“Always” choreographed by Kayhla Lewis. Photo: Jan La Salle

After a two-year hiatus, Jazz Choreography Enterprises returned to in-person performances of the JCE Jazz Dance Project on April 23rd and 24th at the KnJ Theater at Peridance. A talkback featuring the choreographers and moderated by JCE Junior Board Member Nicole Padilla followed the April 24th performance.

Throughout the talkback many of the choreographers spoke about the various ways the pandemic had impacted them and their work. In some cases it was in a practical or logistical manner.

Ashley Carter reluctantly referred to the piece she and Vanessa Martínez de Baños performed as a “Covid piece,” explaining that to stay safe, the pair worked on creating duets rather than the larger ensemble pieces they normally produce.

Martínez de Baños also said that they learned their piece, “Lighter Than Sound,” over Zoom because they were in different cities during the pandemic. She created video edits of their parts so that they could see how their movements intersected, even if they weren’t physically together.

Cat Manturuk also brought together dancers from different cities for her piece “Take Charge.” She had one group of dancers in New York and another set who she auditioned in Detroit, and with rehearsals over Zoom, she was able to have everyone get their parts down and more easily bring things together for the live performance.

Some choreographers had to scrap pieces or recast them. Austin Marquez was supposed to debut his piece “Midnight Moonlight” for JCE in 2020. He was finally able to have it performed this year, but since people moved away because of the pandemic, everyone in the piece needed to be recast. But Marquez said that the former cast members were able to watch rehearsals on social media and were very supportive of the new dancers.

“This piece was supposed to be a Latin jazz piece,” Teresa Perez Ceccon said of her solo, “Cassava Root.” She had been prepping for a larger ensemble piece at the start of the year, but when the Omicron surge hit, she couldn’t find any dancers and decided to put together a solo for the show.

In other instances the pandemic’s effect directly informed the type of pieces choreographers wanted to create.

Jaime Shannon fought off the boredom of lockdown by choreographing a series of pieces to Duke Ellington’s “The Queen’s Suite.” She performed one of those pieces, a solo entitled “Sunset and the Mockingbird.” She also made note that “a lot of imagery in my piece is of light and energy,” a kind of thematic response to the tone of the early pandemic days.

Jeff Davis also gathered some inspiration for his piece “Caravantasy” from lockdown. “I draw, and I got to draw a lot,” he said, explaining that studying the art of George Barbier was part of what inspired him. He also works at a bar with burlesque performers and has a fellow bartender who played in Big Band jazz group. “I wanted to do something light and escapist,” Davis said, and he managed to bring these different inspirations together into a fun piece to make us forget challenging times.

“I wanted to take this opportunity to create something that can feel empowering,” Kayhla Lewis said of her piece, “Always.” It was the 17-year old’s choreographic debut, and she felt she wanted to put together an uplifting piece after the turmoil of having to navigate two years of high school that were disrupted by the pandemic.

Though his piece was created before the pandemic, Marquez noted that he had originally “wanted to make a piece about breaking out of our bubbles and getting together.” He thought it was interesting how that theme of his piece was re-contextualized following Covid.

But not everything was about the pandemic or its impact. There were plenty of other avenues that choreographers wanted to explore or draw inspiration from.

Ceccon spoke about how her piece was about exploring her own heritage and the Puerto Rican and indigenous contributions to jazz dance. “I was very interested in finding those roots,” she explained.

Spencer Pond said he was inspired to create his piece “Hoe Down” by some music a friend shared with him. The piece featured a trio performing swing dance and was a nice progression and expansion on the swing-style duets that Pond had choreographed for previous shows.

Danielle Diniz also viewed her piece, “Now,” as a way to expand on her previous work while trying something new. “My niche is pushing speed of movement while maintaining musicality,” she said. “I tend to stay in the bright and joyous area.” She saw “Now” as a chance to do something darker and moodier and to explore the expanse of jazz music and movement.

Some choreographers were able to work with original music for this performance and spoke about how that influenced their creative processes.

Fatima Logan-Alston choreographed “Malemphis” to a song of the same name composed by her husband, David Alston. She said she enjoyed collaborating with her husband and joked “that’s part of why I married him, so no one else can have access to his talents.”

She spoke about how she loved working with live music and how live collaboration between dancers and musicians is “magical.” In lieu of live collaboration, she wanted a piece of music she felt might capture some of that quality. She was happy to have her husband available to create a piece like that.

Ashley Carter said that she and Vanessa Martínez de Baños also choreographed to a song by someone they knew. She said it added a new dimension to the creative process to be able to contact the composer, Brian Morales, and ask for adjustments to the song that would facilitate some of their choreographing ideas.

Tony Fraser also pointed out that “Kilowatt Stomp,” the song that he and Jaime Shannon performed a Lindy Hop number to, was written during Covid by someone he knew and that he enjoyed being able to choreograph something to the work of a musician he knew.

All-in-all the choreographers were happy to be back on the stage. Fraser and Shannon spoke about how they performed a piece wearing masks and gloves in an open position while dancing outside in the early days of the pandemic because of the uncertainty about what was safe. They and everyone else were happy to return to a more normal performing environment.

With her first choreographed piece being performed, Kayhla Lewis was even more excited and nervous than most. She explained how different it felt to be a choreographer and not just a dancer. But she calmed down while performing, saying, “the audience response put it in perspective for me.”

And given the audience’s enthusiastic response to the show, it seemed everyone was happy to be able to see some live jazz dance performed again.

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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