The US has a culture in which artists are constantly pushing the envelope, aiming for riskier and crazier heights with every move (just look at Miley Cyrus’s recent VMA performance). In this environment, it is sometimes refreshing to witness dance that is happy playing it safe. Relay Dance Collective’s debut evening, Music + Motion, presented August 24-25 at Dance Fremont!, was a veritable collage of dance and music styles. The recital-like collection of pieces emphasized entertainment and diversity.
Important dance forms like jazz have been pushed aside in recent years. Classic jazz dance is seen as “Mickey-Mousing,” or is only seen in certain venues, such as musical theatre productions. Jenny Hillock’s Shadow Dancing, presented as the finale of the first act, was unabashedly jazzy, flashy, and simply entertaining.
With the lights off, several shadowy dancers clad in black held on to the brims of their hats with delicate, white-gloved fingers. One heel was popped off the floor, and white socks poked their tops out of black jazz shoes. The dancers performed with great enthusiasm, complete with wide smiles and adorable head-bobs. The piece was innovative in its sheer courage to present something as seemingly un-courageous as Broadway jazz, in the midst of a contemporary-heavy dance scene. Hillock also pushed the envelope by actually mentioning her influence in the liner notes, which read, “Based on movement by Bob Fosse.” As it is rather uncommon for artists to pay tribute to those who came before, it was refreshing to see Hillock do so.
Unfortunately, this gratitude was not reflected in the music by the Bad Tenants which accompanied Gabrielle Nomura’s piece Paradigm Shift. Though all three musicians were talented (especially singer Good Matters, with his strong and soulful voice), at times their lyrics seemed misappropriated from hip hop culture. There was a disconnect between Nomura’s fresh choreography, which paid homage to styles she has obviously grown up with, and the music, specifically the lyrics about “hustlers.” It seems unlikely the Bad Tenants grew up around actual hustlers, which made the music seem offbeat with the culture from which the musicians emerged. It certainly did not fit the respectful way in which Nomura used the jazz and ballet idioms. Nomura’s choreography was strong, and featured four very different dancers. All body types were represented, and each dancer’s unique personality shone through. Like Hillock’s choreography, Nomura’s was unafraid to be performative. The dancers were sexy at times, playful and innocent at others. Their movement screamed “jazz” as they extended their legs sharply in the air. And when they pirouetted gracefully, they revealed Nomura’s respect for ballet. Despite the grating musical lyrics, the piece came off powerfully. Overall, The Bad Tenants showed they have the potential to grow into something more in sync with who they really are: they utilized their great skills on saxophone and trombone to augment the digital music and the climax of the choreography. It will be great to see them develop this unique and innovative addition to their performance.
The highlight of the evening was also its shortest piece: Xaviera Vandermay’s Bird Machine. Originally choreographed for one of Vandermay’s twelve-year-old students, Vandermay danced this solo with pure, authentic joy. She articulated particular body parts with intricacy, while at the same time moving so quickly she created a blur across the space. Her facial expressions were equally precise and fascinating, ranging from wide-mouthed smiles with her tongue sticking out, to child-like face-scrunching. When interviewed, Vandermay remarked, “I’m getting old-ish,” so she only presented a small chunk of the piece. A powerful performer, it would be great to see her share more of this fun and joyful work.
With their debut evening, Relay Dance Collective showed it is certainly on its way to achieving its goals of presenting “diverse works and innovative partnerships.” They featured jazz, ballet, and hip hop. They emitted prettiness, humor, and melodrama. Though Relay was not trying to push the envelope and follow the latest contemporary trends, the work they presented had its own appeal. Its classic jazz, ballet, and modern roots made this troupe stand out.
For more information about this new group, please visit www.relaydance.org.