Photo: Jan La Salle

On Sunday October 29th, Jazz Choreography Enterprises presented the second showing of the JCE Jazz Dance Project at KnJ Theater at Peridance. Following the performance, Fatima Logan-Alston, Artistic Director of VashtiDance Theater, moderated a talk-back that featured seven of the fourteen choreographers who had pieces in the program. She began by asking the group what inspired their work and what dance legacies they drew on when choreographing.

For some that question spoke to issues of identity.

“I don’t really ‘look American,’” David Cartahena Lee said of himself. He went on to explain that his work is often about exploring his experience as an Asian-American. Like his work, David’s piece, “False Narratives,” is about navigating the ways he does and doesn’t fit into typical American society.

“Jazz dance is black dance,” said Cory “Nova” Villegas. She feels that in the world of jazz dance a lot of emphasis has historically been put on styles like musical theater, and Latin dance has often been left out of the conversation or not taken as seriously. Promoting Latin and Afro-Caribbean dance as an equally important part of the jazz dance world is the legacy she would like to leave behind.

Robert Redick choreographed his piece, “Affirmation,” for dancers from the Harlem School of the Arts. He spends a lot of time working with black youth and wants to provide them a space where they can feel safe to learn and express themselves. He originally choreographed “Affirmation” at the Joffrey Ballet School, and he was happy to find that a new group of students “felt at home” with his piece and was able to enjoy performing it.

Other members of the panel were teachers as well and had similar views on the power of teaching dance as legacy.

“I loved being a student,” Kiley Corcoran said. She is currently a teacher at American Youth Dance Theater and feels that “so much of dance is sharing what came before us.” Her piece “Who Would’ve Thought” was about memory and nostalgia, the latter of which she highlighted by setting the piece to music by jazz greats like Nat King Cole, Count Basie, and John Coltrane. For her, legacy is passing on both the dance techniques and music of jazz.

Mia De Franco echoed these sentiments. She choreographed “For the Love (Excerpt)” for the dance students of IFE Youth Dance Theater. “The music always speaks to me first,” she said of her choreography process. “I want to teach [my students] new music.” She also said that legacy for her is very much about teaching and passing things down to a new generation of dancers.

Music was a very important source of inspiration for younger choreographers Trinity Leite and Mariah Gomez.

“When I’m choreographing jazz, music is everything,” Leite said. Her piece “Cat and Mouse” was set to the song “Welcome to My World” by Ezra Collective. She had seen the song performed live at a concert, and she wanted to re-capture what it was like to experience the performance as an audience member.

Gomez, just 17 years old, choreographed and performed a solo entitled “Con Todo Mi Alma y Corazón (With All of My Heart and Soul)” set to songs by Otis Redding and Elvis Presley. She said that she was drawn to older music and viewed her piece as an homage to Redding. She also said the piece “was dedicated to [her] mother,” who fostered her appreciation of music and dance.

Logan-Alston then asked the panelists about ageism. Given that there was such a wide range of ages amongst the choreographers, she wondered if being of a certain age affected their work or the types of opportunities they got.

Villegas felt that she did encounter ageism as a choreographer. She said she there were people who thought she was “too young or fiery” to really understand the history of jazz dance the way she does or to be a choreographer. She says she strives to prove them wrong through her work.

Gomez is a student of Villegas’ and said Villegas taught her not to “let your age, or race, or gender define you,” and to be unafraid “to push the boundaries.” She said that as a 17-year-old she couldn’t present her work the way she would like because a lot of places required her to be 18 to submit a piece for consideration, which she felt was a kind of ageism.

“I started choreographing pretty young,” Redick said. By his early 20s he was already making his own pieces and knew that he didn’t want to follow the traditional path of having a full dance career before becoming a choreographer. He had a mentor who encouraged him to create his own work, and now he does the same for any young person who wants to choreograph because he feels that “the experience will happen in the doing.”

Leite, herself now 20 years old, agreed. “The only way to grow and learn is to do it.” She spoke about how she enjoyed dancing and working with her peers at Salve Regina University and that she was able to feed off of their energy and bring it into her own work.

By contrast Corcoran found working with her peers on a piece she choreographed somewhat intimidating at first. She explained that she originally presented her piece as her senior thesis five years ago. Since then she has mostly been teaching or choreographing things for students. “I only started delving into choreography post-Pandemic,” she said, and so organizing dancers who were not her students presented a new challenge.

“When I get to see young choreographers, it lights a fire under my ass,” Lee said, speaking about how witnessing what the next generation of dancers is doing inspires him to up his game. He enjoys the interplay between generations and what they can learn from each other, but also cautious a certain level of humility. He spoke of a mentor who once told him not to use music with lyrics because it “cheapens the concert performance,” but now as an act of rebellion he almost always uses music with lyrics for his pieces. “It’s important to get off our high horses,” he said.

“I believe all kids should dance,” De Franco said. Of all the choreographers she probably had the most straightforward message saying, “If you wanna dance, just dance.”

Logan-Alston then asked the audience for questions.

An audience member expressed some frustration at not being able to find jazz dance classes for her daughters and asked the panelists about their thoughts on what to do about that.

Redick said he thought that there should be core jazz dance classes taught the way that there are for other styles like ballet or modern. Villegas was somewhat more hesitant to agree, citing concerns about what specific styles or techniques might be considered to make up “jazz dance” and what might get left out. But both of them did like the “call to action” for having more dance offerings available to young people.

Finally an audience member commented in response to Lee’s statement of “not looking American” that he felt Lee did look American and that everyone on the stage did as well.

Lee appreciated the sentiment but said that wasn’t his experience. He explained that he grew up in an Asian-American bubble in California, but in New York he was made more aware of how his race set him apart in some ways.

This has greatly influenced his choreography, which he sees as “navigating Asian-American identity while participating in African-American diaspora art.” His approach is illustrative of the diversity in the world of jazz dance and how people of all different backgrounds have found a home in it.

Check out JCE’s website to read a review of the October 2023 JCE Jazz Dance performances and an interview with choreographer Cory “Nova” Villegas.

Josh Harris

Josh Harris

Josh Harris is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger. He also writes fiction under the name J. Young-Ju Harris. He does not dance particularly well.

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