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.

We Prefer Them

Here we’ve got for you my other favorite piece from BluesSHOUT this year!  I really appreciate that Dexter wanted to show that solo dancing isn’t just for the ladies.  And also, he did a fantastic job of matching the attitude of the dance to the attitude of the music – and you can tell from the video that it drives the crowd wild!  However, you can tell from his in depth interview that his artistic success came, not only from inspiration, but from a lot of hard work and thought about his craft.

And thinking of the crowd, this time there are some bonus questions that Dexter answers for us!  They address some issues I heard people talking about after the performance at BluesSHOUT.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

The choreography in this piece expresses a lot of attitude, confidence, and a good amount of sass I would say. For our first collaboration, Heriberto and I also just wanted to perform a solo Blues piece that was fun and entertaining to watch. I think we succeeded on all counts. 🙂 In choreographing this piece, I wanted the movements to be simple but dynamic, each movement having a purpose and strong relation to the music. For entertainment value, we added some parts in the choreography to “tease” the audience but still held it to the intentions we had for our movements. The first thing people would say is that it’s sexy, but I think the sexiness is a result of us moving confidently. When I first communicated with Heriberto about this I wanted to be very clear that we weren’t just doing the movements for the sake of being sexy, but that the movements had to come from a place of skill and prowess and which were purposeful to the music. From our initial conversation and knowing Heriberto’s professionalism and skill, I knew that we were on the same page for this performance. We also knew the reaction we would get teaming up for this performance which made this collaboration exciting for us.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I was listening to my Pandora station one day and “I Prefer You” by the late and great Etta James came up. Immediately, I knew that I had song I could use for my performance with Heriberto. I chose this song because it has a strong performance quality and simply because it has a “fun” vibe to it. Immediately, the music comes out strong and confident and is layered with strong brass and percussive elements topped with Etta’s brazen singing which made for a fun and inspiring time choreographing. In this song, Etta sings about qualities that she prefers in a man and that’s where I had this idea for Heriberto and I vying for Etta’s attention as we danced. Who does she prefer? Heriberto or me? 😉

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

This performance piece was mostly inspired by the song, so I couldn’t say that other dances influenced this one. But in putting this together, I incorporated movement ideas I saw in other performances by The Temptations, Bruno Mars, and a group called Purple Haze led by Darius Crenshaw.

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

Heriberto and I had talked about performing together for the past two years. Prior to this, we’ve been hearing about each other through the “news feeds” and through other people who have been comparing our movements. Occasionally, we would meet at dance events and eventually began our friendship. I have much respect for what he does in the Latin dance scene and admire his own movement. Plus, he’s a very nice and down-to-earth guy. And so we talked about performing together. Once we had the song and concept for the performance, it was just a matter of choosing a date/event to perform it at, then scheduling choreography and practice a few months before. We were planning on performing it for bluesSHOUT last year (in St. Louis), but Heriberto had a conflicting gig that same weekend. Fortunately, there were no conflicts during this year’s bluesSHOUT in Chicago.

For this performance piece, I choreographed most of it with Heriberto choreographing his own movements in the beginning where we trade off and at the end where we do a “free-for-all.” I started choreographing in March in between the teaching and traveling I was doing. I went about choreographing the song sporadically and out of order, choreographing the points in the song that stood out strongly to me and then filling out the rest later. Once I had finished the choreography, I sent Heriberto a private YouTube link for him to practice and review which was followed by scheduled practices via Skype. He was a good sport in my critiquing his movements and getting him to change (or at least tone down) the “Latin” in his movement and making it more “Blues.” 🙂

As for the blocking for this performance, I found myself having to continually move forward in my choreography which, in the context of how performances are typically presented (with the audience in front), made this piece challenging and exciting at the same time. Immediately, I was hit with the idea of dancing up and down a “catwalk” which, in the spirit of the song, only enhanced the theme of Heriberto and I “vying” for Etta (and everyone’s) preference. I went ahead with the “catwalk” blocking of this piece thinking that I could change it later if it wasn’t possible in the venue or if it would be too much trouble to move people around. Fortunately, Sara Cherny (bluesSHOUT head organizer) supported this idea and with the help of Kelsey Nadine Ballance (the MC) managing the crowd, made it possible for us to perform it the way I had envisioned it. I’m really happy about how easily this was accomplished. And as far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong, this is the first time that a Blues dance performance has been presented this way.

Having performed this twice (at bluesSHOUT Chicago 2014 and Toronto’s Blues Battle 2014), several people have commented that it was refreshing to see more examples of masculine movement in Blues Dance performances, an area which is currently dominated by female performers and female groups. It pleases me to hear this as I have always believed that knowing how to solo dance (whether you are male or female) makes you a better partner dancer and an all-around stronger and capable dancer in general. But ultimately, I hope that this performance inspires men to do more solo Blues, feel confident in their own dancing, and not feel limited in their movement because of “labels” (feminine or masculine) that are traditionally applied to movements. I’ve often argued that people who are able to do smooth and sharp, angled and curved, and fast and slow movements in their dancing show a mastery of the movement in their bodies in spite of the traditional “feminine” or “masculine” labels. If you ever get a chance, take my “Masculine and Feminine Movement” class with Heidi where we try to address these issues and show you how to change the character in your dancing.

BONUS QUESTIONS:

Beyond being some great dancing and a clever use of the audience’s space, there is one thing I and some other people I’ve talked to were wondering … is there a little bit of self-parody here – consciously poking some fun at people who objectify you as “That Hot Dancing Dude” through exaggeration? It’s hard for us to tell, because either way, you’re clearly dancing really honestly in the piece.

The self-parody was not intentional and it’s interesting to hear that impression. One thing that I immediately realized (and perhaps Heriberto as well) was that we had to keep a straight face and remain focused with all the screaming and wild reaction we got from the crowd. So, maybe it looked like we were parodying ourselves in our attempt to remain focused and cool. Honestly, the choreography was inspired because of the energy of the song and of Etta James’ spirited singing. I heard it and said, “This is the song to my next choreography piece!” After this performance, I’m now telling people that my next one will be a more “emotive” piece. I’ve got to stretch out my performance muscles, you know?

Another question I’ve heard asked – was the panty toss at the end planned or spontaneous? Or would you rather let it be a mystery?

It’s not something we planned. That would just sound too egotistical of us to have that planned as part of our performance. Heidi Fite knew that I was putting together a performance with Heriberto and, just like most of the female audience, was excited about seeing our performance. While catching us discreetly practicing in Chicago, Heidi (in her own “devious” way) hinted that she was going to bring “something” to our performance later that night. Knowing her, I trusted it wasn’t something that would deter our performance. It’s funny that people in the audience were screaming at us to “take it off.” Eventually, someone did take it off and it was Heidi. 🙂

They’ve Got A Hold On You

This time we’ve got a really great piece for you from the inimitable Rachel Stirling and Kelly Pavao!  I was there at Bambloozled in 2011 when they performed it, and I’ve rarely seen such great energy from the audience during a performance.  You can hear them hollering and clapping along the entire time!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

Kelly:
We definitely wanted to do a paired solo piece. I can’t remember how the idea of fans came up, but once it did, we glommed onto it and shortly thereafter decided that we wanted to do a piece where we were “church ladies” all dressed up fancy with our fans. Great idea, right? We’ll have this popped out in no time…HAHAHAHAHA.

Rachel:
The goal was to create a routine using fans that gives a perspective other than the typical burlesque routine.  Kelly and I were dancing on the stage at bluesShout in Boston, fanning ourselves because it was so hot.  I got to thinking that when folks think of fan dancing the association is with really sexy, provocative dancing.  I thought it would be so inspiring to create a badass blues choreography with women and fans that doesn’t resort to sex appeal.  And the church lady concept was born.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

Kelly:
Choosing this song was a loooong process. We knew what we wanted the piece to be, and we knew what kind of a song we wanted for it, but it turned out that it was a long road to finding a song to fit with that vision that was both the right feel, tempo, and length. We listened to a lot of music [read: A LOT] before finding this song, but once we heard it, we knew it was going to work for what we had in mind. [Thank goodness!] It also then allowed us to further refine our idea into letting the dancing take us over. You know, because dancing is awesomesauce. Also definitely still with fans.

Rachel:
Yeah, it was an incredibly long process. And when we had just about given up after a month or so of scouring artists and songs and asking for suggestions and nothing being just right, Mike Marcotte djed Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold On Me.” We were bopping around and then suddenly looked at each other in amazement and excitement. We’d found our song.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

Kelly:
To the youtubes! We definitely watched copious amounts of videos to pull ideas for solo movements from, but probably our most notable source of inspiration was the James Brown church scene from the movie “Blues Brothers.” We really wanted to work trampolines in, but we settled for the over-the-back air step. (Just before the 2 minute mark in that video clip.)

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

Kelly:
Things blended and grew with each new piece that fell into place. We started with our “big picture” idea [Church ladies! With fans!] and decided on a song [Etta James FTW!] then further refined our concept [Cannot. Help. Dancing… Music. Too. Good!] and pulled inspiration from outside sources [TRAMPOLINES!! No?] and tried to make them work. When working on the actual choreography, we started with movements or interactive ideas that we wanted to work into the piece, found the best place for them musically, and filled in other movements around them. Things got moved around or thrown out–you have

to be flexible and willing to make changes and/or let things go. At some point, the piece kind of becomes its own thing. We created a monster. And she’s glorious.

Rachel:
Once the right song found us things just sort of fell into place.  We already had sections of choreography we liked that were inspired by the concept and video clips, we were just waiting to find the song to see where they fit in.  We then filled in the transitions and did a lot of tweaking to get a finished piece we were really proud of.