The Talkback following the performance of the New York Jazz Choreography Project on Sunday, April 13th, was a lively discussion of jazz dance by its practitioners. JCE Board Vice President, Greg Harris, moderated as choreographers Crystal Chapman, Stephanie Heroux, Michael Jagger and Evita Arce, Sue Samuels, Kirsten Schwartz, Alan Spaulding, and Amy VanKirk spoke about their work.
Greg Harris asked about thoughts regarding dance on television shows. Michael Jagger and Evita Arce were on “So You Think You Can Dance?” in Season 3 and made it to the last 75 dancers. Arce said it was exciting to put Lindy hop and swing dancing in front of the public on that scale, while Jagger said, “I learned that there’s nothing real about reality-based television.” Jagger and Arce were among the older contestants on SYTYCD, and Jagger saw dancers 18 and 19 years old, who were treating the experience as their only shot at a dance career. He said, “I felt fortunate to have had the maturity to understand that this was just one little blip in a long journey of dancing.”
Another blip in the journey of dancing is the occasional injury. When Harris asked if anyone had noticed something unusual about Jagger and Arce’s Lindy hop piece, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” a young audience member raised her hand and said she counted 10 dancers, but saw only eight. One of the dancers had injured his back and neck on the day of the first performance, so he and his partner could not perform. “Unfortunately in our dance, when one dancer gets hurt, two people suffer,” said Jagger. He, Arce, and their dancers had to hastily reset the choreography just before the performance without having time to practice it.
Some of the other choreographers said they didn’t notice anything was amiss with Jagger and Arce’s piece or Alan Spaulding’s “No Worries,” a solo for Darin Chumbley, who performed with an injured back. Spaulding took his dance shoes to the performances, but was relieved he didn’t have to use them since, “Eighty-five percent of Darin is better than one hundred percent of me.”
The choreographers went on to talk about their work. Amy VanKirk’s “Fuerza!Fuego” was a jazz-ballroom fusion based on paso doble styling and vocabulary. VanKirk said she wanted to represent the women in “Fuerza!Fuego!” in a strong way and described her work as music-driven.
Those sentiments were echoed by Crystal Chapman, who said, “As a female choreographer I try to present my ladies in a feminine, yet strong way.” She wanted to choreograph to the version of “A Hard Day’s Night” performed by her company as soon as she heard it and aimed to show her all female cast as individuals in a subtle and playful way.
Sue Samuels choreographed in a classic jazz style to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” but she also has her Jazz Roots Dance Company perform in the styles of other jazz masters, such as Matt Mattox—Jazz Project choreographer Bob Boross recently choreographed a Mattox-style piece for the company—Luigi, and Phil Black. “It’s fascinating to see the vast differences in style of these jazz masters,” she said.
Spaulding added that Samuels puts her own style into the work, as do all the other choreographers. “You always take what you have learned from dance teachers and choreographers, and sometimes what you see on the street, and try to infuse that with what you are doing.”
Stephanie Heroux, whose company Jazz Inc Dance is based in Boston, took what she saw on the street as inspiration for “U Going My Way?” Heroux likes to people-watch and created a musical theater style fantasy about people in a park who start dancing to the music a young woman is listening to in her headphones.
Music is an inspiration for Kirsten Schwartz, who choreographed a solo for her sister, Caitlin, to “Never Loved a Man.” And Schwartz is inspired by the dancer: “I’m not someone who choreographs by saying ‘Do this.’ It’s the dancer who also brings out ideas.” She enjoyed working with her sister, who would tell her if something wasn’t working. “It was an honest way to work with one another.”
Jagger and Arce’s work in Lindy hop with their Syncopated City Dance Company comes from an oral tradition, with roots in jazz from the ‘20’s, ‘30’s, and ‘40’s and influences from Frankie Manning and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who danced in the Savoy Ballroom. Their goal is to take Lindy hop, which is a social form, and put it on the concert stage. It’s not what usually happens with Lindy hop, so they find themselves juxtaposed between the presentational aspect for an audience, but also preserving that social, improvisional sense. “What you saw was choreography, but within each partnership was a lead-follow. There’s a dialogue always happening.”
When Harris asked how jazz is viewed in the academic world, Arce said, “In general, Lindy hop is not really supported or acknowledged as an art form. It really is looked upon as a hobby or extracurricular activity.” She and Jagger hope to change this perception so the academic community can understand that “not only is it [Lindy hop] a part of American history and culture, but psychologically it’s an incredibly healthy way of interacting with another human being.”
VanKirk teaches at Radford University in Virginia and said the dancers are trained in ballet, modern, and jazz. She credits Bob Boross, who formerly taught Matt Mattox technique at Radford, for giving the jazz dancers good training. She said it can be difficult for jazz to thrive in academic settings, which have tended to focus on ballet and modern dance programs. Her goal is to continue to build jazz dance within the higher education setting and to preserve the work and memory of some of the jazz masters because their era is coming to an end.
The talkback ended with a question from an audience member, who noted that the choreographers have the passion to organize work for audiences to watch and dancers to participate in. They also have to do many things to survive and make money. “How do you handle the challenges of juggling so many things to put forward something that’s beautiful?”
Jagger and Arce do some commercial work with their company—e.g., a ‘30’s themed wedding or a corporate event with a Gatsby theme—but teaching is the main source of income for them and most of the other choreographers. Some of them use their classes to try out new choreography.
Chapman said she likes teaching—“it keeps your brain alive”—but it was difficult for her to find a balance. She can find dancers and performance opportunities such as the Jazz Project, but paying for rehearsal space is her biggest challenge.
Schwartz felt there could be more opportunities to showcase choreography. “Sometimes the only thing holding me back, being that I’m a struggling artist, is a lot of them ask for a hundred dollars to submit something.” [For the record, JCE doesn’t charge a submission fee.]
Samuels does a lot of fundraising with Indiegogo or GoFundMe and asks people for help. She seemed to capture a common experience for artists and audience alike when she said, “Basically it just comes down to my credit card.”