More Masculine Movement

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This week we have a choreographer that we haven’t posted before: Dexter Santos! We were looking for some good examples of masculine movement to post, and Dexter and this piece of his are certainly a fine example. After you take a look at how he’s moving, take a look at what he’s saying. He clearly knows what his influences are, what he wants to express, and how he goes about finding the right way to make it happen.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

For this piece, I wanted to reflect the contrast of human emotion between the feeling of despair and the feeling of joy – the range of Blues expression in the body. I feel that we achieve this contrast with the way we move our bodies as the song changes in feeling and tempo. I wanted to convey how our spirits are revived as we rise from our “blues,” how we celebrate life and feel on top of the world. But then also convey how our happiness, at any given moment, can be quickly taken away from us. You can see how our characters progress from feeling low, a sense of loss, and despair to feeling cool, confident, and high and back again.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I always want to choreograph a song that has a strong dance performance quality to it, something that also provides a setting for characters and a story. Ultimately, I wanted a song that I felt strongly about. I’m a big fan of Duke Ellington music and when I listened to my music collection with the intent of choreographing to it, I found “The Swingers Get The Blues Too” to be just the perfect song as it had the right feeling and performance quality that I was looking for. And with a title like that, I couldn’t help but feel inspired!

It’s interesting to me how this song cycles from “sad blues” to “happy blues” then back to “sad blues” again. The upbeat part of the song (where the rhythm comes in) has a sort of a “swinger-esque” feel to it – that part in a movie where the boys band together and walk confidently in a scene (the bass line lends to that feeling). I think I remember Damon saying that this would be the “soundtrack” to cruising cooly down the boulevard (or something like that). The part at the end where the rhythm stops and you hear the lonely trombone solo is where the “rug gets pulled from underneath us” and we are back to where we started. We then gather our dignity and what’s left of us, dust ourselves off, and start all over again. This song, I feel, is a great example of the balance between light and dark, the yin and yang, the high and lows. I was listening to the song in a loop as I wrote this and it’s interesting to see how the end ties in with the beginning. A perfect example of the circle of life.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

I have always been inspired by performances that are very expressive, emotive and have dynamic movement – anything from solo jazz to hip hop to ballet. I remember watching a lot of YouTube videos to get ideas and inspiration for my choreography. For this specific piece, I drew inspiration from my own learned blues movement vocabulary, African dance, and Michael Jackson’s movements which you can see an influence of in the sharper movements and poses in this piece. By the way, the fedoras we are wearing are a literal tip of the hat to MJ’s “Smooth Criminal” music video. For the format of the “3 Man Blues Routine” as well as the look of our costumes, I got the idea from a YouTube video I saw of a group called Purple Haze led by Darius Crenshaw performing a rendition of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” The quality of their movement is so amazing and entertaining: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UPGWvAzRJA

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

I wanted to do a Solo Blues performance for a group of men as I hadn’t seen it in a performance setting at any Blues dance event prior to this. I knew that if I were to choreograph something, I wanted to perform it with dancers that I respected and admired. Damon Stone and -topher Howard immediately came to mind. Before any choreography was created, I e-mailed them the song so they could get an idea of the feeling for the piece. To my delight, they both responded positively and enthusiastically to my invitation and idea.

While I did most of the choreography for this piece, Damon helped fill in a few parts where I was having some difficulty. There were also short segments of the song that provided opportunities for each of us to have personalized choreography which I left to both Damon and -topher to choreograph on their own. The structure of the song was ideal for each of us to do this. You can see that in the beginning and middle, of the song where each of us take turns in the spotlight. At the end, while moving together, we acted in different ways dusting and straightening ourselves. At the time, Damon was still living in the Bay Area and we were able to meet a couple of times to practice the choreography. But since -topher lived outside of California, he had to learn it through video that I provided and, eventually, was able to rehearse the choreography with me when he arrived. Finally, all three of us were able to rehearse together in one space just a few hours before Down Home Blues 2009 started. The video you see is the only time we ever performed this piece.

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Downtown Anna Lee

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Here’s another piece by the indomitable Julie Brown! This video is a performance from bluesSHOUT!, but you may remember it from earlier this year at Enter the Blues, where it took first prize at the showcase competition. It’s a great example of how much dedication pays off; when you push yourself to win a competition, and then work even harder because you have an idea in your head you just want to express as well as you possibly can – this is where you can get.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

My last choreography (“Makin Whoopee”) was very soft, subdued, and a bit subtle, so for this piece I wanted powerful movement and a wild, untamed feel. The concept developed more once I picked a song and started to explore the character of Anna Lee. I went through a lot of ideas and it eventually became a Siren’s dance with Anna Lee luring the singer in with moments of coyness, interspersed with moments of the powerful, wild movement I originally set out to use.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I’d been trying to choreograph to this song for about a year. I love the passion of the vocals and the chaos that the instruments descend into as the song progresses. It was a good fit for powerful movement, so it was a good fit for what I wanted to do.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

For this piece, I drew a lot of inspiration from Naomi Uyama in the ULHS Solo Blues Competition in 2006. Her dancing there was exactly the type of power I wanted–moments bursting with energy, freedom, and power, going right into moments of extreme control. Totally awesome. In the final version of the piece, I also got inspiration from some Sharon Davis movements we did in class at Enter the Blues, some movements from Kate Feldman’s piece at Enter the Blues.

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

Ultimately, it was a lot of dancing, experimenting, watching videos, talking to people, watching other dancers, and re-doing things. I had a tougher time with this pieces, and talked to probably around 10 people about it, to get feedback and help me refine the ideas. After the initial performance at Enter the Blues, I had a very helpful conversation with Shoshi Krieger on how to contrast the moments of coyness with the moments of power by taking up more or less space with my body. That combined with the new movement ideas I got during Enter the Blues ultimately lead to the finished product that I did at bluesSHOUT!.

2007 Bump

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Between recent events in Boston and the fantastic 10 year anniversary of Blues SHOUT!, a lot has been going on lately. But we’re back now with another choreography interview: this time with Brenda Russel! She does a great job of going into detail about why she choreographs dance, and how she goes about it. Once again we’re looking at one of the routines that helped put Blues Dance on the map. It’s also just plain electric to watch. Every time I see Shaheed jump during the intro I want to shout!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

At the time there was a lot of sloppy house party Blues going on in the community during competitions and public demos. Ballroom Blues, Rent Party Blues, Shake Blues, Gut Bucket Blues as shown in the documentary “The Spirit Moves” were being taught regularly by many of us instructors, and this was popular in the community of Lindy Hop based Blues dancers. The greater dance world was looking down on the Blues scene, much as they did with Lindy Hoppers in the early years of the swing revolution, and the West Coast Swing dancers prior to the major Ballroom influence. My goal was to demonstrate that Blues has the ability to show higher level dancing, interesting movements and rhythms, same as any street dance style does as it develops. There was a big “What is Blues?” floating in the air. I wanted to help offer some structure and quality to the demonstration of our dance.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I didn’t, Steven “Dr. Feelgood” Watkins did. I chose Summertime by Janis Joplin. I submitted it to BluesShout. Damon wrote me and stated that he liked the movements I chose, however didn’t feel that Janis Joplin’s Summertime represented what the event was going for. The song was off the “Cheap Thrills” album, which always made me laugh since the event had been called cheap thrills prior to that year. I heard someone play that song at late night this year.

So, I contacted Steven Watkins and Kelly Porter, as I now always do, to get a song, and we chose this one out of a few, that everyone now knows from other choreos and competitions. I believe Algiers Hoodoo Woman by Dr. Michael White and Echoes of Harlem by Duke Ellington were the other two contenders. Shaheed and I did choreograph Algiers Hoodoo Woman the following year, but decided we weren’t completely satisfied, and never performed it.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

The choreography was heavily taken from and inspired by clips from ‘The Spirit Moves’. There are a few other swing sub-culture moments here and there i.e. one footed spin, side by side solo section. The slow back flip is something I used to do in salsa, but really has a ballroom or West Coast feel. There was some contemporary style drag movements that Chance Bushman made popular. A few of the opening poses for Shaheed I got from Alvin Ailey. As I watch the piece I can see the moments of Shake Blues, Gut Bucket Blues, Rent Party, Ballroom Blues, flash by. I remember what I saw that made me want to put that in. I only wish I had the movement mastery to really make it clear, but that was also part of it; we have to be where we are, and go forward. Choreo does this for me, gives me something to strive for, work towards.

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

I already had a list of movements and patterns I wanted to use from the documentary. When choreographing with a lead, you have to work with their repertoire and movement abilities. Shaheed and I grew up dancing to the same types of music and similar vernacular, so it was easy to find things we could both express. I took the new song, and started cutting and pasting, which is now so apparent in places as I watch. Shaheed and I lived in different cities. We paid for plane tickets and studio space to do that choreography; it was very expensive. We also got some private coaching to help clean things up and make them more dynamic.

We had put a lot of work into Summertime, and now had to hurry and start over with a new song. We had our skeleton, and filled in. Shaheed being in the film industry felt there should be more story and acting in the dance, this is a weak area for me, but we worked some things in, and used bits from the documentary as well. It didn’t turn out completely cohesive, but there’s a lot of joking around on his part, and back and forth play between us throughout the piece. We decided to cut the song, which is always a hard choice, but we were short on time, and didn’t feel our dance ability was at a place to do the entire piece justice. We kept with the rhythmic and slow horn sections, left out the lyrical parts, which would have been a stretch for both of us at the time. Luckily Shaheed is a good editor, and I have a good ear for beats after many years as a marching band drummer. We were still finishing the piece the afternoon of the performance. There were a couple of sticky spots we just couldn’t dance together. I let go of one and simplified it, the other I dug in my heels and told Shaheed he could get it. That is my favorite part. A little drum beat I could hear, and now others can too.