On October 28th and 29th, Jazz Choreography Enterprises held its fall performances of the New York Jazz Choreography Project, which celebrated its 10th anniversary year. Following the Sunday afternoon performance, several of the choreographers stayed for a talkback, fielding questions from the audience and the panel moderator, JCE Board Member Gregory Harris.
The first question was directed at Jeff Davis, who choreographed and performed in the duet “That’s All,” a romantic musical theater-style piece. Asked about the chemistry he had with his partner, Emily Vetsch, he answered that they had known each other for some time and had met while they were both working as puppeteers. He also filled in some background on the piece, explaining that he had initially choreographed it for a friend’s wedding.
Other questions asked by the audience were broader and directed to all of the choreographers.
How do you know the number of dancers and pairings in a piece?
Alan Spaulding said that he always asks, “How would I do this for myself?” He said that music was the most important factor for him in terms of inspiration and envisioning the piece, but it wasn’t the only consideration.
“It’s financial also,” he said, a sentiment many of the other choreographers agreed with. He explained that larger pieces are often more difficult because you’re asking for more dancers to donate their time, or paying them if you can afford it, and that pieces like that need more rehearsal time, which means more money spent renting space to practice.
What inspired your pieces?
Bob Boross said that his piece “LIFE” was inspired by his time as a professor at UCLA where he felt things were incredibly hectic and everything was measured for success.
Merete Muenter said that the cave paintings from Lascaux inspired her piece of the same name.
Cat Manturuk explained that Hip-Hop has a lot of roots in jazz, and that her piece “Metaphysics of Jazz,” which had hip-hop, jazz, and even Lindy hop elements in it, was inspired by her boyfriend MC’ing about the roots of jazz and her decision to explore some of its various elements in a singular piece.
“Big Band Tribute to James Emerson Adams” was performed to a medley of big band era songs. Choreographer Liz Piccoli said it was inspired by her grandfather’s love for that style of music.
Jaime Shannon, who choreographed a Lindy hop piece “Dreamscape (A Tribute to the Duke),” said she put the piece together because she had been researching Duke Ellington and felt inspired by his work. But what really made the music to the piece interesting were snippets from Ken Burns’ documentary on Ellington which she incorporated into the piece.
Jeff Gugliotti, at the talkback representing Ellenore Scott, said that her piece, “Bottom of the River,” was about trying to be a good person while facing all of the temptations of evil.
Andre Drummond, who was there on behalf of choreographer Kavin T. Grant, said that the piece he staged, “Gravity…War on Love,” was about the nature of toxic relationships and how they can be difficult to escape or reconcile.
Drummond had performed the piece himself in the Jazz Project in 2015, and he was asked if he saw it any differently now that he was helping to choreograph and stage it.
“When you’re dealing with different people, you have a different dance,” he said, explaining that each performer brings a different kind of energy, and that the dance ultimately has to be authentic to the performers. If the dancers can’t bring honesty about their own struggles to the movements and emotion of the piece, it won’t resonate on stage.
What advice do you have for young dancers?
“Be as well rounded as you can be,” Richard J. Hinds said in response to the question. His feeling is that versatility would help a performer get continuous work. He also said, at least as far as Broadway goes, that all performers are now expected to be able to sing and dance. The days of working purely as a dancer in the chorus are over.
“We want honesty and that truth and the hard workers in the room,” he added.
Liz Piccoli agreed, saying, “Be yourself, be honest, and also have perseverance.” She also suggested that up and coming dancers try to choreograph pieces themselves as a way to gain more artistic freedom. “Explore your methods of creativity.”
Has your view of jazz dance changed over the past 10 years?
“My ideas haven’t changed,” Bob Boross said, but he did say that jazz dance has changed quite a bit. He said that he just tries to stay true to himself when he choreographs a piece and is less concerned with the current trends.
Jaime Shannon said that she grew up with a very limited idea of what jazz was, learning that it was more of a fun art form rather than a serious dance style. But as she learned more about it, she began to wonder, “why is it labeled entertainment instead of emotionally deep?” She now tries to change these ideas about jazz’s depth as a style.
What problems have you faced as a choreographer organizing these pieces?
Jeff Davis said that he had a dancer who entirely missed a show once, and that he had to rearrange a piece on the fly the day of the performance to compensate for that.
“In New York City that’s the constant struggle,” Andre Drummond said. However, he said that he personally enjoys the lack of resources available to choreographers because it forces people to be creative in different ways. “As a choreographer you learn to maneuver through and embrace the challenge.”
“Versatility [in dancers] is great as a choreographer because it helps if someone drops out,” Cat Manturuk said. She explained that Jaime Shannon had to learn a new part for her piece after another dancer dropped out, but she had confidence that it would get done because Shannon is a versatile performer.
What would you suggest if you realize too late you don’t like what you’re doing?
Cat Manturuk’s advice was to practice improv and incorporate it into pieces to be comfortable with changing things on the fly.
“Sometimes you should ask the advice of your dancers,” Alan Spaulding said. He told a story about how, when he taught young kids to dance, he would change through different types of music until the kids danced to it on their own. Once he knew he had something that resonated with them, he would start working on choreography for them.
Jaime Shannon echoed Spaulding’s point, saying that she would often get inspiration from her dancers improvising things or just messing around.
Is there a future for jazz dance?
Cat Manturuk expressed the belief that jazz dance is evolving and needs to continue to do so. “There was a time when there was a thing called jazz rap,” she said, pointing out jazz’s historical ties to hip-hop.
“As I matured [as a dancer] I saw more connections between jazz and hip-hop,” Drummond said, agreeing with Manturuk’s assessment. He also agreed that broadening the spectrum of what jazz is, even to include hip-hop, is a good thing for the longevity of the art form.
Jeff Davis had a slightly different take and pointed to the popularity of musical theater. “People want to see the classics,” he said, and his feeling was that as long as that desire was there, more traditional jazz and musical theater would have a place on Broadway and in popular culture.
What is jazz dance?
“Jazz is personality,” Merete Muenter said. “It’s not always pretty and presented. The groundedness of it, the versatility of it. We’re using it for storytelling more than we used to. There are certain moments from jazz you need to tell a story.”
If you want to learn more about jazz dance, you can see the talk back sessions given by JCE choreographers after our Sunday performances. If you’re in attendance, you can ask one of the choreographers at the performance your very own inquiries about jazz dance or their lives as dancers. The next New York Jazz Choreography Project performances on April 28-29, 2018 will be your opportunity to do so.