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.