at Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University

August 18-22

Virtuosity, speed, rhythm, sex, that’s jazz dance in a nutshell–though this formula doesn’t begin to capture its ethnic roots and distinctive American character. And if the Jazz Dance World Congress ’92 is any indication, young people worldwide are mastering the art of splitting themselves nearly in two to achieve the highest possible kicks, the speediest possible splits, the largest possible pelvic thrusts. I saw 16 dances by 11 companies on three separate evenings (out of five) at Cahn Auditorium, and that was enough to leave me exhilarated, titillated, and completely worn out.

The congress has a frank rah-rah character, with onstage awards and the sort of mutual back patting essential to any underappreciated trade. The same kind of enthusiasm characterizes the dancing of the gathering’s host, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. In the bookend pieces Ten Cents a Dance . . . and . . . That’s What They Pay Me, choreographed by homeboy James Kelly, the dancers literally throw themselves into whirling-dervish spinning jumps that end in a nonchalant kneel. The other half of the Giordano equation is attitude–the kind of bad attitude that made Jerome Robbins’s choreography look so good in West Side Story.

The Giordano dancers, at least in these performances, tended to travel in androgynous boy or girl herds, and a similar androgyny and virtuosity mark the Masashi Action Machine, from Nagoya, Japan. “Machine” is the operative word: in Mure (“Swallow”) and Matsuri (“Japanese Festival”) the choreography features regular formations and orderly sequences; the dancing is acrobatic, loaded with flips and handsprings, and so bright and hard-edged it calls cheerleading to mind.

Other companies are about as far from androgyny as it’s possible to get. And whether it was because such companies made up the largest contingent at the congress or because hostile erotic encounters are inherently deadening, I found these companies and works rather dull. In the barroom Mambo Fantasy, by Jazz Dancers Inc. of Los Angeles, a man and woman with unsuitable mates find each other in an imagined moment of raw lust whose energy comes from anger and dissatisfaction; the predatory, snakelike motions of Sayhber Rawles’s torso are enticing, entrapping. Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, by the New York-based Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, has a refreshing 40s feel–the motions are soft, light, and springy–and Billy Siegenfeld and Jeannie Hill are extremely agreeable performers; but the story is as shopworn as the title. Mexico City’s Jazz Mex, particularly in Danzon y lara, relies on cliches of Latin love and sexual role playing that were old decades ago. All of it’s very well done, but we’ve seen it before.

None of those sexual stereotypes offended me, however, like the cliches in Mayombe. Performed by La Compagnie Rick Odums of Paris and subtitled “A Dance Poem About a Huge Forest in Africa,” it takes the isolations and pelvic motions of jazz dance and puts them back where they came from, in an “African” context. Yet nothing here is authentic, from the recorded new-age “third world” music to the sleazy, nearly transparent costumes, clearly designed to reveal every swelling, bump, and cleft in the dancers’ bodies. Choreographer Odums merely exploits the cliches of “primitive” African sexuality to create a lurid, sensational work.

I suppose I wouldn’t have been so offended, however, if I hadn’t also been bored. The indecipherable story in Mayombe drags on for nearly half an hour, and though the choreography features undulations of the torso characteristic of much African dance, it doesn’t offer the same polyrhythmic excitement or complexity. The gimmick in Mayombe is sticks, and the image we see most often–ad nauseam–is a dancer holding her stick overhead, arms slightly flared like the outline of a cobra’s hood, pelvis thrust forward, the whole body rippling upward from knees to fingertips. These dancers–like most at the congress–are well conditioned and trained, and they go through their paces for the “king” (Odums himself) with a touching willingness, but to me this was just a waste of talent.

More-authentic African dance on these programs showed how wrongheaded Odums’s effort was. In a commendable move, the congress offered one “evening of cultural heritage” that featured, among other troupes, the Najwa Dance Corps of Chicago. In their Toucolour Suite, based on traditional African dances, sexuality is a socializing force, as likely to bind women together as couples. Even more revealing, however, were the dances of Germaine Acogny, originally from Senegal and now living in Germany. Accompanied only by a single, but very adroit, percussionist (Arona Ndiaye), this soloist illuminates the delicate and spiritual heart of African dance.

For one thing, Acogny is confident and mature enough to slow down, so you can see the subtleties of her traditional movements. It’s almost as if she disdains any suggestion of entertainment: her restrained style underscores the dance’s dignity, and her choreography is exceptionally straightforward–she often repeats a phrase several times without variation, then simply begins a new one. Tellingly, much of her dance travels a slow diagonal across the stage: she neither confronts the audience head-on nor pretends that we aren’t there. In Bante she too uses a stick, the symbol of wisdom; but her stick is a real stick, not a machine-made rod like the ones in Mayombe. She sometimes uses it like a cane, taking small and halting steps, reminding us that wisdom comes with age; she also transforms this overgrown twig into a symbol of power merely by dancing around it, making it the still center of the circumference described by her strong and agile body.

Acogny was a sip of cool water in the often overheated atmosphere of the congress performances. So were several Chicago performers, or former Chicago performers like Sam Watson, now based in California. The roars of laughter that greeted his two works, both performed at other Chicago venues over the last few years, offered a release from the tension and anxiety produced by so much sex and speed. Not strictly speaking jazz dance, this stuff relies on the jazz vocabulary but explodes some of its cliches. Wired is a nonstop nonsensical eruption of motion (audience appreciation reached decibel levels of almost painful proportions), and Badum Boom brings the sexual aspect of jazz dance into high and comic relief by placing tiny cymbals on the performers’ private parts, which they proceed to clap together.

Tap and jazz dance are distant American cousins, and one of the precursors of tap, Irish step dancing, was represented by Chicago’s Trinity Irish-American Dancers on the “cultural heritage” evening. It’s impossible not to be charmed by the young dancers performing this delicate, almost virginal, yet vigorous traditional dance form; but as drama Grania O’Malley leaves something to be desired. Meant to depict “a 16th-century Irish pirate queen in her gallant stand against the invading British,” the dance is heartfelt but far too brief to offer any sense of conflict or resolution.

Now or Never, an “a cappella tap dance” for ten performers by Chicago’s AM/FM . . . Alexander/Michaels Future Movement, is also charming. Though there’s something affable and low-key about tap, I’m sure it’s devilish to do, and these dancers–with their colorful oversize sport coats flapping and floating around them–drummed out the subtle rhythms of Lane Alexander’s choreography with impressive precision for a group so large.

As it turned out, the common denominator for all these dances wasn’t flash, wasn’t even sex–it was a particular brand of rhythm boiled up out of the melting pot and distilled, often with dizzying results.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jean Gros-Abadie.