Savage Jazz Dance Company

"Take Five," "Rose Rouge," "Controversial Suite I," "Blue Rondo a la Turk," "Black Codes (From the Underground)" & "M’Boom"

Alice Art Center, Oakland, CA

November 30, 2001
By Mary Ellen Hunt

My boyfriend, a jazz trumpeter, once asked me ingenuously, "What is jazz dance?" I was at a loss as to how to explain. "Jazz dance" can be a notoriously ill-defined category ranging from theatrical-style dance to contemporary ballet, but rarely does it intersect at all with "jazz music" or even the principles of jazz music. Fortunately there is Savage Jazz Dance Company; a high-spirited, nine-year old Oakland group led by Reginald Ray-Savage. Working with classic jazz works and often in collaboration with live musical groups such as the Marcus Shelby Quintet, Savage hews closely to the spirit of jazz.

In their recent Oakland home season at the Alice Arts Center, a myriad of pieces were on view, including premieres to works of Wynton Marsalis and Max Roach as well as to the music of Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington. At times the program grew long and had something of the feel of a student dance concert, but at its best it was a sprightly affair that demonstrated a diversity of styles and showed off a company of exuberant movers.

The evening opened with Brubeck's popular Take Five, in which an impish Frances Rosario encountered a snobbish quartet of dancers intent on giving her the cold shoulder. Rosario, whose style showed beautifully in this work, is a clean mover with definite ideas in her head. Her quizzical air was perfectly suited to the role of the outsider and her clear personality and amplitude of movement made her enormous fun to watch.

Whimsy played a part in several of the evening's works, including the Controversial Suite to Ellington's piece of the same name as well as the "Blues" section from Black Codes and these were among the more successful pieces. Still, the drive the dancers put behind a more abstract interpretation of Brubeck's Blue Rondo a la Turk was admirable, and there again, Rosario stood out for her crisp musicality and witty mood.

The Marcus Shelby Quintet joined the group onstage for Wynton Marsalis' Black Codes (From the Underground), leading off with Wee Folks, a moody work that showed the dancers in choreography that more explicitly displayed Savage's roots in modern technique. Blues, which returned to the notion of a dramatic story line had a sexy appeal along with an insouciant humour. The one misfire of the evening was the solo Aural Oasis which Susannah Blumenstock performed to an enigmatic accompaniment. Although clearly upset about something, Blumenstock was never quite able to convey what it was, nor did the choreography make full use of the musical dynamics, although admittedly, this would have been a hard work to choreograph anything to.

Despite a good effort by the dancers, it seemed more or less apparent that there had been minimal rehearsal time with the musicians, and here an unfortunate situation was exposed. In the most ideal world, these dancers would work closely with musicians for an extended period of time, developing a true collaboration. By working and performing together on a regular, and more importantly, on a frequent basis, the kind of sixth sense awareness develops between the artists that does between the musicians and the dancers in their individual groups. Things (i.e. funding) being what they are, musicians and dancers often wind up rehearsing separately and then only at the last second come together in what everyone hopes will be a serendipitously coherent performance. In this case, both Savage Jazz and Marcus Shelby's Quintet are professional enough that their union is an agreeable one, but one is left with the lingering impression that it could be even more.

The evening closed with M'Boom set to music from Max Roach's percussion-only album of the same title. The music has a more African backbone to it and Savage has drawn on Afro-Caribbean dance forms, in which a use of isolinear space invoked an appropriately ritual feel.


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Edited by Marie.

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