Ailey Citigroup Theater, New York, NY
October 17, 2015
Jazz is an ever-evolving form of dance. From its African roots, to the ‘classical’ style pioneered by choreographers like Jack Cole in the mid-20th-century, to the modern-influenced contemporary style popular today, jazz dance has always reflected the culture in which it’s being performed. Recently, Jazz Choreography Enterprises celebrated many of these different forms of jazz dance with the New York Jazz Choreography Project, an entertaining and varied program featuring the work of sixteen jazz choreographers.
Perhaps the most iconic jazz style is the ‘classical’ style, featuring long lines, isolations, and a cool nostalgic feel. This style was well represented at Saturday’s performance, particularly with Bob Boross’ Big Man on Mulberry Street. The piece was a quintessential classic jazz dance (almost to the point of cliché), with its cast of fedora-adorned male dancers performing Boross’ smooth, stylized choreography with wonderfully controlled movements. Millionaire’s Holiday, choreographed by Jeff Davis, used classical jazz to bring its story of a mid-century hotel’s inhabitants to life, with Davis’ charismatic performance in the piece being a particular standout.
The most compelling classical jazz of the evening, however, was Carol Haney’s Satin Doll, restaged by Mimi Quillin for dancers from the Steps on Broadway Conservatory Program. Haney was a Broadway dancer and choreographer who worked with both Bob Fosse and Gene Kelly before choreographing such Broadway shows as Flower Drum Song and Funny Girl. Fosse’s influence was clearly felt in the piece’s precise, isolated movements, but Haney’s choreography added a flowing and more balletic edge. The student dancers performed the piece with poise and strong technique, though their movements were slightly lacking the strong sense of intention that makes the smaller, more Fosse-esque movements go from being barely perceptible to truly captivating.
The program also celebrated the modern-inspired ‘contemporary’ jazz style that is most popular today. These contemporary pieces included Jaclyn O’Rourke’s emotive Desperate Measures, whose teenage performers from the Jazz Unlimited Dance Ensemble were wonderfully controlled and expressive; and A Waltz, which was both choreographed and performed with off-kilter personality and lovely technique by Julia Halpin. The real standout, however, was Kavin T. Grant’s Gravity…War on Love, a duet performed by Carmen Cage and Dre Drummond exploring a couple’s tumultuous relationship. Simultaneously intricate yet flowing in its movements, the piece felt broadly expressive but also nuanced.
But jazz dance isn’t just a binary of classical and contemporary, and other numbers throughout the program celebrated jazz’s numerous and diverse influences. These influences range from African dance, with Fatima Logan’s Snap Out Of It and its strong, angular movements set to a live drumbeat score, to disco with Kaitlyn Flynn’s captivating The Sweet Escape. Flynn’s piece was particularly striking, representing disco through its groovy sinuous movements without ever feeling campy or cheesy. Darius Drooh’s La Madrina (The Godmother) closed out the program with an explosive routine that brought in both contemporary and hip-hop influences. The large group number’s intensity was so gripping that watching it actually felt genuinely thrilling. The dancers’ movements, particularly from the three women in the piece, were imbued with an incredibly fierce strength that made them magnetic to watch.
Another highlight of the program was the inclusion of swing dancing, representing the social dance style’s early influence on jazz. Tony Fraser and Jaime Shannon’s Zig Zag Bounce was intricate and varied, with genuinely impressive hurtling lifts that simultaneously felt nonchalant and awe-inspiring. Rock It for Me by Karla Garcia, meanwhile, blended some more technical turns and extensions in with the social dance, and the piece’s over-the-top energy exuded an infectious joy that made it incredibly fun to watch.
The evening had its uneven moments as well, but the variety of works onstage at the New York Jazz Choreography Project made for an entertaining and enlightening program, demonstrating what jazz dancing both has been and can be. With ballet and modern often receiving the bulk of attention when it comes to concert dance, Jazz Choreography Enterprises reminds us that jazz, too, is a style worthy of the spotlight.