Following the Sunday performance of the New York Jazz Choreography Project in October 2016, some of the choreographers remained for a brief talkback in which they fielded questions from the audience.
The panel was hosted by board member Greg Harris and consisted of 10 choreographers: Adrián Aguirre, Audra Bryant, Jeff Davis, Julia Halpin, Svetlana Khoruzhina, Fatima Logan, Sekou McMiller, Bryan Menjivar, Bobby Morgan, and Alexis Robbins.
The group gave the following answers to questions from the audience:
How do these pieces evolve from the inception to the performance?
There seemed to be a split between the choreographers as to whether or not they started developing their pieces from the music or from a concept. For some the answer was also specific to the piece from the performance, while for others it was how they work in general.
“The music…made me want to move really big. I let the music take over the quality of the movement,” Aguirre said, after explaining that the piece was mostly inspired by the music.
Menjivar said he usually starts with the music. “I listen to a song and try to think what story I can tell with it.” In the case of “Never Be Like You” (choreographed by Menjivar and Sharlane Conner) he said that the story of the piece evolved from a notion of not wanting to be like someone else to not wanting to conform to what someone else wanted him to be.
“I heard this song [‘Speakeasy'] two years ago and knew I would choreograph for it eventually,” Bryant said. She explains that she starts with the music and then delves into research to generate more movement concepts. “I have to have a goal outside of the movement for the piece.”
Khoruzhina said that her piece began as a school assignment in which she was just playing with the music and trying to set movements that were in opposition to it. “It’s the story of digesting info from the world that you maybe aren’t ready to yet,” she said of the piece, describing the meaning she derived from it after exploring the movements.
“I heard this piece and immediately wanted to choreograph for it,” Robbins said. She also said that the music inspired the idea for her dancers’ costumes as well.
On the other side, several of the other choreographers said that they began with an idea before finding the appropriate music.
“It starts with a thought or a question and then I toy around with some early movements,” Logan said. She said that sometimes the music is the initial inspiration, but that the concept of the piece is ultimately important.
Morgan said his piece came from the idea of battling against the forces, like media, that are trying to mold you as a person.
Halpin said that her work started from a costume which raised questions about gender and how it is presented in society. From there she happened to find music that fit well with the larger concept she was trying to portray.
“I work with dancers who get me and help with creating the actual steps,” she said about the development of the piece. She says that she doesn’t tell them specifically what to do, that it’s more about finding movements that fit with the concept rather than having specific movements in mind.
“’[Palladium: the Chase]‘ is ten to eleven years old,” McMiller said of his duet piece. “I wanted to choreograph something that would be meant for entertainment.” He went on to explain that his method for choreographing has evolved since then.
“Nowadays I work more from a grand scope.” He explained that high concept ideas about big topics like faith or social justice are often the inspiration for his pieces.
How do you think about jazz in its whole continuum? Is this something you consider when choreographing?
What exactly jazz dance entails or where it is heading is a popular question at JCE talkbacks, especially after the audience sees the range of styles that fall under the umbrella of jazz dance. This time, even some of the choreographers were impressed with the range of styles that they saw.
“Jazz fits the way I like to move,” Bryant said. She also added that seeing all of the different pieces in the performance enhanced her appreciation of the dance style and its diversity. “I see how jazz is sort of based on the popular music of the time or popular style of the time.”
Logan echoed Bryant’s sentiment. “Participating opened my eyes on what jazz is. It’s very hard to group styles now with so much fusion.”
“I think it’s important that we don’t become stagnant,” McMiller said. “This category, to me, is an extremely broad category.”
“It’s always ever-growing, which is what I love about the genre,” Menjivar said.
When you’re choreographing do you take dancers who move how you like or tailor the piece to the dancers you have?
This last question was asked in slightly different ways by two different people, and the choreographers had some interesting and varied responses.
“For me it’s a little bit of both,” Robbins said. “I feel the way I move is very tailored to my body and its limitations.”
She went on to say that in certain sections of a group piece the dancers need to be very precise in their movements, but in other parts she lets the dancers be more independent. Menjivar agreed, saying that different pieces call for different approaches.
“It’s really what the piece calls for,” he said. “Sometimes uniform looks better, sometimes individual. It’s the moments you want to find.”
“The best we can do is have the same concept, and at a distance we’ll blend,” Logan said on her approach to choreography.
“I try to get them to move like I do,” Bryant said of her dancers. But she also conceded that when she dances for someone else, she tries to do the same. “I try to move the same way my choreographers do.”
McMiller said that working with a lot of different dancers and seeing how they perform a piece can bring inspiration in itself and allow the dance to evolve. Halpin also agreed that she is more free form about her choreography and lets her dancers have input into the piece. She said that she specifically works with a lot of circus performers who already are used to having a strong individual stage presence.
If you found these answers interesting or want to learn more about jazz dance, be on the lookout for future talkbacks hosted by JCE after their performanc