There’s an essential relationship between the roots of jazz dance and its evolution. In the current context of increasing gender awareness, how will jazz dance rise as both an incubator for what we know jazz to be, while also allowing room to discuss the political (and often uncomfortable) themes? Although the life of a historical jazz musician hardly seems relevant to most audience members, Kimberly Cooper’s stab at provocative topics — domestic violence, sexualization and even toxic masculinity — recontextualizes and understands them in the context of current understandings of these issues.
Through her imaginative choreography, Cooper calls for a reconstruction of the gender roles that are still in place by reimagining these roles through past paradigms. In challenging these constructs, it is essential to understand not only when they can be used to drive a point but also when you need to shake things up a bit. The energizing, fast-paced choreography makes it hard to tell who’s leading whom, as the traditional gender roles begin to shift, turn and flip, demonstrating how jazz is capable of being known for more than just music and vernacular style.
The performance begins with the syncopated plucking of bass strings. The women of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (DJD) slowly emerge, manoeuvering along a thin panel of light. Guided by the slow undulation of their torsos, the beginnings of jazz rhythms are spelled out to the audience. Soon enough, the lights come on, and the company bursts out from the wings, pairing the stylized complexity of highly choreographed concert jazz steps — leaps, turns and extensions — with the syncopated movements and accents that can only come from a true embodiment of vernacular jazz. The energy of the live band drives the company; however, in classic jazz fashion, the essence of cool is at the forefront and remains the guiding principle.
DJD repeatedly demonstrates the ability of their dancers to dance not only to the music but also in constant conversation with it. With challenging pieces of music, such as Modes D, E and F, the dancers are in constant dialogue with the musicians, as the piece proves to be physically taxing and musically complex, leaving the dancers on their last leg, quite literally. Between the dancers’ physicality as they bound and leap across the stage, and their internalization of the stylistic demands of vernacular jazz, they expertly merge the complex demands of jazz dance. It is the mastery of this exchange with the music that keeps the audiences on their toes and proves the validity of the roots of jazz.
Within the context of movements such as #MeToo, the recontextualization of gender constructions in the 1950s and 1960s and several other essential reflections on gender and social structure, the work Untitled Original Composition initially reads as an explicit and passionateexchange between lovers. However, the work begins to bring up comments on the constant violence between those in power and outside of it, and by placing these issues on the mainstage, we are allowing hidden aggressions to become a topic of debate and a plea for change.
Reciting a monologue equating men to animals, Kaleb Tek describes the roots masculinity was built on; it is their constant resort to violence that exacerbates the idea that men were, and have always been, in a dominant role that acts to suppress others. The monologue proves to be a piece of historical prejudice meant to serve as a contextualization of our current world. The company’s interpretation of provocative thematic choices allows the audience to reflect on our current context by surveying the past.
In balancing the re-enactment of the past with the advancement of power and gender within the form, Cooper allows space for men to surrender and demonstrate a certain sense of delicacy as the women step up and out in a brazen fashion, directing the men with a point of their finger. Conversely, the depiction is heteronormative, as demonstrated in the traditional pairing of the men and women in a ballroom fashion at the beginning of the piece; however, as the men’s sleeves roll up and ties loosen, and the women trade in their silk dresses for uniform trousers and dress shirts, the comment on the ability of the women and men to measure up to each other is inevitably clear. The power is balanced between the performers in the room, as each dancer is fully capable of standing their ground, with no room for weakness.
The power of dance to change conceptions of people and accepted paradigms allows audiences to see the world change within the confines of a theatre space, as each articulation and thematic change allows us to see something, to form an opinion and to address why we liked what we saw or were challenged by it. When we bring back a piece of the past to reinvestigate it under the scope of our current realities, audience members find meaning for themselves. We can reconcile the social and historical predications that influence our understanding about the world today. The power of dance is undeniable, and the work of DJD pushes for social change and experimentation that challenges social norms, past understandings and future projections. And they even manage to look good while doing it.