“Pearls” choreographed and performed by Fatima Logan-Alston | Photo: Jan La Salle
The JCE Jazz Dance Project returned once again this April with a varied program that showcased just how multifaceted jazz dance can be. Though jazz dance is all too rarely shown on the concert dance stage, JCE’s programming goes beyond jazz hands to show off just how much the art form has to offer.
Highlighting jazz dance’s versatility were the evening’s group numbers, which often relied on a fusion of jazz styles. Josh Assor’s “Night of the Dancing Flame” was filled with punctuated movements that felt at once classic and contemporary; Julia Kane’s choreography to Florence and the Machine’s “100 Years” similarly evoked the past—a kaleidoscopic opening called Busby Berkeley’s films to mind—while imbuing a sense of strength through bold, cohesive movements that felt much more of-the-moment.
Merete Muenter’s “Eleanor,” set to The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” brought other genres of dance into its movements, with balletic grace alongside modernesque steps like turns with the arms straight by the sides. Though the piece used only six dancers to illustrate the Beatles’ broad discussion of humanity and “all the lonely people,” Muenter’s smart formations and swirling movements gave the piece a sense of volume that seemed to expand its small troupe into a larger force. Much more straightforwardly “jazzy” in its styling, meanwhile, was Jeff Davis’s playful, if sometimes slightly slow-moving, “FRENCH TRiO.” Embodying a 1960s Parisian vibe through its blend of 60s social dance steps and “cool” isolated movements, the piece had a distinct classicism that stood out against the evening’s more modern takes on jazz.
As usual, JCE showcased student dancers alongside their more professional groups, with cheerful performances that displayed a love of the form. IFE The Movement’s “Everything Scatter,” which was performed by dancers ages 7-15, showed jazz’s connection to African dance through a fun, high-energy number that was delightful to watch. Dancers from the Steps on Broadway Conservatory Program performed Jenn Rose’s “Player Piano,” a thoughtfully comedic number that came alive as dancers commanded various piano tunes note-by-note through their movements. The varied choreography was personality-laden yet precise, and the group of young dancers made the series of distinct notes into a cohesive whole.
This spring’s JCE Jazz Dance Project had a particular emphasis on women, not only through its lineup of predominantly female choreographers, but also in several group dances with a distinct “girl power” theme. Paul A. Brown’s “Reclaiming My Time,” set to “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” had a pervading sense of female solidarity—complete with pussyhats—and gave its group of female dancers the opportunity to shine both as individuals and a bonded ensemble. Putting a feminist twist on “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” Danielle Diniz’s “Six Gals, for Themselves” brought the musical’s “Barn Dance” score back to life as a way not to “go a courtin’,” but to showcase the women’s own independent spirit. Though Michael Kidd’s famed “Barn Dance” choreography is hard to match in its extravagance (there are no acrobatic tricks on wooden beams here), Diniz’s exuberant update nevertheless reflected Gene de Paul’s bouncing score through inventive, dynamic sequences of jumps and turns that felt light-hearted yet distinctly powerful. The choreography was fast-paced but never frenetic and incorporated quick, balletic footwork, all imbued with a sense of prideful joy and female camaraderie.
This sense of female strength was also carried through in the evening’s distinctive solo performances. Sofia Bengoa performed Cristal Del Mar Lopez’s “Soledad,” which blended contemporary movements and floor work with ballroom-inspired steps, with an ease that felt spontaneous and driven by emotion, rather than carefully choreographed. “Pearls,” choreographed and performed by Fatima Logan-Alston, brought a similar sense of emotive elegance. Logan-Alston had a distinct grace to her movements that allowed moments of stillness and smaller motions, like the careful pull of her arm, to retain as much poise and electricity as more complex choreographic phrases. Much more movement-heavy was Talissa Bavaresco’s “R(h)bush,” which featured contemporary jazz set to Billie Holliday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Though at times a bit frantic, Bavaresco’s choreography had nice, growing movements that felt expressive of her yearning, like pregnant pauses in soutenu turns and extensions with the standing leg in plié.
Some of the evening’s biggest highlights, however, belonged to the program’s duets. The performance paid tribute to the late choreographer Kavin T. Grant, who tragically passed away earlier this year, with a presentation of his piece “Trust in You.” A duet between dancers Jasmine Hurst and Dayzjah Thomas, “Trust in You” was a moving number whose performers shared an obvious connection to the piece and between themselves. Grant’s thoughtful choreography had a contemplative tone in its blend between stillness and broad movements, and the dancers imbued the piece with a sense of charged poise that felt at once emotional and elegant. On the other end of the spectrum—though no less impressive—was Skye Mattox’s “Safety Dance,” a playful piece for Mattox and Ryan VanDenBoom with a distinctly casual, modern feel. Alternating between partnering, quick-footed choreography, and more relaxed moments, Mattox’s choreography felt off-the-cuff yet smartly constructed and played well with tempo and rhythm, feeling cohesive without becoming one-note. While the JCE Jazz Dance Project clearly revels in the history of jazz and the genre’s classic forms, Mattox’s number—like so many others of the evening—made it clear that with new choreographers continuing to make the form their own, jazz dance remains ever fresh.
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.