
Since their formation in 2010, Yackez has assembled a “crew” of dancers and performance artists who have become their regular collaborators, both with Yackez and in Larissa’s solo dance ventures. Many of these performers are in this show, as is their “confused yet sweet” mascot YackMan. But there is a new addition: 11 older women from the fitness class Larissa teaches during the day.
Larissa explains that the addition of “The Ladies,” as they’ve been deemed, strengthens components of Yackez that were already there. “Sometimes even in contemporary dance contexts I would feel frowned upon for my body type,” she says of her focus on fitness and aerobics. “It’s like, almost there’s an assumption that because of how my body is I’m not also smart somatically, or with it on a critical level. So bringing that labor that I do every day with people onto the stage was really important.”
Aerobics was also the key to getting The Ladies on board with a show of this scale, as it was a style of movement they were familiar with. Yackez’s emphasis on individual movement rather than strict synchronicity and embrace of failure as a possibility also helped.
“This arena of humanism, openness and rebellion is a great platform to empower the elder participants into the process,” Larissa says. “My mantra to them is just be fully confident in that being completely themselves, they can conquer the stage.”
Additionally, Jon had never performed before Yackez, so adding these other newer performers to the mix has made The Ladies feel like “an extension” of a dynamic already in play between the duo. Even in the one rehearsal I observed, they seemed alway eager to partake in whatever wacky routine came next, looking like an ensemble on their own, all somehow wearing a similar palette of purples and magentas and sporting heads of short curls.
Combining dancers and queer performance artists with local women elders has “truly shaped the piece in unexpected and unexplainable ways,” Jon says. Any preconceived notions he had about how the groups might interact have vanished, he adds, as The Ladies have demonstrated an open-mindedness towards gender and the zany nature of the show itself. It was a risk, Larissa says, but it has opened up a new realm of possibilities for them.
“As Larissa and I are a married couple, there’s always been a dynamic of a family band to Yackez, especially since we work with close friends. Those bonds keep growing closer, and adding the older group heightens the sense of family,” Jon says. “There’s a deep sense of caring in the room when we’re all together that I imagine is pretty unique.”
Another aspect of Yackez that has grown over time is YackMan, the neon green Y-shaped mascot of the bunch. The character originated years ago as simply a sporting event-esque mascot, but has evolved over time as different performers have inhabited the role. The current YackMan is dancer Ashley RT Yergens, the youngest Yackez ensemble member and close friends of Larissa and Jon. They say this real-life bond has undoubtedly led to a more personal take on YackMan, silly as his spongy green form may look.
“The latest [YackMan] iteration seems most appropriate for the stage Yackez is in at the moment,” says Jon. “We tackle our very real insecurities about being middle-aged and childless, and YackMan becomes somewhat of a surrogate child, which you could also say symbolizes how Yackez has pretty much taken the place of us starting a family.”
Yackez’s Give It To You Stage runs March 29 through April 1 at New York Live Arts. Tickets start at $15-20.