Art: You Know It When You See It

There are two signs I look for to know when I’m witnessing a truly great artistic performance, outside of the piece itself. The first is a hushed silence from the audience; a palpable sense that everyone is too wrapped up in the experience to holler encouragement. The other is the feeling of hair standing up on the back of my neck.

I felt both of those when I saw this piece performed. This is exactly the kind of artistry I hope to see coming out of the blues dance community, and I’m incredibly honored that Jenny chose to perform it first at the event I run.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

At most and least a reaction of any kind, as is a goal to every project I work on. With this particular piece I used the image of a tiny dancer that turns in a music box, and how sometimes we tell her story, I wanted to offer a different story for people to tell and understand. We each have that part of us that is on display or seen by the world around us and yet there will always be more in us that people don’t see or don’t know. An upset can come when someone see’s another side of you without explanation or your point of view and the assumptions they make of our situation, actions, or choices are usually then wrong. Many potential topics come up in this piece from identity, abuse, violence, presentation, desire, love, and more depending on your life and background. I wanted to express the complexity have have in these hidden topics in ourselves. How we may hurt, hate, desire and love all at the same time.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

The song came first for this piece. Every time this song was DJed I was taken with it’s beginning, growth and words. I’d usual solo and just about every time afterwards someone would come up to me and express their reaction to my dance. I don’t usually pick songs that people know or recognize and especially not songs with words, I tend to find it a challenge to do so and this one was just that. Nina Simone is an amazing artist who created many statement pieces, this is definitely one, but this piece had a work song sound from a woman’s point of view, which I had not heard many of those. There are parts of this song I directly relate to and parts that relate directly to family and friend’s stories I know and care for. This song took more time than most to create choreography to, this was a challenge but the story I wanted to tell made this song more and more perfect as I worked on it.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

Blues, Jazz, African, Modern, Ring Shout dances, pedestrian (everyday) movement, Nina Simon herself in a couple videos of her singing this song, a tiny dancer in a music box, and many people in my life whom I honor by not mentioning.

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

Metaphors! They are my favorite!

Theme in repeating a movement many times connects with various dance styles, the routine of life and the work song sound that we hear.

I took each different theme that I used in this piece and in practice did only that theme, only that movement for the entire song to feel it’s repetition, weight, possibility and opportunity in rotation. ie: only doing fish tails while rotating to this entire song, not as a drill but as the dance. Only walking in a circle and clapping, as if to be watching myself for the entire song. So I actually have many versions of this dance and the piece you saw is the combination of all of them.

I took into consideration pedestrian movement, what woman do in their life without music, in the beginning that movement was very literal and in time became more abstract so other people could insert their own visions onto the piece of what was happening and not just my own.

I played with the idea of using a jo (a long wooden rod used as a weapon in Aikido) for a time but I decided it took away from the simplicity, pedestrian movement and didn’t give me the emotional and dynamic range that I wanted to be able to portray. I played with other ideas that I will not mention as they are likely to be used in a later piece.

As a first in choreography, I did not show anyone this piece before performing it for the first time at Sweet Molasses 2014, it could only be truly raw once, so I was a bit nervous to say the least. It’s likely the piece will shift slightly if I perform it again, as the act of performance always brings out new aspects of a piece created to show as such. I look forward to those developments and have been honored by peoples private and public responses to me regarding this piece. It’s as though they have become a part of the piece when I think of it. So finished? Perhaps a living thing is never finished.

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.

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.