JazzXchange Music and Dance Company

10th Anniversary Celebration

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

April 15, 16, 2003 -- Robin Howard Dance Theatre

JazzXchange Music and Dance Company 10th anniversary celebration took place in the Robin Howard Dance Theatre, 15 and 16 April 2003. The performance presented live dance interspersed by video footage that visualised high points in this company’s past. Vignettes of singers and dancers linked the major dance numbers and video presentations. There was also a large ensemble of musicians -- pianist, bass guitar, assorted saxophones, percussionist, trap drums, trombone and trumpet -- that made the whole show a music concert as much as it was an evening of dance.

Visual-ographies of choreographic expressions illustrated the art and practice of Wray and her dancers and Wray’s quest to firmly place improvisation back in jazz dance." Red" (2002) consists of Dennis Morrison’s clips strung together, highlighting inspired episodes of the live performance of "Red" that premiered at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, June 2001.

These clips captured moments in this jazz dance work that did not use conventional jazz dance vocabularies. There is a blend of Black Africa and Islam cultural sensibilities that resulted in altered textures for music and gesture. The dancer’s embodied knowledge seemed predominately contemporary dance but these sensibilities were fractured; not this or that conventional lexicon.

What made this presentation jazz? Jazz is recognised through the work’s altered approach to expressing life experience through movement. These altered attitudes toward art practice fractured the use of rhythm and gesture that combined with improvisation encouraged individualistic expression. The synthesis of familiar materials initiated new hybridisations of contemporary and jazz dance expressions.

"Special Request" (1997) is about transformations. Reaching back to move forward this video is an elaborate voyage of movement expressions illustrating the diversity of Wray’s embodied knowledge. Caribbean moves to New York hip hop groves to walking tall and standing on her shoulders Wray’s performance for the camera demonstrated the transformation of agility in movement skill plus competence in the Africanist aesthetic in dance.

There were other video presentations but these served to reinforce what "Red" and "Special Request" had already illustrated. Even the short video testimony of Wynton Marsalis reinforces Wray’s proclamations of JazzXchange and her vision of jazz dance. Wray stood in as interlocutor of the show and gave a running commentary reiterating significant highlights in JazzXchange’s past and hopes for the future. Choosing her moments well, Wray gave thanks to those individuals who have supported JazzXchange in the past in whatever capacity.

"Are There Any Volunteers?"(2003) conjured Caribbean festivals and summer nights. It was a bit rough on the edges and at times the dancers lost their way spiritually. Irrespective of this, the dancers fed off the live music of nine musicians that was a feat in itself. With rhythmic arms and pulsating torsos and the coordination of exits and entrances the dancers began with single steps that built like the music culminating in movement the dancers restructured before your eyes. When the music was let loose the dancers followed suit. In one instance, Galia Delgado asked the musicians to repeat the rhythm she designed.

Julian Joseph at piano and Cleveland Watkiss sang an inspired rendition of "Many Rivers to Cross" and "Come Sunday Morning." Ife Piankhi performed her own composition, "The Solar System," that started with musicians circling her metaphorically illustrating the power of voice and music to transfix inspiration. This was usurped by dance, epitomised by Shantala Pepe, who circled and thus engulfed Piankhi.

"Harmonica Breakdown" choreographed by Jane Dudley in 1938 was made in a context when African Americans, Native Americans, and poor immigrants of various ethnic origins could not without contention illustrate their own lived experiences. Americans, who empathised with the estrangement endured within these people’s lives, appropriated diverse art practice and portrayed biographical studies of these identities and their associated life experiences. These modern dance practitioners disrupted their individual embodied knowledge, restructured bodily narrative and synthesised an art practice that redefined cultural sensibilities to illustrate heartfelt social and political agendas. Danced by Wray in 2003, "Harmonica Breakdown" (1938) comes down through the ages to a space to speak of triumph striding on the spirit of fortitude. The dance is a metaphor for perseverance and with the harmonica playing of Sonny Terry Wray’s dancing signified the tenacity in sprit of downtrodden people everywhere.

In "Are There Any Volunteer?" Wray refers to herself as the Architect with the dancers: Dance Masons, and the musicians as Special Guests. Improvisation brings musician and dancer in a dialogue of energy; a self-revitalised circle in which shared experience and agreed cultural significations within the structures of jazz music construct the relationship of sound to movement. The sound dictates the mood and dynamic inferences and it is these characteristics the dancer sorts, transforming auditory nuance into bodily narrative. The choice of music colours the evocative and perhaps emotive powers of the dancers. The challenge is to balance physicality and spirituality. The improvisatory reveals itself through the physical manifestations of movement skill and movement style of the person. If music is the inspiration, the improvisatory act is the result of how the dancer apprehends the music given directions and inner inklings. The resultant dancing body reveals the extent of movement experience and perhaps a portal to the insight, outlook, and enlightenment gained through jazz dance and music practice.

"Lucky For Some" (2003) premiered at the Barbican this past January appearing with Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra. As collaboration between jazz music and cotemporary dance "Lucky For Some" is a testimony to the fraternisation of jazz sensibilities. These sensibilities are not so much African as they are the culmination of years of appropriation and synthesis on both sides of the Atlantic, across several art practices, through several cultural sensibilities. What is known is transliterated in sound and in movement. The arms of the dancers illustrated the point of collaboration, move and music expressing the same dynamic, the same rhythm in their own form. The vibrancy in the dancer’s costumes by Shirley Williams reinforced the texture of the sound and the spirit of the dancers, which in this work soared.

The dancers, Yvette Perry Campbell, Galia Delgado, Celia Grannum, Dena Lague, Helen Williams, Shantala Pepe, and Sheron Wray, made their entrances and exits in their individualistic ways of moving. The stage space used in ring shout fashion, the musicians began in the centre and the dancers made use of every available inch around them. The rendition of a New Orleans funeral band emphasised the connection JazzXchange has to the jazz tradition. The musicians moving in processional fashion were followed in similar fashion by the dancers but the dancers congregation stage left took me back to the church and the importance of this space where communities shared anguish and sorrow, joy and exaltation. Trembling and confronting the bereaved, music and movement became a unified dynamic expression of an agreed idea, a shared perspective. This was a creative amalgamation of this known history, this often used icon of jazz memorabilia.

Jazz is a strategy for making art, a particular aesthetic approach to art practice whether movement or music that is in response to or inspired by lived experience. When using this strategy, the improvisatory act becomes a tool, the outward manifestation of inspiration. The improvisatory act becomes the visual articulation of embodied knowledge that reveals individualistic expressions. As the dancers’ moves accelerated to meet the music’s drive and textures "Lucky For Some" seemed the most ambitious stab at Wray’s vision so far. Wray is looking for “jazz” in the dance that she knows instead of bodily narratives that exemplify the use of conventional jazz dance vocabularies.

One has to start somewhere though and for dance one can only start with self; embodied knowledge the dancer already knows to her or his bones. Charlie Parker’s credo “if you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn” offers a perspective. Starting with self, dance creates its own social and political space and its own relationships and practices, its own culture. The person choosing alternative expression be it with arm or saxophone has to know the science of the practice, its history and the context she or he lives in. From what is known and experienced comes a creative choice that indicates deliberate exclusions and altered inclusions. This makes for innovative dance making indeed.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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