While American jazz dance has been around since the early 1900’s, there are few concert dance companies today that specialize in it. Seattle in particular has experienced a dearth of jazz dance since Spectrum Dance Theater transitioned away from the form about ten years ago. Enter Paula Peters and Rhonda Cinotto and their Contemporary Jazz Dance Project. The company aims to “explore current trends in jazz dance aesthetics,” looking at traditional jazz through a contemporary lens. Their program, presented on Sunday, October 6, 2013, in UW’s Meany Studio Theater, was their first effort towards this end.
Peters and Cinotto opened the show with their jointly choreographed duet Just Because. With bass-heavy electronic music by Analogik that played with tango and salsa themes, the piece had a simmering flirty quality. Their fingers slowly drummed across their backs or unfurled toward the audience, and a flurry of angled arms was followed by nimble-footed jumps. The heavy use of isolation and understatement made the dynamic moments stand out more, and also reinforced the power of subtlety that jazz dance is known for. The title of the piece was its most indicative feature, though. Peters and Cinotto are strong, capable, and specialized dancers, who seem to be making work for the fun of exploring their passion for jazz. The piece had an air of righteousness to it, and it was a treat to watch these mature dancers explore their art form so fervently.
Revisited, also choreographed by Cinotto and Peters, featured an ensemble of seven women clad in flowing tank tops of varying shades of red and purple. The choreography deconstructed typical jazz dance paradigms but also added to the standard jazz vocabulary with touches of different genres. Elements of modern dance were visible in the floorwork and influences of hip hop were laced into sharper, shuffling footwork. The formal, slightly distant feeling of the piece felt disconnected from the dancers’ bright and cheery smiles, or perhaps the smiles intensified the feeling. The strongest moments were seen in the large ensemble sections where pure movement reigned and the dancers spun, somersaulted, and twisted through dynamic phrases.
Caitlin Johnson and Derek Nemechek, both Los Angeles-based dancers, performed Dale A. Merrill’s Thanks for the Ride. Brimming with personality and charisma, Johnson burst on stage looking like Sandy from Grease in her post bad-girl-makeover with tight black leggings and blonde locks to boot. Nemechek easily matched her sass with his own masculine dynamism. The choreography struck the perfect balance between the flashy extensions and leaps—which are so often over-emphasized in competition pieces—and the smaller articulated footwork of jazz. Slouchy contractions, breezy jumps, and the dancers’ tongue-in-cheek flirtiness, gave the piece a bubbly sense of play. Merrill’s choreography felt the most “traditional jazz” on the program, and this also seemed to make it the most effective. (It is worthwhile to note that Merrill was the founding Artistic Director of Spectrum and led the company when it was a repertory jazz group). Stereotypes can exist for a reason and perhaps jazz gets boxed into the splashy Broadway corner because it’s so effective at conveying that type of energy. This isn’t to say that jazz can’t be a versatile style, but Thanks for the Ride seemed to show that jazz’s greatest strengths are indeed close to its common image.
The audience was also treated to a sneak peak of Entropy’s upcoming show Iron Daisies. With a wash of gold light coming from one side of the stage and cellist Daniel Mullikin’s ominous melodies to set the mood, the piece carried a pervasive sense of sorrow. The five women (including choreographer Alicia Mullikin) seemed to struggle against both internal and external demons as they screamed silently at the audience and carved their way through the grounded and pulsing movement. Though this was only an excerpt, it will be interesting to see how the full piece develops. The weighty sense of melancholy that was so well defined and effective in this short segment could grow wearisome for the entirety of an evening, but audiences will have to wait until their show opens at Velocity on October 18, to find out.
The final piece, Entropy, choreographed by Cheryl Delostrinos and dancers lightened the mood. Set to a synthy electronic song with girlish, breathy vocals by Made in the Heights, the piece offered a solid dose of ensemble hip hop. Wearing pedestrian clothing and their faces covered by plastic animal masks, the group floated into stretched lines and reverberated in broken down weight shifts. Delostrinos created a nice sense of flow throughout the work that made it easy to watch, and the final gesture, where one dancer sneakily bunny-eared the others as they sank to the ground, gave the animal masks—which bordered on gimmicky—a clever twist.
As a whole, the program was decidedly different than what’s seen in other pockets of Seattle dance, which made for an energizing and refreshing program. There’s definitely room for classical and contemporary jazz on Seattle’s stages, and it’s good to see someone leading the charge to bring awareness back to this art form.