Photo: Josh Harris
This October Jazz Choreography Enterprises was able to hold its Signature Experience minicourse in association with the Quinnipiac University Honors Program in person for the first time in over a year. Masks and vaccines were required, but the dancing persevered.
Marian Hyun led the warm-up section of the class. While some of the students had previous dance experience, others were learning their first steps. Once they had learned some basic movements and isolations, Hyun taught them the steps to the Black Bottom, a popular 1920s jazz dance.
Following the warm-up Merete Muenter challenged the class with a combination set to ”Libertango” by Astor Piazzolla. It featured some crossing movements traveling from side to side and footwork like step-ball-changes that let the students experience a bit of what a choreographed piece of jazz dance would feel like.
Speaking on her expectations for the class Julia DeLisse said, “I was expecting the dance class to be very fun and easy. It differed from my expectations. Although the class was very fun, it was more difficult than I expected it to be. After a lot of practice, I was able to get the moves down, but it was difficult at first. I enjoyed the process of learning and had a lot of fun during it.”
After the dancing portion of the class, the students were treated to a lecture on the history of jazz dance. Marian Hyun played videos showcasing the various styles that formed the foundations of jazz dance, starting with examples of West African dance. These showed the jazz roots of polyrhythmic music, individual expression and improvisation. The lecture touched on the creation of jazz dance and music, a unique melding of West African and European cultural elements, and the role of New Orleans in developing and spreading jazz dance; The Jazz Age (the 1920s), which saw the popularity of the Charleston and Black Bottom; and The Swing Era (1935-1945), the golden era of jazz where radio made swing music and dance popular throughout the country.
After the 1940s jazz dance moved on to Broadway and into films largely due to the influence of Jack Cole, who choreographed for Broadway and movie musicals. Since then jazz dance has become more performative and less popularly understood as a communal or social dance with the addition of ballet and modern dance elements. The link to Broadway and musical theater also transformed it into more of a storytelling form of dance.
“Although I have been a dancer for years and have learned a great deal about choreographers and styles, I thought it was interesting to learn more about the roots of jazz and African jazz style,” said Sophia Montoni. “It has become some of my favorite pieces to watch due to the upbeat music and high energy. I enjoyed the lecture portion as I thought it tied in the styles that we learned that day as well as exposed us to other jazz dance styles and choreographers.”
Two weeks after taking the jazz dance class, the Quinnipiac students were able to watch a recorded performance of the October 2019 JCE Jazz Dance Project, its last live performance before the pandemic shutdowns. From that they were able to see modern day examples of jazz choreography. The show featured more traditional swing dance and musical theater style pieces as well as works that drew on contemporary dance, hip-hop, and traditional African dance.
After the screening of the performance, done over Zoom, Marian Hyun moderated a talkback featuring five of the choreographers whose works appeared in the show: Ashley Carter, Danielle Diniz, Bobby Morgan, Spencer Pond, and Tommy Scrivens.
Ashley Carter explained that her piece “Black Earth,” which she co-choreographed with Vanessa Martínez de Baños, had three parts and that only the second part had been presented at the JCE show that October. The first section established the characters, and the second section (the performed section) was a flashback.
“We were trying to work more from concept than music or other inspirations,” Carter said. She said the piece was about learning how to define yourself when you lose things in your life or culture. “The piece has a lot to do with identity and loss.”
Carter also spoke about the jazz dance aspects of her piece. “Black Earth” feels very modern in terms of its tone and some of its movements, but Carter said, “There is a lot of jazz outside just technique.” She cited the rhythmic nature and grounded movements of the work. “In our work we tend to blend other elements into it, but our love is jazz.”
While Carter and Martínez de Baños developed their piece from concept, other choreographers approached the work differently.
“Music 99.9% of the time is my inspiration,” Danielle Diniz said of her process. She went on to say that she often listens to a song she’s choreographing for on loop to “find the nuances in it” that she can match movements to.
Her piece “Ode to Gershwin” was a solo performed by Melissa McCann. Diniz said that she doesn’t usually choreograph solos, but she wanted to try something new. “Choreographing for a group comes more naturally to me,” she explained, going back to how she teases a lot of her movements out of the nuances in a song and how that’s much easier to do on a group of dancers rather than a soloist.
Bobby Morgan also choreographed a solo, but he performed it himself. “Fifty percent of it was structured,” he said of his piece “New Life.” The other half was improvised. He enjoys improvising saying, “Sometimes we get caught on how movements were defined instead of what our bodies want to do,” and improvisation and blending different styles helps to push beyond that into something new.
While Morgan has trained in a variety of styles, and those different disciplines are evident in his work, he spoke to his specific love of jazz dance saying, “The reason why jazz is special to me is because it comes from a place of people not being able to express things another way.”
He also said that the main inspiration behind his piece was his grandfather who had passed away recently before the performance. “My grandfather loved jazz,” he said, and the hat that he wore when he performed was actually his grandfather’s.
Moving away from the solos, Spencer Pond choreographed a duet called “Good Judys,” which he performed with Victoria Sames.
He spoke about how he had never learned traditional partnering because he was small when he was younger, and people didn’t think that he could perform the lifts or some of the other more physical elements. He ended up learning partnering through experimentation with swing dance after seeing JCE alums Jaime Shannon and Tony Fraser perform one of their Lindy Hop pieces.
Pond’s piece incorporates a lot of Lindy Hop elements, but he tweaked them to make them less gendered, allowing Sames to lead at times and do some of the lifts.
“With our costumes and choreography there was supposed to be a queer lens,” he said, explaining that “Judys” was an old term of affection between gay friends.
Tommy Scrivens spoke about how his piece “We Run Things” began as a trio before turning into a large group piece after he was commissioned to put something together for Sacred Heart University’s dance program. He said it was inspired by the political engagement of the younger generation, which was reflected in the costumes and the musical choices.
But Scrivens also adapted some more traditional jazz movements, drawing especially from Fosse. “A lot of stuff is very similar to what you’d see in ‘Steam Heat’,” he said of his choreography for the piece.
He also commented on how jazz is being taught in colleges and said his students usually already have a good background in jazz dance history by the time he begins teaching them in their senior year. He views his role as showcasing the more modern side of jazz dance so they can learn how the style has continued to evolve.
The Quinnipiac students had some thoughts on the performance and how it tied to the class as well.
Anya Grondalski said of the performance, “I liked that the choreographers maintained a modern twist in each performance while also keeping jazz a common theme throughout. It was cool to see all the different styles over the years that we learned about in the lecture.”
“I thought the performance was great,” Montoni added. “I loved how all of the dance pieces were unique in their own way…taking a jazz dance class added to my appreciation of the performance because movement in the class correlated to movements seen on the stage. I was able to apply what I learned in the dance portion of the class to the performance.”
Jazz Choreography Enterprises hosts this minicourse with Quinnipiac University in coordination with Professor Melissa Kaplan, Interim Director of the Honors Program and Visiting Instructor of English. The goal is to offer the students an opportunity to explore jazz dance through experiential learning and give them an appreciation of this American art form.
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