“Inner City Blues: Excerpt 4” choreographed by Michelle Isaac. Photo: Jan La Salle
On Sunday, November 7th, Jazz Choreography Enterprises presented JCE: An Inside Look, a virtual fundraiser that gave the audience an opportunity to learn about what JCE does, to hear about the value it provides to jazz dancers and choreographers, and to see some pieces performed.
Matt Pardo, Assistant Professor of Dance at James Madison University, served as the moderator, conducting interviews with Michelle Isaac, Spencer Pond, and Arthur Cuadros, the choreographers who had their pieces presented. He also ran a live Q&A session at the end of the event where audience members were able to submit questions to the choreographers and JCE’s artistic directors Marian Hyun and Merete Muenter.
Throughout the video presentation, several choreographers spoke about the opportunities that JCE has provided for them and what they like about working with the organization. This spoke to the heart of JCE’s mission of providing a platform for choreographers to present new and original works of jazz dance.
“It was incredibly helpful to have a place to display work,” Skye Mattox said.
Spencer Pond echoed that sentiment, saying, “It’s really special to be able to present work as a jazz artist.” He went on to speak about how great and supportive JCE has been, how supportive the audiences at the shows are, and how JCE performances and events provide a great opportunity to connect with other choreographers and dancers.
“I love that they’re giving an opportunity to choreographers,” Arthur Cuadros said. He enjoys how the organization presents work from both newer and more experienced creators.
Paul A. Brown also spoke about how great this mix of people is. “I have been so inspired by the new generation of choreographers and dancers.”
“I’ve never seen an organization so consistently put together concerts and platforms for artists,” Michelle Isaac said. “With JCE it’s more like a community.”
While the performances are JCE’s primary focus, the organization does other work, much of it focused on dance education. Board member Kathy Cooke explained how she helped create the minicourse “A Signature Experience in Jazz Dance” for the Honors Program at Quinnipiac University. Students participate in a jazz dance class, receive a lecture on the history of jazz dance, and are then able to attend a JCE performance to see what current choreographers are doing within the style. JCE has been working with Quinnipiac University for five years on this minicourse. Cooke has now moved on to the University of South Alabama, but she has been working with JCE to start a similar program there which should launch next year.
Junior board member Danielle Diniz spoke about JCE’s ongoing collaboration with Groove With Me, an organization that teaches dance to girls residing in East Harlem and the South Bronx. Since 2017 JCE has provided teachers for jazz dance classes so that Groove With Me’s students can experience the style. JCE also provides tickets to shows so that students can have the opportunity to see live jazz dance performances.
Junior board member Amy VanKirk spoke about the pop-up classes JCE provides which allow anyone the opportunity to take a jazz dance class and learn from some great instructors. Teachers have included Bob Boross, Ed Kresley, Gail Pearson, Lizz Picini, Ashlé Dawson, Teresa Perez Ceccon, and Lisa Biagini.
There was also a performance aspect to the fundraiser. Recordings from previous live JCE concerts of “Inner City Blues: Excerpt 4,” choreographed by Michelle Isaac, and “#10,” choreographed by Spencer Pond, were shown to the audience. Arthur Cuadros also presented a newly recorded video of his piece “Dancin’ Fool.”
The choreographers spoke about their work both in pre-recorded interview sessions with Matt Pardo after each of their pieces were presented and again at the end of the program during the live Q&A session.
Michelle Isaac’s “Inner City Blues: Excerpt 4” was the first of the pieces shown. It is about an African-American teacher and her students and is set to the music of Marvin Gaye. “This work was created in 2013,” Isaac said. She explained that it was about “how the culture of the ‘70s is very relevant to the current culture,” especially when it comes to the social climate and social justice movements.
Her piece drew from a variety of styles using elements of contemporary and traditional African dance. “The thing I love about jazz is that jazz has no concrete definition.” She went on to say that “…there are so many things that make jazz” and that she enjoyed being able to pull from so many different styles and fit them seamlessly into her work. She believes that putting too much of a label on jazz or too much constraint on it would end up making it a stagnant genre.
Spencer Pond’s “#10” is a duet he performed with Victoria Sames that is set to classical piano music, an étude by Frédéric Chopin played by Maurizio Pollini. The choreography for the piece mostly draws from Lindy Hop. He says he became inspired when he saw a friend of his perform the music for a piano recital, and, despite it being a classical piece, he felt it worked well with jazz movements.
Pond also spoke about partnering, a technique that is relatively new for him.
“I never learned to partner in the jazz sense,” he said. He explained that he was small when he was younger and was never asked to do it.
He discovered Lindy Hop through fellow JCE choreographers Jaime Shannon and Tony Fraser, and he felt it was a partnering style that was in some ways “more inclusive” and “more real” than traditional partnering. He learned to enjoy the connection of this form of partnering and seeks to push its boundaries in his work, especially when it comes to gender roles.
“How can we do some non-traditional partnering that’s also traditional?” are the sort of questions he asks himself when he is putting together his pieces.
The final piece presented was “Dancin’ Fool” by Arthur Cuadros, an upbeat group number that he created for video and filmed in a studio. “I always wanted to choreograph to ‘Dancin’ Fool’ and when I had this opportunity to present for JCE this was it.”
He explained that he filmed the piece backward for the video and then pieced it together forward in the edits. He shot the last parts of the dance first because a lot of the hardest elements were at the end of the piece, and he wanted to conserve his dancers’ energy for the multiple takes they would need to do.
“I am a jazz dancer, that’s my roots,” Cuadros said of himself and his choreography, which had a lot of traditional jazz and musical theater elements. “Jazz has such an entertainment value,” he said. “And I love the technique as well.”
Finally, during the Q&A session JCE’s artistic directors Marian Hyun and Merete Muenter spoke a little about what goes into selecting pieces for the JCE dance performances.
“We have to look for jazz elements to justify the choice,” Muenter said. “You can express yourself so many ways in jazz dance. It is not as specified as some other styles.”
She went on to explain some of what she looks for specifically, “I’m attracted to people who take risks, who think outside the box, who interpret music in a way no one else has.”
“For us it’s really important to include other styles,” Hyun said, explaining that not every piece selected for JCE concerts would be considered traditional jazz. “We’re looking for vestiges [of jazz dance technique] in more modern styles. Jazz is evolving, and we don’t always know what it is right in this moment.”
JCE: An Inside Look was sponsored by Ballet Academy East and the National Asian Artists Project. If you want to support Jazz Choreography Enterprises’ ongoing mission of promoting the art form of jazz dance through performance and education, you can still donate to the cause. You can also sign-up for the newsletter to learn about any upcoming JCE performances, classes, or events.