“Good Judys” choreographed by Spencer Pond. Photo: Jan La Salle
The JCE Jazz Dance Project returned once again this October, as dancers and choreographers came together to showcase jazz dance in all its forms. The evening showcased both jazz dance’s classicism and malleability, as choreographers embodied jazz’s past while using its language to create styles all their own.
This fall’s program often embraced a pure, classic jazz aesthetic while pushing the form forward, with numbers that fused more traditional movements with contemporary style. Tommy Scrivens’s “We Run Things” merged classic Bob Fosse movements and choreographic phrases with L.A.-style commercial jazz, which the young dancers from Sacred Heart University Dance Company performed with a strong mix of technique and personality. “Ode to Gershwin,” a solo choreographed by Danielle Diniz and performed by Melissa McCann, evoked the nostalgia of Gershwin’s ‘20s-era music while maintaining a more up-to-date feel in its choreography and costuming. Set to “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Fascinating Rhythm,” the piece embodied Gershwin’s varied rhythms, alternating between quick-footed playfulness and more drawn-out movements that melted into Gershwin’s slower musical phrases.
Taking on a much more straightforwardly classic tone was Ai Toyoshima’s charming “Have a Little Sunshine,” performed to a rousing score from Mary Poppins Returns. The precise, polished piece was cheerily performed by its talented troupe of dancers, though while the piece shined in a dreamier, slower opening, the small troupe of five dancers were slightly swallowed by the grandiose quality of the music as the number continued to build. Also embracing a more nostalgic style—to delightful effect—was Jeff Davis’s “My Angelina,” set to the music of Harry Belafonte. Davis’s choreography had a swinging, flowing quality that perfectly matched the laid back, island feel of Belafonte’s score, with mambo influences tingeing its classic jazz foundation. Particularly creative was the use of partnering within the piece, as Davis smartly crafted partnering phrases between the male dancers in addition to male-female duos.
And Davis wasn’t the only choreographer to partner their dancers in a less-traditional way. Spencer Pond’s “Good Judys” also somewhat subverted the traditional male-female duet, with buoyant and joyous choreography that played with swing dance and classic jazz to put the duo on a more level playing field. Of course, adhering to a tried-and-true form can still be just as pleasurable, as demonstrated by Jaime Shannon and Tony Fraser’s classic swing piece “Cotton Tail.” The duo showcased their fancy footwork and crowd-pleasing Lindy Hop lifts with a bouncy ease, with Shannon’s enthusiastic performance being particularly captivating.
Other pieces in the program approached jazz dance without relying on classic stylization. Cat Manturuk’s spunky and high-powered “Love Is Due” used Manturuk’s modern fusion style of “mod-hop jazz,” while Cory “Nova” Villegas’s “Creciente” blended African dance with mambo influences and balletic technique, with heated, languid movements that matched the music’s blend of Latin and jazz influences. Ashley Carter and Vanessa Martínez de Baños’s “Black Earth,” meanwhile, was much more straightforwardly contemporary in form. Though the piece’s broader societal themes were a bit muddled (perhaps the byproduct of being an excerpt of a larger piece), the dancers demonstrated a strong sense of solidarity onstage, bringing a determined quality to their movements and strong musicality that emphasized the choreography’s nuances. This sense of determination made the choreography’s smaller details jump off the stage, drawing the audience in with one forceful flick of the wrist or turn of the head.
Making the most out of small moments was a recurring theme throughout the evening, as dancers and choreographers alike balanced explosive jumps, turns, and extensions with smaller, detailed movements that proved equally gripping. The dancers of Teresa Perez Ceccon’s “Do I Move You?” had a compelling sense of intention behind each movement, taking smaller steps like a pivot turn and making them immediately powerful. The dancers in Anthony de Marte’s “Plain Gold Ring,” too, imbued the piece with a coolly detached feel through their purposeful steps; while the piece was full of expansive turns and leaps, it was the smaller movements, like stylized walks, hip isolations, and hand movements, that truly brought it to life.
Combining both smaller and broader movements to captivating effect was Bobby Morgan’s “New Life,” an inward-looking solo that the choreographer said in a post-show talkback was only 25% choreographed beforehand. Morgan’s flowing, grooving style melded vogueing and street dance styles with more technique-based movements, as the dancer/choreographer went from concentrated, sharp isolations and slithering arm movements to tossed-off extensions, leaps, and pirouettes that appeared casually effortless. The improvisatory nature of the piece meant that the choreography was by design somewhat messier than the other pieces, with an off-the-cuff quality that became occasionally homogeneous. But it was also distinctly compelling, as Morgan pulled the audience in through his hypnotically fluid yet punctuated style. Much like the Jazz Dance Project more broadly, “New Life” experimented with form and style while rooting itself in jazz technique, showing off what already makes jazz dance such a unique art form—and that there’s still plenty of room to grow.
Alison Durkee is a New York-based journalist and arts critic whose writing has been published in such publications as Mic, City Guide NY, Exeunt Magazine, HowlRound, Stage Buddy, OffOffOnline, and Critical Dance. She currently serves as the Features Editor for London-based theatre website Everything Theatre and as a political news journalist for Vanity Fair, and is a member of the Outer Critics Circle. In addition to her writing work, Alison is a dancer and her work in the arts includes administrative roles with HERE Arts Center and the Theatre Museum. She holds degrees in Theatre Studies from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where her research focused on the intersection of musical theatre, history, and nostalgia.