red rum … Red Rum … Red SHOES!

The story of a blues musician selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads is such classic imagery, I’m surprised nobody has thought to make a piece like this before!  As always, Julie nails her interpretation of her theme through dance.  When I look back over the series of dances she’s choreographed, I’m really impressed with the versatility of her movement – it’s always so different, but always exactly what is needed at the moment.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

For a little while now, I’ve been playing with the idea of being not-in-control of my movement and with movement that doesn’t look controlled.  I started exploring that in my last solo piece, “Blue Midnight,” where I danced as a drunk character, and “Red Shoes” continues that exploration with a character whose shoes possess her & make her dance awesomely but not in ways she controls. The title and very basic concept came from the ballet titled “the red shoes,” which I saw when I was younger. I also thought a piece focusing on foot and legwork would fun and different for me.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?
I had started choreographing this to Memphis Minnie’s “Bad Luck Wiman” because I liked the rhythms, and Memphis Minnie is a boss. But around the same time, I was somewhere where Jenny Sowden DJed “Who Will Be Next” by Howlin Wolf, which I thought was really awesome and also had some great rhythm to play with (thank you, Jenny!). The Howlin Wolf song also had a darker and I guess more demonic feel to it, so it seemed appropriate for a piece that involved possession.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?
While talking about the concept, I got pointed to a cool LXD video called “Elliot’s Shoes,” which is basically the same concept. That piece have me a lot of ideas for the beginning of my piece. I also watched A LOT of James Brown and Michael Jackson clips, as well as my usual dose of looking at cool hip hop & breaking floor work videos.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?
Creating this piece was really fun but also extremely challenging. It involved a lot of fun experimentation to create the movements–lots of rolling on the floor, and a lot of “what else can I do with my feet?,” “how can I make this movement look like my feet are generating it?”. That was really fun. There were many challenging aspects thought too. It was physically challenging in many parts to get the look I wanted, and also challenging in terms of the dramatic arc of the piece–the song has a structure that’s repetitive and, other than the climactic instrumental section, there’s not a large change in the song that would indicate some change in the character, which I wanted to have for plot/interest reasons. I also went back and forth a lot with the balance of comedy vs fear/darkness in the tone if the piece, feeling out how my character reacted to the possession at different points in the piece; something I might play with in later performances. The last challenge was to physically execute some of the stuff while still playing a character & expressing how I’m reacting to the possession. If I’m able to perform this again, I’ll definitely be working on that.

Cuttin’ Choreography

Well, it’s high time I start posting interviews from my favorite choreographed pieces that debuted at BluesSHOUT! this year!

Let’s start with this one, which is a direct response to Dexter’s I Prefer You piece from last year.  It’s always a special moment when an artistic community becomes self-referential, isn’t it?  Actually, poking fun at your competitors has a long history in dances with an African aesthetic, and it’s great to see that expressed here.  I particularly like reading how Jenn and Julie worked to make sure this piece had bite, but still remained respectful.  I also wish you all could have been there to see Dexter’s reaction when it was performed!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

Julie: This one was all Jenn’s idea, and I was her happy accomplice. We wanted to cut Dexter & Heriberto’s piece from last year, pushing the concept that they had danced over into the range of clearly-comedic, while also poking fun at/paying homage to Dexter.
Jenn:  I can’t take full credit for it, actually. While working on my puppet piece last year, Jonathan Pechon suggested that I do a routine where I dance like Dexter. I found the idea intriguing, but at the same time, I like to tell a story and/or bring something new to the blues table with my pieces. Going out and dancing like a second-rate Dexter just wasn’t enough. And then Shout happened. After Dexter and Heriberto performed, I found Julie as fast as I could because I knew she would be the perfect partner-in-crime.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

Julie: We tried out 2 different Etta James songs, since we wanted a similar sound, but not identical to the original piece. We ulitmately chose “You Can Leave Your Hat On” because right from the beginning of the song, the guitar sound is very over the top bow-chika-wow-wow, which helps people understand right away that the piece is comedic. Also when we were dancing to the song, we were already cracking ourselves up.
Jenn: The song choice really did make us establish our priorities. The other Etta James tune had a more similar feel to I Prefer You. We went back and forth between the two for most of our first meeting, unsure of which one would make the cut funnier. Words failed us, so we got up, danced, and ridiculousness won.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

Julie: Obviously, we drew most of the inspiration from Dexter & Heriberto’s “I Prefer You,” but we also drew on many other of Dexter’s pieces & piece’s he’s been in. There are direct references to “Even Swingers Get the Blues,” “Hound Dog,” and probably a few others I’m forgetting. And I’m also only half-ashamed to admit that we watched a few Chippendale’s and Magic Mike videos for inspiration as well.
Jenn: We also watched videos of some of his class summaries. “In a Groovy Solo Blues Mood” was a particularly big inspiration for me, and we looked to his masculine movement classes to help with styling. There’s even something we saw him do at Steel City Blues. I like to think of the result as a bit of a game: how many Dexter references can you spot? As for our other sources… the Chippendale videos were a bit of bust, but I feel no shame in what we stole from Magic Mike. We wanted to be as a ridiculous as possible, after all.

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

Julie: We knew we were walking a fine line with this: we wanted to be comedic and poke some fun, but we didn’t want to be mean or hurtful. We also definitely wanted to display good dancing in an interesting choreography. To accomplish our goals, we made sure to get ridiculous and do some silly moves, as well as take a few moves & ideas from “I Prefer You,” but then make them more over-the-top. To ensure quality, we studied Dexter’s movements and tried to recreate the style as much as we could. We spent a lot of time on movement quality and making sure we looked good, again to ensure that our comedy was backed up by actually-good dancing
Jenn: The original piece was used to block out the structure and flow of ours. We picked out the statement moves from it to include in our own. Patterns can be found in anyone’s movement, so we tried to identify and use some of Dexter’s. And, for proper cuttin’s sake, we took a few parts of the routine and tried to make them even cooler. To meet the submission deadline we had to divide up the first 1:45 or so and choreograph them separately, and we each choreographed our own solos. There was a lot of geeking out and analyzing what makes Dexter’s style so unique. A lot. I even grabbed Julie during Steel City’s Blues Clinic just for this purpose. And, naturally, we had to include the underwear toss. It had to be bigger though, closer to a shower. So, we leaked the piece to a few friends and asked them to, um, participate. The thrown shoes, however, were not our doing.

Dexter’s Black Beauty

 I love this piece.  Like all of Dexter’s performances, I get a strong impression that he’s not just showing me the attitude he’s trying to evoke with his dancing, he’s actually living it.  But there’s more to it than that.  Here we’ve got a dance that blurs the lines between jazz and blues solo movement, managing to simultaneously be both.  And it looks so effortless!  However, Dexter’s interview makes it clear just how much research and forethought it takes to make something so complex seem so easy.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

A lightheartedness expressed through dance. Simple but expressive movements that complement the music. The song has an effortlessness to it in the sense that it isn’t too heavy on the emotional spectrum. I wanted to convey an uplifting and inspired energy in my performance. My reaction to Duke Ellington’s “Black Beauty” (the 1960 version from the Unknown Sessions album) was that if felt like a “stroll.” There’s also a narrative quality to it if you listen to the instrumentation as well as the chord and melody changes. It’s as if Duke Ellington and his band are taking us on an adventure, with the different instruments telling us various anecdotes. With all that in mind, my interpretation of this was a Sunday stroll and on the way being inspired by my surroundings, by watching people, by life, and eventually by meeting my muse, the “Black Beauty.”

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I was in Toronto, Canada for a workshop I was teaching in November of 2013. During that time, the annual Toronto Lindy Hop Cabaret was also happening. My friend Brooke Filsinger (who organized my workshop and who’s also involved with the Toronto Lindy Hop scene) asked if I wanted to perform my Hound Dog Blues routine, a last-minute addition to the cabaret’s performing roster. I told Brooke that I wanted to perform something new. But I only had a few days to come up with a new performance piece.

I went through my music collection and, being a fan of Duke Ellington’s music, found something that inspired me. I chose “Black Beauty” primarily because of its feeling. I’ve mentioned this before in prior interviews, but I also choose songs based on their performance quality. I sensed a story in this song and it inspired me to come up with a story of a guy on a stroll…and something wonderful happens to him! I should also mention that since I was being introduced as a Blues dance instructor and performer at a Lindy Hop cabaret, I wanted a song where I could apply some Blues movement using a jazz song. I thought “Black Beauty” would be a good bridge for that.

In researching the history of this song, I found that “Black Beauty” is not without reference to the Blues. The song itself is described as having a “bluesy, somber sound.” Despite the lighthearted feeling of the music, “Black Beauty” is actually Duke Ellington’s elegy for Florence Mills, an African-American cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian who became well-known and loved in vaudeville and Broadway performances in the 1920s. She received international success and acclaim for the show Blackbirds, but died at the early age of 32 from tuberculosis and other complications, a result of her exhaustion from performing the show more than 250 times. Listening to the song, you can sense that it is Duke’s touching tribute to the life of the lovely wide-eyed performer and entertainer who inspired and brought happiness to her audiences.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

At the time I was choreographing this piece, I was thinking about my character. Having the idea for a “stroll,” I wanted a character whose movements would fit well with the story and the music. I’ve always been inspired by Gene Kelly’s dancing – the way he engages his audience as he moves across the stage in a carefree and expressive way. So, I decided I wanted to have that quality to my character and performance.

Here’s something that’s also interesting. Upon seeing my performance, my friend Jody Glanzer from Ottawa mentioned that the “seated sequence” of my choreography (where I’m just dancing with my feet) reminded her of Charlie Chaplin’s “Oceana Roll” dance from his 1925 silent film, The Gold Rush. In this film, Charlie Chaplin’s character is entertaining a group of ladies at the dinner table by sticking forks into bread rolls and pretending to use them as feet as he performs a playful and humorous dance. It’s a very entertaining clip from the movie and I’m very pleased to see the similarity and how I’ve unintentionally paid it homage in a way.

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

The choreography was born out of necessity (but not taken on without much enthusiasm). In this case, I needed to have a choreographed piece to perform at the Toronto Lindy Hop Cabaret in just a few days time. Considering the audience and the event I was to perform in, I also wanted to choreograph something new outside of what people usually see me in as far as Blues dance performances are concerned. Something a bit more classy than gritty. Once I chose the song “Black Beauty,” everything else started falling into place. I let myself be inspired by the song, it’s emotion, and the story that unfolded in my mind. Once I had an idea for a character and a setting for the story, it was then about creating the dance – a Jazz performance with a Blues sensitivity.

For this piece, I integrated some Blues vocabulary as well as movements that had a “bluesy” feeling. The performance has movements that develop as they are repeated and which also travel across the floor depicting a stroll. The most enjoyable parts I had choreographing were the breaks and the accents! Sometimes, I have an idea of what to do with them first before anything else. Listening to the song, you can hear so much if it from the way the piano and the trumpet is played. There are so many opportunities to express so many things!

In cabaret fashion, I integrated the use of a chair as a prop where the dance would start and end. This reminds me how I later came across a YouTube video of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor (his co-star in Singin’ In The Rain) doing a tap dance while seated to a medley of musical numbers. I was pleased to see how Gene Kelly, my influence for my character in Black Beautyhad done something like that. It goes to show that nothing that we do today in dance is entirely original. At some time, someone, somewhere has done it before you did. I think that performances of the past are not only things we appreciate, but also serve to inspire us and provide us with opportunities to innovate through our art.

Black Beauty, a performance of a guy who is inspired by beauty, dance, and life in the moment, has been performed in the cities of Toronto, Rochester, Seattle, and Seoul. It’s one of my favorite choreographies. I hope you enjoy it!