at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts

January 22 and 23 and February 12 and 13

Jazz dance has always been a fluid form, absorbing influences quickly. With its roots in tap and Broadway show dancing, jazz easily incorporated elements of African dance to create the disco-inferno style of Saturday Night Fever. Today MTV choreographers like Rosie Perez merge hip-hop, break dancing, and moves from M.C. Hammer and Michael Jackson with the now-classic jazz vocabulary.

Jazz-dance companies have often absorbed concert dance forms as well: ballet and modern. The excellent technique for which the Hubbard Street and Joseph Holmes companies are known comes from daily ballet classes. Yet the works they perform are often modern: Hubbard Street has been focusing on Daniel Ezralow and Twyla Tharp, while Joseph Holmes grows its own talent, like choreographer Randy Duncan, through regular classes in Graham technique. Meanwhile the Chicago companies that perform only jazz, such as Joel Hall and David Puszh, are not performing as often as in the past. A former Joseph Holmes dancer, Winifred Haun, is working very hard to become a good modern choreographer without betraying her jazz background. The writing seems to be on the wall: jazz companies today need ballet technique and modern choreography.

Zephyr Dance Ensemble, a small company, has done a good job of sailing through these troubled waters. They’ve asked many local jazz and modern choreographers to create dances for the five-woman troupe, and Zephyr’s artistic director, Michelle Kranicke, has contributed some works. In fact they have pushed so far in the direction of modern dance that they now call themselves a modern repertory company. Their older works span a range from jazz to modern; of the four performed recently at the Weinstein Center, the best were by jazz choreographers using decidedly modern methods.

David Puszh’s Knives starts with a stunning image. Six women dressed in black sit on chairs that face into the center of a circle; two women chant Achy Obejas’s poem “Knives” and drum a steady rhythm on their thighs with open hands. Obejas’s fiercely feminist poem exhorts women to use whatever means necessary to defend themselves against rape; its repeated line, “Every woman has a knife,” chills the blood. The poem is short–less than three minutes–and unfortunately the dance never really has a chance to get going.

Paul Cipponeri’s Quieter and Deeper Than has the dramatic flair of jazz dance and the sense of space and shape characteristic of modern. Using music by Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, which is at first darkly challenging and then changes to a ticking, buoyant sound, Cipponeri fashions a two-part dance using the same movement in both parts; different shadings and contexts make the first half seem propelled by some angry, evil force, while the second seems driven by a redeeming light. (The religious impulse in Cipponeri’s dance is common in current jazz dance.)

The other two repertory dances have substantial flaws and substantial merits. Puszh’s Just Affairs, a love duet for two women (Kranicke and Margaret Reynolds), is a standard-issue romantic dance with a gender twist. But Puszh captures well the shifting balance between women, as one woman supports the other, then throws herself into her lap. Leigh Richey’s wry Definite Deficit sketches the portrait of a single woman of the 90s whose telephone is the key to her social life but who cannot quite pay the bill on time. After some inventive movement in the beginning, the dance loses its momentum in a series of dead spots and finally dribbles to a conclusion. But the dance seemed to strike a chord with single women–some told me they particularly liked Richey’s dance.

A premiere by Sabine Fabie, Whiff, or Falling From the Sky, is the most substantial modern dance the company has done. It begins with four dancers (Tammy Cheney, Kranicke, Amanda McCann, and Caroline Walsh) standing in a tight circle, facing inward. A dancer seems to lose consciousness and slumps, only to be caught by another dancer and hauled back to her feet. As the circle expands, dancers slump and stumble across the ten-foot diameter into another dancer’s arms, or simply slide to the floor. Fabie starts to contrast this simple theme with others: a quiet, stretchy solo by Reynolds; spasmodic twitching like hamsters in convulsions by dancers lying on the floor. Each type of movement is passed from dancer to dancer, until the dance ends with three women in a tight circle, as at the beginning, while two others lie on the floor twitching. The optimism of falling dancers who expect to be caught is balanced against the pessimism of dancers who seem to be having nightmares. Fabie’s method–using movement alone to make her point–is quintessentially modern.

Caroline Walsh’s duet for herself and Cheney, called What Has Not Been Spoken, is a beginner’s dance, a too-romantic work that seems inspired equally by the dancers’ swirling circle skirts and the music, a song by Stevie Nicks. Unfortunately, an audience unfamiliar with the lyrics can’t assimilate them quickly enough to understand what Walsh intends to express. The most interesting aspect of this work is the contrast between Cheney’s and Walsh’s dancing. Cheney is technically the best dancer in the company–quick, precise, and clear. But Walsh dances emotionally, with every movement expressing the feeling passing through her. Walsh’s expressive dancing is a difficult talent to nurture and showcase, but it’s a gift worth working at, for her and the company.

The stress of all the ballet training and daunting modern choreography is revealed in Kranicke’s All Alone by Myself in My Bedroom. Kranicke walks onstage and looks around to see if she’s alone; a Beatles song starts to play and she dances as if she were in a disco with no one watching–sometimes enraptured by the music and sometimes as if high on laughing gas. The rest of the dance is a goofy send-up of the routine junk in a dancer’s life: the leaps that typically end dance classes, which Kranicke flubs and the other seemingly perfect leapers do not (she’s vexed with herself and everyone else); the ingratiating smile pasted on every jazz dancer’s face; the children’s movement-exploration class all dancers seem to have to teach, where kids are taught to walk like elephants–bent over, with their hands dragging on the ground. Kranicke has found the perfect music: Beatles songs by the Italian group Aringa e Verdurini, which plays the familiar songs in loopy ways–on a plinky piano, doo-wop style, as lounge jazz, while calling a cat. Her choice of music satirizes both jazz choreographers’ penchant for setting dances to familiar pop songs and modern choreographers’ stern prohibition on such music. After its goofy first section the dance starts to wander, and it ends with some straight jazz routines. Kranicke could have a better comic dance if she gave All Alone some judicious editing, a clearer focus, and a more wicked satiric sensibility.

In its quiet way, Kranicke’s dance also points out what has always been the inspiration of jazz dancing–social dances like the fox-trot, buck-and-wing, jitterbug, twist, mashed potato, break, funk, and all the rest. The impulse of jazz dance is the innocent desire to just dance, in ways that are recognizably social, to popular music, for audiences that might include your mom and dad. The demanding traditions of ballet and modern can seem remote from everyday experience, and just too exhausting for a body to do.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Wisnieux.