Friday, April 24, 2009

The Beginnings of a Jazz Manifesto

I spent a great deal of time trying to formulate my thoughts on the Wen Wei Dance show I experienced on April 15th. Not one to normally experience a knee-jerk reaction after seeing a show, I usually need some time to mull over what I saw before I can really know my thoughts. However, the week it took me with this show seemed excessive. After mulling a bit, I realized that training deeply in a certain approach can tint your glasses. By that, I mean when I was training in a modern-based university, I saw shows like this all the time, and, while they often did not move mountains for me, they were easy to tap into, and after seeing so much of the same kind of movement, it was harder to discern that much of it seemed recycled. After spending the greater portion of a year training with Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, I noticed quickly how much the Wen Wei show seemed to look like so many of the other shows I was seeing in the Twin Cities. DJD has altered my outlook on dance quite a bit this year, for numerous and varied reasons. Not one to be short on words and definitely one to ponder my thoughts through writing, I followed these tendencies and launched into these reasons below.

I am modivated to move most often by the sounds and rhythms that I hear, so to me, this is often simply the most authentic way for me to get engaged in dance (and authenticity is argueably a concept important to all dance practicioners across the board). Purpose for and connection with the music is such a large part of what is done at DJD, and this aspect of it is easily identifiable to me as the main reason why I feel personally in tune with the work. I like to dance when I am out at a club just as much as I like to dance on stage, and the common thread between those two things is music. DJD has brought me closer to using my eyes, ears and mind keenly regarding the relationship of dance and music. The Wen Wei show could have been performed in near silence, and likely would have been as affective for me as it was with the score being used, due to both the music's lackluster quality, and the lack of connection between it and the choreography and performance. Dance existing as a spawn of the music is NOT something that should be looked down upon. So many modern and contemporary schools believe that the dance should come first, and that the music should be created or found for it. While I appreciate this idea and sometimes engage in it myself, I do not think it is the be-all-end-all of dance.

My previous deep, institutional training was executed by a set of people in which there were many believers of the 'Be-all-end-all, music-after-movement' adage. Fortunately, there were a couple who were not so straight-lined, but in fact had their feet pretty firmly planted on the other side of the line, such as my wonderful jazz instructor Karla Grotting. This is not to say that none of the people from either side waivered over the line - there was quite a bit of waivering (and truthfully, I am coming to think that much of my choreographic product waivers in this area as well). It is to say that this line I speak of seemed quite tangible. As I got further into my schooling, I discovered that, with its respect for and connection with the music, as well as the notation of history and permission to emote, jazz dance seemed to be my most fitting form. I have since placed great importance on the continuation and development of jazz dance within the Twin Cities and in general, and have done a lot of thinking regarding how to fight of the music-after-movement skeptics. Some of the various thoughts I have collected;

- Collaboration: As a jazz dancer, you are not a 'slave to the music,' but a part of a collaboration. The musical part of the collaboration, be it in improvising or in dancing to a piece of pre-recorded music, can serve to take you places as a dancer that you may not have gone on your own.
- Versatility: Jazz music has fused with pretty much every other form of music, and if it hasn't, it can. Owning the basics of this dance form can provide a base for catapulting into new musical movement territory.
- Instrumentation: When people hear the word instrument, they think music. However, the word 'instrument' simply refers to a device. Both dancers and musical instruments (and a great deal of other such things) are devices to convey emotion, so why not explore those two devices together for a more powerful affect?
- Which Came First? Music or Movement: This can be as age-old as the chicken-egg arguement. Dance and music are inherently connected. Music cannot be made without a body, and the body often best responds emotionally to music. When seen in this light, their interconnection seems hard to deny.
- Embracing Humanness: When experiencing a dance that simply seems to be celebrating the music, if one takes into account the inherent humanness of dance and music existing as result of one another, this dance already has its purpose, and there should be no need to add on an externally-modivated purpose if the creator did not feel it necessary. This incredible humanness alone is enough to create purposeful, satisfying dance.
-Rhythm is Key: Our body runs on the rhythm of our heart. We can make rhythm with our bodies. It seems that the concept of rhythm could be the key to future permutations of dance, considering that it is always there, regardless of the status of music.
- Music & Dance Are Still Important in Popular Culture: With music, this statement seems obvious. With dance, it is becoming moreso (with positive and negative affects) due to television shows such as 'So You Think You Can Dance.' I have questioned in the last couple of years why it seems that when it comes to entertaining oneself, people do not seem to 'go out dancing' anymore. While this was a sad black hole of thought for me for awhile as a lover of social dance, it became clear to me with more thought that it is not that people do not 'go dancing' anymore, they simply refer to it as something else ('going to the club'), and execute it differently (most often more free-form than in the past, where learned, uniform dances such as the waltz, fox-trot, polka and lindy hop dominated).
- Jazz is an Audio, Visual and Corporeal History of Our Country: I don't know that this needs much justification. :) If history is not a valid modivator, why the hell do we continue to support ballet?
- Definitions: Jazz music and dance employ rather different definitions. In a way, I think that jazz music seems more open than dance to taking different fusion forms under the hood of its main title, but I also tend to think the term 'Jazz' has become a bit of a catch-all in the dance world. It seems that dance latches onto the 'jazz' title for anything that exercises counts and uses that device as a way to provide a surface-level musical connection, and this could be a big reason why certain crowds of dance enthusiasts seem to be skeptical of 'jazz.' When done properly, dance to jazz music can have such a deep, emotion connection with the music that offers performance power like no other. When seen this way, I find it very difficult to be skeptical. It will take work to well-define each, but in the mean time, I know that for me personally, being able to grasp a hold of and use this defined word of 'jazz' has become less important. As far as I am concerned, I am modivated by sound and rhythm, and much of the music that inspires me does not fall directly under the hood of 'jazz.' This does not stop the fact that it inspires me, but I think it will force me to try and find a new definition for what I seem to create. These thoughts have lead me to another word to ponder: Vernacular.
-Modern Disconnect: A modern disconnect from jazz music seems to be the attitude that it is 'sit and listen' music. Even if it is free jazz that employs close to no identifiable rhythmic structure, this music is still utterly capable of making a body want to move, and people should be encouraged to do so and in turn become an active participant, rather than to sit and be a passive observer.

An additional side-affect that I have experienced from training at DJD this year is the desire for and practice of knowing not only the intentionof the dance, but how you fit into it. Knowing the choreographer's intention is all fine and good, but if you do not know how to make it come across, something is missing. I believe the dancers in the Wen Wei show did the best they could with what they had, which seemed to be direction lacking clarity. I saw loose relationships develop and create suggestions, but the nonchalantness of their performance against a non-changing sound backdrop made it hard to distinguish which situations were important. To find a connection between intention and performance at DJD, it is not only encouraged, but expected that a dancer actively pursues this through combinations of speaking with the choreographer, creating a back story or character for oneself, going through dances and examining the opportunities to exploit these ideas, as well as opportunities to connect with one another if that is what the dance calls for. These are just examples, but the through-line is knowing how to develop your performance so as to best communicate the idea. The movements alone are not enough - they must be executed with integrity and honesty to your background for the piece to really get the intention across. For me personally, this meant not being afraid to show emotion through my face. Overdoing it is often better than under, as overdone can be toned down, but underdone can make it hard to dig that emotion out.

With several opportunities to sub adult classes, I rediscovered my desire to share my passion with competent, developed people who wish to be there and absorb the knowledge. I was able to form some great classes, including specific classic exercises I plan to bring home and integrate into the workshops I will be teaching this June at Zenon Dance Company & School (a very exciting step for me).

If you want to be a choreographer, you must be creating consistently. In my mind's eye, I know this is true, but it never hurts to hear it again. A couple times. No - Consistently. I have commited myself to the idea of daily improvisation practice, and have began to read Twyla Tharp's book 'The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life,' so as to better understand myself as a creator and what I need to do to keep myself at my most productive and high-quality level.

I am musical and connected, rhythmically correct and invested, but I can always push myself further physically. I hesitate to say 'technique,' because that causes self-doubt and gets me in my head, but thinking 'physically' makes me push further. In addition to our dance training, I took up going to the gym and taking yoga classes for a period of time, and I was pleasantly surprised to see just how easy it was to take on more. This also further developed my interest in personal training, as well as a desire to see just how much physical conditioning I can take on and what the results might be in the future. I believe that additional training and conditioning, paired with willingness to push myself physically while dancing, can take me places as a performer and movement lover in general.

I enjoy chocolate-chip cookies and yet-to-be-defined baked-goods, all in the same basket.

Whaaa? I will connect this seemingly random subtitle in a moment, rest assured. Back to a previous connector, my observations of the Wen Wei show made more sense to me as I considered the fashion of my training this year. Who knows; maybe if I had been training in a modern school all year, I would have raved about it. However, I know myself well enough to doubt this. I think I have simply had the opportunity to better understand why it is that I enjoy dance, and much of that has to do with respect for and use of the music, alongside many other great reasons. As I move further on my creative journey, it seems to me that jazz as a dance form is a delicious chocolate-chip cookie, fresh out of the oven when done right (like at DJD), and that while I know I enjoy baked goods (dance/ movement creation), and am getting a better idea of what spices to add to make the product as delicious as possible, I am still figuring out the best cooking methods and what to call this delicious baked good when it is done. Regarding the place of my time with DJD on this journey, I can say with utmost certainty that I tried some amazingly delicious cookies, and am much closer to figuring out my recipe. With equal certainty, I offer that I am sure my recipe will include chocolate chips.

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