at the Navy Pier Skyline Stage and Pick-Staiger Concert Hall of Northwestern University, August 20-24

Hoots, howls, and whistles flooded the Skyline Stage when handsome, tuxedoed soloist Tommi Kitti walked into a spotlight during the Jazz Dance World Congress and proceeded to remove his shoes, pants, and jacket. But this was no strip, or at least not the striptease the audience might well have expected after seeing La Compagnie Rick Odums: standing there in his black socks, long underwear, and shirttails, Kitti was a forlorn figure, more stripped emotionally than physically, ready to reveal his soul.

His soul? During an evening of jazz dance? This Finn did exactly that, adopting awkward, “ugly” lines and idiosyncratic rhythms, avoiding the slick, hip images common among jazz-dance choreographers. He flipped like a fish, slapping his buttocks against the floor; standing with his back to us, he pushed his face to the side with one hand, slowly, several times; he jumped like a frog; he simply crouched, back to us, for long seconds. Dancing with incredible musicality and control, in silence or to devotional music, Kitti seemed to embody the thoughts of a complicated man overwhelmed by trouble.

A few nights later, at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Kitti did a very different kind of dance. Jazz pianist Viro Rantala, performing onstage, provided intricate, swinging cascades of notes, and Kitti transformed the jazz-dance vocabulary, accenting yet softening such details as the high, hunched shoulders, the sinuous lateral curves. Distilling its asymmetrical, dynamic yet cool essence, he made it look like something else, something unfamiliar.

Kitti was something of an odd duck at the congress because too often jazz dance just appropriates the received images of our culture, images from advertising, MTV, and the movies. The reason may be the form’s commercial underpinnings–though its origins are in social dance, it grew up on Broadway–but why would choreographers want to regurgitate what we’ve seen millions of times? Fortunately, the number of companies that took the low road during the third Jazz Dance World Congress, organized by Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and Northwestern University, was small.

Bailos la Compania de Baile, from Puerto Rico, seems simply naive. If Tommi Kitti unexpectedly introduced religion to the congress, this company served it up predictably in Hope Set High, set to Amy Grant’s song of the same name. Where Kitti expresses the vulnerability, anguish, and power of religious feeling, Bailos la Compania de Baile calls up images of youngsters on their way to the club hopeful that Jesus will smile on their romantic escapades. They end in a devotional pile with one woman perched on top reaching for the proverbial stars. The company was equally upbeat in Cold Hearted. Seducing the audience is a long-established tradition, especially in jazz dance, but we’ve all seen this anonymous, large-scale seduction before, the conga lines, the flung hair, the smoldering looks.

But hey, some people like it. Some people like Hooters and Thee Doll House too. They would have loved La Compagnie Rick Odums. At the Skyline Stage they danced excerpts from Generation X dressed in bras, briefs, and knee pads, all jiggling breasts and “erotic” poses. The dance is meant to be hip of course, but choreographer Odums doesn’t even succeed at that. With an orchestrated rock score like this one by Isaac Hayes, complete with a cheesy lounge-act cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” no dance could be hip. It’s just not possible. The balletic choreography is presumably meant to class things up but merely succeeds in looking ordinary, especially since the dancers perform it so badly: the extension may be high, but the standing leg isn’t steady. The leaps are wobbly, the unison sections ragged. From start to finish, from the women draped over their men like straggly boas down an aging harlot’s body to the interminable throes of three women finally succumbing to their anguish, this was just plain bad dance.

These excerpts from Generation X seemed tired and cynical; but on another night the final section, danced to Prince songs, was better performed and choreographed, with a big party scene calling up all kinds of street-dance moves. In fact many of the companies on these programs were vigorous and fresh, exploring jazz dance’s past and future with all the energy of youth. Decidedly Jazz DanceWorks, from Canada, in 4:20 Special treated some of the earliest jazz traditions with respectful humor: dressed in Depression-era oversize caps and baggy pants, dancing to music by blues singer Clarence “Big” Miller, they deftly inserted bits of the Charleston and hambone in their clowning on and around two long benches.

New York’s Jump Rhythm Jazz Project also has a retro look; its artistic director, Billy Siegenfeld, won the congress’s gold Leo Award for his choreography in Getting There, part of which was performed on the final night: a miracle of inventive energy, and very well danced by students from Northwestern. Jazz Dance by Danny Buraczeski explored the roots of jazz in Swing Concerto: beginning with klezmer music from Brave Old World and ending with Benny Goodman, this accomplished, likable company from Minneapolis made swing and Eastern European folk dance inhabit the same universe, committing wholeheartedly to Buraczeski’s high-voltage choreography.

Masashi Action Machine, from Japan, brings jazz dance into the future by fusing it with gymnastics and Eastern traditions. Miyako, in which the dancers wear dark, bulky costumes and cover the lower halves of their faces, recalls the martial arts, African dance, cheerleading, and Japanese monks at prayer. The prettier Oni, also danced to the Japanese/Western fusion music of Ryoichi Ban, recalls geishas and court dances. I’m a little dubious about the effect of just throwing together different styles, but jazz dance has always fused many forms, and you have to admire choreographers Kumaki Sakamoto and Masashi Mishiro for trying.

The Giordano company, at 31 years one of Chicago’s oldest, was well represented on the two programs I saw. Frank Chaves’s Grusin Suite, set to Dave Grusin’s music for The Firm, is sophisticated, soft- rather than hard-edged, yet manages to produce a sense of foreboding, even paranoia. It conveys emotional content, a real story, which jazz dance doesn’t always do.

So does Gus Giordano’s new work, a tribute to his wife, who died a little over a year ago. I met Peg Giordano only once, at the 1992 congress, but she made a deep impression: warm, confidential, she stood close and held my arm, laughing. If she could create so much warmth in a matter of minutes on a first meeting, imagine how her family must miss her; Tribute to Peg expresses all that longing. Using a stepladder that suggests both a stairway to heaven and the intimate upstairs part of a home, Giordano creates a loving poem to his wife with a duet for two young dancers, a text read by African-dance maestro Chuck Davis, and a solo for himself. At 71 Giordano is no longer quick, but he uses his big, powerful body and long arms to draw out the tenderness and poignance of the classic “I’ll Be Seeing You.” There was nothing machinelike or impersonal about this piece: the congress made it clear that jazz dance is a large, accepting form–in fact so large, so open to new traditions, that it’s a shame when it simply looks like some of its own worst imitators.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Trudie Lee, Frank Gimpaya.