“Pearls” by Fatima Logan-Alston. Photo: Jan La Salle
Tell me about your dance background. What did you first train in? Does that still influence you today when choreographing?
My first experiences and memories with dance came from a lot of family celebrations of jazz and soul music, like James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and kind of the family grouping and having a good time. That feeling of community, family, acceptance and joy really fueled the direction of my dance training and experience. I started primarily with modern dance and then from there I expanded to African dance. And then I said, “I’m addicted to all dance!”
I joined a performing youth company and we did the whole gamut; we explored lyrical and jazz, modern and ballet, and from that experience I decided I’m really interested in the meanings behind dances and the cultural connections that go with them. Not that the entertainment part of it is not important, but that’s really the part I’m interested in. That guided me more in the direction of blending styles with a modern focus, but using a diverse range of stylistic aesthetics to accomplish that.
And so that’s where I am now! I want my work to be reflective of my experiences and backgrounds and of course draw people in, but I want them to really experience the theme, the ideas, of the work as much as the joy it hopefully gives.
How did you and your husband meet? What sparked eventual collaboration, both running your company, Vashti, and artistically with pieces?
My husband and I met when we were touring with Chuck Davis in North Carolina. We joined the African American Dance Ensemble for the same season and that ensemble has dancers and musicians that travel and work together. We first met at company rehearsal and, you know, everything was cool, everyone was getting to know each other. The funny thing is, [my father’s] picking me up from rehearsal and he’s like, “Hey I know that guy! He was in my class!” So my husband actually was in my father’s class—my father is a high school math teacher.
We also got to know each other from our backgrounds in terms of explorations in dance that came from a very personal place. He also spent a lot of time in the Baptist church where music was a really important part of the process, not just something for fun. Along the way I also became involved in praise dance, and so we had this conversation about dance and its function with spiritual connection and themes and conversations. That kind of background, as well as experience of touring and working together, really fed into that ability to collaborate. Even though we had different artistic mediums, we saw a lot of similarity in how they can function in the community and, then, in our experience/our background.
Working with David helped me begin to understand that we are two sides of the same coin really, stylistically. He has wanted to work closely with the music to make sure that dynamic is expressed sonically and we hear the themes, how they’re developing and then how we’ll see them because my ultimate goal is that no one needs to read the program notes. I don’t want [the audience] to have to read it to understand what it’s about, so that is a really big part of how we started working together—because David is exceptional at marking and accenting steps. When I worked with David and he would accompany my solos, I was like, “Yeah, that was exactly what I was thinking!” When he played it, it would become fun, like a conversation, and so this is what I’m looking for often: thinking about theme and the ambiance. The sensation that the work gives you is why I wanted to work with live music.
Can you please speak on how you understand, interpret and demonstrate jazz and its importance? Can you also elaborate on the pivotal point of education, specifically regarding how “classical” jazz vocabulary stems from, embodies and physically articulates “historical and socially relevant themes” mentioned in Vashti’s mission?
One of the ideas that’s very important for me is even though we may be blending influences, we’re aware of what we’re blending. And so we’re saying ok, this is the traditional, this is the classical, this is how this developed—jazz of itself is a synchronism of influences and a translation from different cultures here in America and it’s an American form.
I think oftentimes the breadth of jazz is misunderstood. It’s been developing for a long period of time and a lot of times when I engage in conversations with students educationally, they are only referencing one idea of jazz. In their minds, it’s one that’s very old, but that’s not really the case. And even what they’re doing and experiencing now is influenced by that, but they may not see the connection. What I’d like to do, and part of what I love to do in terms of working with the JCE April show, is really showing the breadth of jazz. It has a body of movements and the technical vocabulary can be used to tell all different kinds of stories. Now it’s important to be aware that you are doing that. Part of the challenge is throwing everything into the blender and then you have this big kind of concoction. But I am advocating for not losing sight of the stepping stones that we’re standing on because sometimes they can help us move forward, but not if we don’t know what they are or where they are or how they relate to us. I don’t want it to become lost in contemporary explorations, although I advocate for it because we don’t want to leave out part of who we are.
What is your piece about for this year’s JCE performance? How was it making movement to your husband’s original compositions and how does it differ from those you made for JCE previously?
The piece that I’m working on for April—and I feel like I have a tendency to do this often—I’m looking for exploration of jazz vocabulary, tracing it back, connecting it to African vocabulary and then I want to layer it with a really introspective question for the audience about light and darkness and what we’re going to choose. When I talk about light and darkness, I’m talking about our relationship to challenges and how we’re going to approach them. It’s in those challenges we’re going to continue that light perspective and carry it there or we’re going to become overwhelmed by it. This actually is a concept that I have explored before differently stylistically, but I really felt, honestly with what’s happened with COVID and the arts and where we are now, it’s kind of pressing for me to explore it.
I’m excited about the original composition of it because I think that’s an important quality for me generally in terms of choreography and composition and music and the dance together. But I’m really excited because previously this was a piece that I kind of played with recorded music and I felt like it didn’t quite work. I felt like it didn’t quite get there and so now I’m changing the vocabulary and approach and sound and I want it to be reflective. And so that’s what I’m working on and I’m happy about the exploration that’s happening kinetically, but I am thrilled, too, about what’s going to happen with sound. My husband is playing with different sounds for that and it goes back to what I mentioned about the expansiveness with how we can use jazz, pressing at how we can continue to experience the relevance of this tradition.
Be sure to catch Fatima performing in her own work in the April 23rd and 24th performances!
Danielle Diniz has been commissioned to create new works for Jacob's Pillow, Performance Santa Fe, Avant Chamber Ballet, Columbia Ballet Collaborative, Ballet Hartford, Central Utah Ballet and was a choreographer for DanceBreak 2020. She is a winner of the New York Dance Project Choreography Competition and her work has been shown in Jazz Choreography Enterprises showcases and the Steps Beyond Foundation performance lab, among other festivals. Danielle is also a Junior Board Member of Jazz Choreography Enterprises. B.A., Cornell University.