at the Ruth Page Theatre

July 31 and August 1

Jazz dance often gets a bad rap for having too much razzmatazz and not enough substance. The images that come to mind are of sexy, muscular bodies, suggestively costumed, shifting a rib cage here, gyrating a hip there. Certain moments–maybe a dazzling leap or seductive fall–may remain embossed in our memories after the concert, but the meaning . . . well, jazz dance doesn’t really have a meaning, does it?

It does with the James Kelly Choreography Project. Kelly takes the sexuality inherent in much of jazz dance, turns it in on itself, and quite fittingly explores issues inherent in sexuality. Not all five of his dances, presented at the Ruth Page Theatre, delve into that murky emotional world, but when they do they dive deep and cut quick.

Sabrina Used to Sing, the most powerful piece of the evening, poignantly tells the story of a young incest victim coming to terms with her sexuality years after her father abused her. With text and lyrics by Marianne Kelly and music by Scott Silberstein, Sabrina Used to Sing uses some techniques of performance art but also has the distinct feel of a ballet, with emotional pas de deux combining graceful, lyrical movements with just enough pelvis-based jazz to give the piece some bite.

According to the voice-over text (performed by Holly Cardone), Sabrina sells shoes at Bloomingdale’s, likes to sing, and wonders what’s happened to Linda Blair. She’s a free-spirited, innocent girl who always wears purple on her first dates–and she has a lot of first dates. As we hear all this, Sabrina (exquisitely danced by Kim McNamara) moves through a series of sexual and emotionally violent pas de deux with two men. We hear the line “I know about bedrooms, though, and the smell of scotch on his breath” and realize that one of the men is her father.

Later, as the voice-over happily explains why burnt sienna was Sabrina’s favorite color crayon when she was a kid, her father runs his hand over her breast as she stands there petrified. In a macho, forceful way, he lifts her over his head. When he lowers her, her legs are bent and her back is arched as if in agony. As she kneels on the floor, her back remains arched; as she slowly straightens her back, we know that something terrible has happened.

Kelly layers the voice-over–which rambles through memories as if following a stream-of-consciousness therapy exercise–with the movement, which follows a somewhat confusing pattern but works on a subconscious level. Each pas de deux Sabrina dances is characterized by a different sexual energy. Her first partner, her father (Mark Gomez), is tough and forceful. Her dances with the second man (John Ross), representing all of Sabrina’s dates, are lush and melancholy, full of desire but also confusion and fear. She seems doomed to a life of first dates and unhappy relationships until the Fiance (Arturo Alvarez) enters. Their dance takes on a sweet, gentle, almost platonic air, but the moment it gets sexual their intimacy dissolves.

Between duets Sabrina often dances alone, stopping to gaze at her body in a mirror, running her hands gently over her torso, then grabbing herself in hatred. Slowly, through the Fiance’s gentleness, Sabrina learns to accept herself. At the end she takes his hand and places it gently but assuredly on her breast. She looks in a hand-held mirror as he kisses her neck. A woman is singing “Hold your breath at twilight because another day’s beginning”–a song that feels a lot like schlocky 80s musical theater. It could have ruined the moment, but McNamara’s and Alvarez’s performances are so strong that the dance stays grounded in reality and hits us in the gut.

What’s Your Hand Doing There? offers a fiery and at times violent face-off between three men and three women over who has the right to control a woman’s reproductive system. The dancing is fast and precarious (one woman was almost thrown on her head during a fast leap onto her partner), and again it’s very sexual, shifting the intellectualized issue of abortion back to its source.

There are a lot of movements like the one where a woman stands, legs spread, with her back to a kneeling man. He reaches his hands between her thighs and places them over her groin. She ferociously grabs them away, and then in an unusual and seemingly dangerous move he lifts her by the inside of her thighs. Kelly oversimplifies the issue, however, by concentrating on the sexual combat between men and women. Men aren’t the only right-to-life advocates. And although the abortion-rights battle arouses some very violent emotions, Kelly would do well to play up some of the sad and tender moments in the dance.

Lest the evening feel too heavy, Kelly balanced these pieces with three others that are less serious. The audacious Purple Haze gives the Jimi Hendrix classic a sensuous and witty twist that put the song in a new light for me. Two People Dancing; One on Pointe and The Last Time were short on content compared to the other works but still thrilled with their power-packed rhythms and mind-boggling moves.

Kelly had assembled a technically spectacular group of dancers–their drive, daring, and energy made for an exciting evening.