Photo: Jan La Salle
Jazz Choreography Enterprises hosted its fall performances of the JCE Jazz Dance Project at the KnJ Theater at Peridance on October 22nd and 23rd, 2022. A talk-back moderated by Co-Artistic Director Marian Hyun followed the last performance. It was open to all members of the audience and included Honors Program students from Quinnipiac University.
Cory “Nova” Villegas (“Liberada”) spoke first about her background in dance and her time at Hunter College where she sought to push boundaries. “When I got there, there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me,” she said and explained that a lot of the Afro-Caribbean dances she had grown up with weren’t taken as seriously as other styles. She wanted to change that and became the first person to choreograph a salsa piece for the program. She said that she wants Afro-Caribbean dance to be appreciated in a more academic sense and not purely in the context of social dancing.
Tony Fraser, who performed the duet “Midnight Soiree” with his dance partner Jaime Shannon, was asked about his experience with dance. “I’ve been dancing for twenty-five years now, all swing, all jazz,” he said. He explained that the first 15 years he danced it was all “in the round.” “The form of dance we do, it feeds off the crowd…it’s really a social dance.”
When he began doing stage performances about 10 years ago with Shannon, it was a big transition. “I was completely lost,” he said. Being unable to see the audience or feed off their energy in the same way was a big change, and Shannon had to help guide him through his first performance.
Shannon spoke about swing dance as an art form and the way it’s evolving. “There’s a lot of people who dedicate themselves to the historical aspect, but there are others doing new things.” She puts herself more in the latter camp. “Both need to exist,” she said. She thinks it’s valuable and fascinating to watch people who are able to perform pieces using entirely traditional or historical steps, but that pushing forward with new ideas is important as well. “If we don’t let it evolve, it cuts the spirit of it.”
Marian Hyun then asked Cat Manturuk-Deaver and Bobby Morgan to speak about how they combine so many different styles in their choreography and whether or not they find that challenging.
“When I improvise it’s hard to stay in one style,” Manturuk-Deaver said. As she put it, she’s happy to go from performing break dancing moves into doing a pirouette. These types of movement combinations, inherent in her dance style which she calls Mod-Hop-Jazz, were on full display in her piece “Bye Bye Blues.”
Morgan agreed saying, “Sometimes it can be really constraining to stay in one lane.” His piece, “This is Not a Performance: Healing Ritual (Part 1),” similarly showed off his ability to move between a variety of different dance styles with ease.
However, both also said that understanding the base styles that they’re borrowing from and combining in order to create their work is important, as is respecting the history of these dance styles.
Tommy Scrivens spoke about dance history. His piece, “Caravan,” was performed by students at the Union County Academy for Performing Arts. “Every generation moves in a different way,” he said, speaking to how different the young dancers of today are. But he also said, “It’s good to understand how to ground yourself.”
He likes to ground the virtuosity of the younger generation with the nature of the older jazz dance styles. He also thinks it’s important to realize that a lot of popular American dance styles are grounded in black suffering. He says that he doesn’t think a lot of younger people understand or recognize that.
Asked about the trends emerging in the dance performance world, Avital Asuleen (“When No One Is Looking”), who directs the Choreography Lab at New York Theatre Barn, spoke about the increased amount of diversity that she’s seen in the dance and performing arts world. She feels that over the last decade more producers have made diversity a priority and that you can see it in the types of productions being put on now at every level. “There’s a willingness to be more expansive,” she said, referring to how she’s seen greater diversity not just in terms of dance style but also in terms of things like race, culture, and body size or type.
Jeff Davis (“Steppin’ Out”) spoke next. Most of his pieces have strong narrative elements, but he said that while he likes narrative, it’s not always what he comes up with first. “There’s no order. Sometimes it’s the music first,” he said. He also explained that he often has ideas for large props and sets that are impractical in a lot of theater spaces, so he has to find ways to pare things down, but said “the limitations expand things creatively.”
Ai Toyoshima choreographed “Gershwin, Mon Amour” to a medley of Gershwin songs that were arranged by pianist Ayako Hirasawa. Asked if working with an arranger changed the way she choreographed, she said, “I think working with an arranger made my process easier.” Instead of having to adjust things she wanted to do with her choreography fully to the music, she could have small changes made to the music so that it better fit her work. This made the choreography process easier, and as Toyoshima explained it, it sounded like it was all positive.
Hyun then asked Danielle Diniz (“All the Right Pieces”) and DoubleTake Dance directors Vanessa Martínez de Baños and Ashley Carter (“The Sky is Green and the Grass is Blue”) about how they select dancers for their pieces, as their choreography is physically demanding.
“I had some technical expectations, and I was very familiar with these three dancers,“ Diniz said, referring to her cast. Her pieces are known for their speed, which can make them especially challenging. But pure skill isn’t all she’s interested in. “I like working with so many different types of dancers…I generally look for a technical base, but that’s not a bar. I like working with people with an open mind.”
Martínez de Baños spoke about how the casting process for her pieces with Carter are gender blind. “When we cast our dancers, we cast whoever is best in the room.” They don’t worry about pairing men and women for things like lifts but instead just experiment with different styles of lifts or other technical elements until they fit with the dancers they have. “We enjoy creating narrative work that’s gender neutral,” Carter added, explaining that they don’t envision lifts or other elements as requiring a dancer of any specific gender to perform them.
Danita Shaheen (“Cruci-fix”) spoke a bit about her creative process and love of collaboration. “I love my dancers’ input,” she said. “I’m always looking for their feedback.” But Shaheen’s collaborative efforts don’t end with getting her dancers’ input for a piece. She gets input and inspiration from non-dancers as well. “I try to find inspiration from various sources and artists,” she said, with many of those artists working in media outside of dance.
While Barbara Angeline could not attend the talk-back, she had dancers represent her. One of those dancers, Olivia Creigh, explained that their piece, “In Pieces: A Vaudeville Revue (Finale),” was based on the works of Aida Overton Walker, a performer and choreographer in Vaudeville and on Broadway. It developed out of playing around with different ideas set in Walker’s style, but it ended up being more than that. “This dance was a mix of [Walker’s] history but also everything we were dealing with with Covid,” she said.
If you want to learn more about Jazz Choreography Enterprises’ performances and events, please check our website: jazzchoreography.com.