On Sunday, May 17, 2015, Jazz Choreography Enterprises held a show at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House as part of the site’s Second Sundays Performance Series. Most of the pieces presented had appeared in past JCE performances and included works from jazz dance veterans like Robert Audy, Kelly Carrol, and Sue Samuels, and JCE regulars like Cat Manturuk and Christopher Liddell.
Choreographer Jaime Shannon had two pieces in the program including an entirely improvised Lindy Hop piece that provided some insight into how the dance was originally performed back when it was a club dance. Alan Spaulding, another JCE regular, performed two solo pieces.
Juliet Dolan and Julia Halpin reprised pieces they performed at the spring performance of the New York Jazz Choreography Project a month earlier. JCE newcomer Lisa Biagini, a teacher of the Luigi style, also choreographed a solo piece for the show.
Following the performance several choreographers and dancers remained for a talkback where they answered questions fielded from the audience.
There were several questions about the process of developing and choreographing a dance. The first was, how long does it take to complete a piece starting from its conception, and is the process towards completion always the same?
Jaime Shannon said, “I like to have at least ten rehearsals.” However, she also said it really depended on the time and resources available before a performance. She indicated that she did not have that many rehearsals for either of the pieces she performed that day.
Cat Manturuk put together a duet with dancer Danita Shaheen in only three hours. The pair have worked together for many years, and Manturuk cited that as a reason for their ability to construct a high quality piece so quickly. She pointed out that the larger group number she choreographed took much longer, and there appeared to be an echoed sentiment that the more people added to the piece the longer it takes to get it to a completed state.
The next process related question was, when creating a piece, does the music or the idea come first?
“When I was younger it was the music first,” Shannon said. “But as I got older I started having some conceptual ideas.”
She explained that for any jazz or swing dancing she creates based on the music. “Early jazz was so based on the music,” she said. It was something that could be seen in her improvised Lindy Hop piece.
However, for contemporary dance pieces, she said that she often preferred to work from a concept.
Someone wanted to know if choreographers adjust the piece they are working on to their dancers.
“As a choreographer I constantly adjust to show off the talent I’m working with,” Shannon said. Other choreographers felt the same way. Some added that the shorter the rehearsal time, the more the choreographer has to adjust to the dancer to make sure that the dancer is comfortable and that the piece looks good on stage.
Some choreographers were stricter. Manturuk said she would rather put in the time to have her dancers learn the movements she’s created than make adjustments to the piece too quickly. However, she also said that there are a lot of movements in a piece that can develop organically or collaboratively between the dancers and the choreographer.
Joseph Akin, one of Manturuk’s dancers, believed that a variety of little things could affect the way that a piece turned out. This ranged from how a piece looked in a specific rehearsal space, and how that might make the dancers or choreographers want to change things, to who might be sitting in on a rehearsal and what their comments about something would be.
“The bigger the group, the more precise I am,” Liddell said of his method. He felt that with solos, duets, or smaller pieces there was more room for adjustment to the dancers. In fact he felt it was better to approach smaller pieces in that way to really let the individual dancers, or the chemistry between two in a duet, truly shine.
Turning attention to the dancers, one of the audience members was curious what the average day in the life of a professional dancer was like.
“Dancers have to have a lot of jobs and wear a lot of hats,” Shannon said. She works at a hair salon while also teaching, dancing, and choreographing.
Akin said that he rehearses and works a “normal person job” during the week, and then he takes the weekends off to relax when he can. Shaheen said laughingly that she didn’t want to talk about what her day was like because she didn’t “want to depress anyone.”
Finally someone wanted to know what the connection between being a dancer and a choreographer was. Are choreographers all dancers first? Is there specific training for choreographers, or some kind of special transition from dancing to choreographing?
Shannon and Manturuk both said that they took choreography classes in college, which they felt provided an outline of how to approach the work. But ultimately they felt each choreographer’s method was still individual and that becoming a choreographer was something you had to have an interest in.
“I started as a dancer, but I quickly started telling everyone around me what to do,” Manturuk said, explaining that she felt she understood how pieces worked at an early age and enjoyed getting all of the dancers around her on the same page.
Liddell had a slightly different point of view, saying, “Nobody trains choreographers.” Then gesturing to the other dancers and choreographers on stage he added, “It’s nice when choreographers can get together and have a dialogue, but I think [the work is] mostly individual.”