Photo: Jan La Salle
JCE presented the New York Jazz Choreography Project over the weekend of April 28th. Following the Sunday show on the 29th, there was a talkback moderated by board member Gregory Harris. Some choreographers and dancers stayed to field questions from the audience.
1) How much input did you have in the lighting design, and how did it affect your piece?
Linda Kuo said that the lighting designer helped a lot with coordinating the lighting for her piece, as there was a limited amount of tech time, so it wasn’t possible to do a variety of different lighting cues.
Spencer Pond seconded the praise of the lighting designer saying that he came into the space with ideas for how he wanted the piece lit that weren’t possible, but that the designer was able to translate his ideas into lighting cues that still worked very well with the piece.
2) How do you make big pieces work?
Mallory Pettee said that as a choreographer you have to trust your dancers and know that they will spend some of their own time working on what’s in the piece. She said that for her piece, “Rush Hour Rendezvous,” her ensemble didn’t have a full rehearsal until the tech, the night before the performance. Prior to that they had three rehearsals which were only attended by some of the dancers. Performers who couldn’t make it, learned their parts via video.
Joey Rosario echoed Pettee’s point saying, “You can do a big piece with a lot of people and know they won’t all be there, if they’re professional and you can trust them.”
3) What was the inspiration for your piece?
Many choreographers said that they started their pieces with the music.
Michelle Isaac, who used the Marvin Gaye song “Save the Children” for her piece, said that Gaye and other similar songwriters influenced her work. She said that she used to listen to that music with her father, and she felt that the lyrics from those songs were still relevant in today’s current social and political climates.
Astrée Périchon, who performed in Al Blackstone’s piece “This Way,” said that Blackstone had started the piece with music he liked. From there he worked with the dancers to bring out their feelings and personalities. The piece was choreographed as a graduation project for three dancers from the Steps Conservatory Program, and it explored their feelings about coming to New York City from different parts of the world to learn dance.
Daniel Gold, who choreographed a theater style piece called “Cool Cat,” also said that he started with the music. “Any time I choreograph I try to find music that goes from staccato moments to more oozy sounds so you can hit those different types of feelings throughout the piece.”
“I couldn’t help but create a story because the music informed it,” Rosario said, citing music from La La Land as his inspiration.
But some of the other choreographers said that the music came later, and that they started with a concept rather than a song.
Vanessa Martínez de Baños said that she and her co-choreographer Ashley Carter wanted to make a piece about how relationships can explode due to a lack of communication. They felt that the message was relevant not just on a personal level but also in the wake of the #MeToo Movement.
Another choreographer inspired by social issues was Kavin T. Grant. Camille Moton, Rehearsal Assistant for Grant’s piece “Identity Check: Brown Paper Bag Test,” explained that Grant was inspired by the old practice of the Brown Paper Bag Test where certain organizations would only allow people whose skin tone was lighter than a brown paper bag to join them. Moton said that the piece was about “finding beauty despite racism.”
Pond said that his piece was structured like a standard ballet performance, and his piece “Pas de Drag” was meant to be a comical vaudevillian take on the Pas de Deux section of a ballet.
Kuo, like Pond, was inspired mostly by dance history and style. Her piece, “reasonsLegacy,” explored the connection between hip-hop and some of the older, more classical, styles of jazz dance.
4) What are three words that describe the feeling you have while dancing or watching your piece being performed?
Michelle Isaac answered this question first saying, “Gives Me Life.”
Other choreographers thought that answer just about captured everything, but a few added their own answers to the mix.
Martínez de Baños: “Passion. Fun. Emotion.”
Talissa Bavaresco: “Fulfillment. Birth. Happiness.”
Pettee: “Heartbeat. Purpose. Joy.”
Rosario: “Fear. Relief. Pride.”
5) Which choreographers inspired your work?
“We approach all our work from a human perspective to try and have appeal for everyone, even non-dancers,” Ashley Carter said, explaining a more all encompassing methodology rather than considering a specific choreographer or style as an influence.
“I find it interesting how different aesthetics and different styles can complement each other,” Gold said, saying that he’s been inspired and learned something from all of his different dance teachers, and that he tries to take something away from every performance he sees.
“I like working collaboratively with my dancers,” Bavaresco said. She felt that different dancers will bring a different energy to each piece, and so the piece will always change a bit based on who’s in it.
Isaac said that her dance teacher from high school was a major inspiration for her piece and on her life. She said that the piece was an homage to her teacher, and that “dance saved my life.”
Pond cited Cyd Charisse as a major influence of his, one that was also evident in the green dress—bringing to mind Charisse’s dress in “Singin’ in the Rain”—he wore for the performance.
6) How much do you focus on the accuracy of historical dances when you choreograph?
“As we explored our roots of hip-hop and house dances, we saw how connected they were to more traditional [jazz] steps,” Kuo said. Her piece was explicitly about exploring the roots of jazz and connecting it to more modern styles.
“If you want to be historically accurate, be as accurate as you can, but don’t let it stifle your artistic vision,” Pond said, explaining how he approaches integrating more classical styles into his own work. He emphasized focusing on your own creativity and said that he would rather make a piece he’s happy with and risk being called out over inaccuracies rather than censor his ideas because they don’t conform with a certain style.
Gold said that he believes all styles are cyclical. He thinks as styles progress, they inevitably return to their roots, and steps or techniques that aren’t as popular now will be picked up by someone new and expanded on again at some point.
“Is it our responsibility as artists to define a specific aesthetic for jazz?” Moton said. She didn’t have a direct answer to the question but raised a topic that she and Grant often discuss. Other choreographers agreed, it’s something of a gray area and appreciated her points.
7) Do you have a different emotional attachment to a piece if you choreograph and perform in it versus just choreographing it?
Isaac said that performing in your own piece is “very challenging because you’re worried about your cast, but you need to get yourself together.” For her the difference wasn’t the emotional connection but rather the anxiety of dealing with everything.
“You have to hope your dancers understand your vision, whereas when you perform you have more agency in how the piece turns out,” Carter said of how she views choreographing versus performing.
Kuo agreed, saying that she felt it was “easier to influence the emotion of the piece as a dancer.”
“It’s surrendering control to the dancers, if you’re not performing,” Pettee said.
Périchon said, “There’s a different satisfaction in performing and feeling the dance as opposed to watching the choreography unfold in front of you and making adjustments.” She said that she finds both fulfilling but that the connection is different.
Bavaresco said that she had recently choreographed a solo with herself as the dancer, and she found that she had a great emotional connection to performing it. She wanted to pass it on to other dancers to perform, but she said that she was having a hard time letting go of the “solo character” she created for the piece.
JCE holds talkbacks following the Sunday afternoon performances of its shows. If you want to see the talkback live, just purchase a ticket to a Sunday show and join us after the performance!