A real drummer is like a dancer. Every movement is consequential and has a discernible visual — and audible — outcome. A percussionist at play is all swinging arms and thrashing elbows, batter-stirring wrists, piston legs and stomping feet. He may be fixed in his chair; he may be up and bent over his cymbals, swaying to a pulse he’s generating himself. If he’s an experienced performer, he’ll know how to call attention to the beat he’s laying down with gestures, grimaces, strategic fidgets, and exaggerated swings of his sticks. A real drummer is all the movement theater anybody needs.

Jersey City’s Winard Harper is, by anybody’s estimation, a real drummer. He’s been frequently recorded as a leader and a sideman, and he’s built himself an international reputation for imagination and flexibility. More locally, he’s presided over the jazz series at Moore’s Lounge on Monticello Ave., acted as an ambassador and educator, and turned up on stages all over town. Even when he’s performed in tiny rooms, movement has always been part of his act: he’s won’t stay still, even as he rarely drops a stitch.

This week and last, the ever-animated Harper kept the beat going in “Insight/Incite,” a new piece at Nimbus (329 Warren St.), for what must have been thirty of the liveliest minutes this black box theater in the Powerhouse Arts District had ever seen. “Insight/Incite” has a choreographer, but it’s hard to imagine that Roger C. Jeffery had too much influence on the percussionist’s performance. Harper’s approach, his mannerisms, his presentation, and his fluidity behind the kit had all the hallmarks of a personal act honed at countless club gigs, by the demands of live music audiences, who always love to give the drummer some.

But this was no drum solo. For most of the show, Harper was joined onstage by another Jersey City performer, and one whose artistry is more typical of what we usually see at Nimbus: tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith. Freer to move than the drummer was, Smith logged time on tap boards at the right and left of the stage near the audience, and occasionally vacated the performance area to make room for a quintet of Nimbus dancers, including the ever-elegant Victoria Santaguida. But mostly he hung at the rear, a few yards from Winard Harper’s frenetic left arm, trading licks with the drummer like any other jazz soloist might. His tapping, telegraph quick and without a trace of tentativeness, reinforced Harper’s rhythms — when it didn’t talk back in its own staccato language.

The result was a show as musical as it was physical. In many dance performances, it can be tricky to discern the relationship between the movement and the score. In “Insight/Incite,” the movement was the score. And because Harper and Smith are inventive percussionists, that score was ever-shifting. A swing rhythm would morph into a breakbeat, which would then become hard bop, or an exploratory section redolent of “Drums/Space” and prog-rock. Harper switched between sticks, brushes and mallets; he pounded on the skins with his hands; he turned, often, to the rim shots reminiscent of the sound of a tap shoe on a board. Smith, in sync with Harper throughout, favored percussive effects of his own: heavy heel stomps that matched the low toms, toe clicks that skittered and sizzled like the drummer’s hi-hat, sequences of impossibly fast snare-like tapping that fell like hail on the metal roof of the chicken coop.

From time to time, Smith also responded to the five Nimbus dancers. He’d mimic their motions, reach out to them, engage in acts of proxemic provocation, and generally shake it and hoof it in their direction. It may well have been choreographed, or at least planned in advance, but it felt spontaneous. Did the Nimbus regulars answer back? Well, a little. Just like everybody else, they couldn’t help responding to the Winard Harper groove, which is relaxed, and loose, even when things get wild. But it’s the Nimbus way to be drilled, and their performance in ““Insight/Incite” was no exception. The extra dancers were never distracting, but sometimes they felt merely decorative — there, perhaps, to give Smith a breather. 

But even Smith, talented and rhythmically talkative as he was, was never exactly engaged in a dialogue with Harper. His lengthy, busy, rattling sentences and paragraphs of taps and beats always felt like rejoinders. In the manner of drummers from time immemorial, it was Harper who held the stick, and everybody else jumped to his beat. Though he never felt dictatorial about it — that’s not his way — there was never any doubt that he was in control. No matter what the dancers did, his easygoing, professorial approach held firm. He didn’t bend; above all, he didn’t stop. Even after Jason Samuels Smith and the Nimbus dancers had taken their bows and disappeared into the eaves, Winard Harper kept the drumming going. He gave the impression that he’d rest when he felt it was time to rest, and not a measure earlier.

So he shimmied on the stool, and made the kit shake and sway, the tips of his sticks tickling the bell of the cymbals, feet driving the kick, accelerating slightly, getting our pulses up for one more roll, one more crash, one more night drive on a dirt road. He held the stage alone, just as he’d opened the show alone, reminding us that some of the best dances we’ll ever see happen while the performer is sitting down.

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...