Zora Feels Good

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This week we have a routine that was performed at Blues SHOUT! in 2010 by Damon Stone, Sara Cherny, Dexter Santos, and Elizabeth Tuazon. It’s particularly interesting because it was choreographed in sections by two people, Damon Stone and Sara Cherny, who don’t live in the same city. The way their choreography interacts with each other and the music matches how Nina Simone’s vocals interact with instrumentation in a very compelling way.

One note: Damon references TOBA, the Theater Owners Booking Association, which was the vaudeville circuit for African American performers in the 1920s and 1930s.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

Damon: I really wanted to explore the contrasts — Smooth and languid movement against sharp and angular movement, how different dancers could do the same choreography to the same song but have their own voice, their own style, and then choreography versus improvisation.

Sara: I don’t like this question. 🙂 I didn’t have a particular goal for expression, or story to tell. I just wanted to show interesting/beautiful/unique-within-the-aesthetic movement to a classic song.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

Damon: Nina Simone. ’nuff said.

Sara: Damon chose it. 🙂

What other dances and dancers influenced or inspired this one?

Damon: I’ve been getting more and more into New Style Hip-Hop and eccentric dance especially of the styles from vaudeville and TOBA, and was really interested in pulling ideas from those dance styles and filtering them through a blues lens.

Sara: None, I think, at least not consciously. A lot of my movement has been influenced by my training in jazz and modern dance, but as I become more entrenched in blues this has become less and less the case. If I were to choreograph this routine again today, it would be VERY different.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?

Damon: Miracles of modern technology. I had choreographed the beginning of the routine as a custom piece to teach to small group class of female dancers in Chicago. Sara and Elizabeth had really enjoyed the piece and were interested in doing the routine to the full song and when I told them I didn’t have a full song Sara jumped at the chance to finish the choreography. We started talking about it and we came up with the idea of two pieces being performed together with points of interaction and falling into and out of sync with each other. Everything was driven by the song and this idea of contrasts, but given how far apart the members of Zora live from each other, the internet was what made it a real possibility to see this through.

Sara: Lots of practice? I’m not sure how to answer this question – “how do you choreograph?” is I think what you’re asking. And what you do is listen, move around, listen again, and go with what feels/looks good. Sometimes you have images in your head or see a shape you want to represent.

What people might not realize about this routine is that there are two separate choreographies. Damon choreographed the beginning, we split on the middle with me choreographing the women and Damon the men, and I choreographed the end. Elizabeth was a strong assist in my choreography.

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Sandra’s Stroll

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[Edit: Unfortunately, the original video I posted of Sharon dancing her Sandra’s Stroll was removed from youtube, but here’s another version of it danced as a group piece in Boston]

This week we have a routine choreographed by Sharon Davis! Accomplished at Lindy Hop, 1920s Charleston, authentic jazz, blues and burlesque dancing, you may have seen her teach at Enter the Blues last month. The blues dance community has a much more clear sense of identity in 2013 than it did in 2006; choreographers like Sharon who kept exposing dancers to authentic blues movement had a large contribution to that development.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

I choreographed this piece for my students as a class routine for Perth Girl Jam way back in 2006. Solo blues didn’t have much of a strong following at that stage, and my idea was to create a piece that was approachable for Lindy Hoppers, incorporating movement from their familiar jazz step repertoire, but injected with blues feeling. Strolls were all the rage in my hometown (Perth) back then, so presenting it in that format made sense. Good lord, we used to dance so many line dances and strolls each night at our weekly dances, I don’t know how we found the time for partner dancing! But I guess perhaps I was hoping to create a routine sticky enough to enter that lineup. That didn’t really happen, but Sandra’s Stroll sure has got around! It still surprises me.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

The song is Duke Ellington’s The Mooche, and Ellington is one of my all-time favourites. Dancing to very slow blues music can be intimidating, or at least I think it was to a bunch of Lindy Hoppers back in 2006, so I chose this song because it’s really not that slow – maybe 120bpm. But It’s definitely oozing with that Ellington jungle sound and a lot of blues feeling. It also has an interesting structure – phrases of 8 bars and others 6 bars, a bridge thrown in for good measure, typical Ellington. So choreographically it was interesting to me.

What other dances and dancers influenced or inspired this one?

Stylistically this piece is dedicated to Sandra “Boogie” Gibson, and specifically was inspired by the provocative footage of her dancing in Mura Dehn’s documentary The Spirit Moves, from the early 1950s. Hence the name, Sandra’s Stroll. Sometimes it bothers me that my students are familiar with male dancers from the history of our dance, but if I mention a female dancer’s name I get blank stares. Sandra’s Stroll was my attempt to raise awareness of one particular – and wonderful – female dancer from the history of swing and blues dancing. I hope more people know the name Sandra Gibson now.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?

I always dance my choreographies. First I break the song down in my own notation. And perhaps I start with a short list of a few moves I know I’d like to include, or a story or structure I’d like to follow. Then I just play the music over and over, note down what works, and dance it until I’ve got something solid. I remember that in 2006 it took me much longer than it does now!

They Put A Spell On You

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This week we have an award winning piece choreographed by Amanda Gruhl. It’s had some real staying power. I still hear people talk about it at exchanges as that performance that made them step back and say “Whoa!”. She definitely accomplished her goal of being “beautiful, powerful, and disturbing”.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

I hadn’t seen a modern blues piece that explored the dark side of relationships, and felt a need to fill that void. As far as the actual story behind the piece, I’m not going to be specific, because I’ve heard so many different interpretations of this piece from the people who’ve seen it, and I love that. I think the best pieces of art evoke strong emotions and thoughts, but not necessarily the same ones in every person. I will say that Paul and I wanted people to walk away saying the piece was beautiful, powerful, and disturbing, and I feel like we achieved that.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I actually chose this song in the early 2000s as a piece I really wanted to choreograph to. I find songs that inspire me first, songs that make me feel a certain way, and the entire piece comes out of that – the emotions, the moves, the costumes, everything. All the ideas about this piece had been brewing in the back of my mind for a very long time. I think this was just the right time and the right partner for them to come to fruition.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

It’s obviously a modern interpretation of the Apache style of dance from the turn of the century, but it was also highly influenced by a few So You Think You Can Dance pieces, most notably Mia Michaels “Gravity.”

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?

Like I said, the music really drove everything about this piece from the beginning. The concept and basic story had been in the back of my mind for a long time, and Paul was immediately on board with that, which was great. I always gather source material first – we stole moves we thought worked well with the emotions, modified others to make them fit the feel, and created a few new ones we hadn’t seen before. When it came time to choreograph, we figured out the climactic moments first, and the places in the music where a particular move fit perfectly, then backed out and filled in the gaps. After we finished a draft of the piece, Paul and I showed it to several people we trusted and collected their feedback (an invaluable part of the choreographic process), then used it to refine the execution and the flow of the emotions in the piece. I think that was the hardest part of the choreography, and the part that evolved the most throughout the process – making sure both the moves and our expressions matched what we were trying to evoke at that moment. We wanted to bring the audience with us every step of the way, so they arrived at the end with us, feeling like they had been part of the experience.

The First Sweet Choreography Friday

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This solo piece by Julie Brown won the choreography competition at Enter the Blues in 2012 and was performed at Blues SHOUT! in the same year.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

I wanted a piece that focused on details, particularly hands and arms, as well as lots of long, extended movements, instead of doing a ton of “moves.” The song was one I’d loved since the first time I heard it, and it lent itself really well to that style of moving. The intimate feel and emotion of the piece came from the music, and wasn’t something I originally set out to do, but again, it meshed well with the style of moving. Also, in general, I enjoy hitting things in the music that are not the most obvious, so that played into the choreography as well.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

This song is beautiful; very emotional with lots of space, while still having fun musical elements to play with, and different textures and feels to it. I loved this song before I choreographed to it, but I had actually attempted to choreograph to 2 other songs pieces (and gotten stuck) before “giving up,” then choreographing to this song in the middle of the night, all in one go. The choreography just kind of fell out of the song for me, so this piece and the song are very special.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

This may be obvious, but the style is highly influenced by Naomi Uyama’s solo choreography and Sandra Gibson’s shake blues from Spirit Moves. I also really love Nina, Naomi, and Ramona’s choreography to Blues in C Sharp Minor, so that’s style is always on my mind.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?

As I said a bit before, this choreography really just sort of came out. It wasn’t an intentional, intellectual approach to take the concept + song + influences; I had something I wanted to do, and the song supported it and added to it, I got movement ideas from my brain, experimentation, and my influences. From there, I showed it to some friends whose opinions I value, which helped me refine and focus the piece, and to show what I wanted to show, while also making sure it was interesting, enjoyable, and better than it started.