Breaking the Puppet Strings

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BluesSHOUT! is the place to be to see what’s new going on in the blues dancing world, and choreography is no exception! I am truly impressed with the craft and the artistry of Jenn in this piece. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen, almost otherworldly, and there’s a reason for that – Jenn talks about putting an awful lot of effort into gathering sources and integrating them into the blues aesthetic to create the effect she wanted.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

The original idea for this piece came from a work of puppet theater. The puppet becomes self-aware and deals with the realization by plucking out its own strings, leaving it a motionless pile by the end. I loved the internal conflict and set out to express it in a more uplifting way. I still wanted to keep it a little dark, though, so I decided to play both the puppet and the puppeteer.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I felt that the idea would be best­ done to a twist on a classic. Everyone and their mother has done St. James Infirmary, plus the song has personal meaning. Typically, versions are slow and mournful. Hugh Laurie, on the other hand, did something much sharper with a beautifully soft piano line at the end. I heard the anger that can come with grief, and yet it still had a lighter resolution. It was very fitting for the struggle I wanted to convey.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

There were two main influences: South African puppets and a hip hop dancer named Hampton Williams. The puppets danced in a way that was rhythmic and relaxed, as it would be without bones to get in the way. They also used plenty of hip gyrations for comedic effect. Williams has developed his own style called Exorcist. It has tons of internal conflict manifested externally with fascinating body shapes. I also looked at various jazz and pop routines to inspire even more unusual shapes. In order to keep the piece itself a little twisted I intentionally didn’t look at other blues routines for inspiration. My goal was to find lines and movements from non-blues sources and bring them into the blues aesthetic.

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

I decided to go about this in stages. First I choreographed the routine the puppeteer was trying to perform. It was a literal interpretation of the lyrics using movements inspired by the puppets, and classic blues dances. That was the easy part. I then listened to the song an absurd number of times to plot out the puppet’s arc from awakening, so to speak, to freedom. Next I created a physical manifestation of the conflict: head vs. hands and core vs. limbs. Once that was clear I used my human influences to mess with and disrupt the puppeteer. The fabric tied around my wrists harkened back to the original idea of the piece, and it gave me a physical way to mark my puppet’s victory.

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So is the Day

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This.  This is a great song.  So good I’ve even had playful arguments with other DJs over who gets to play it at a dance. The #1 thing I see about So Is The Day is that it’s a great example of artistic focus.  It’s got a clear, universal theme – hopeless longing – and every detail about it seems to support that theme, so it communicates really powerfully to an audience.

I first saw Bria Skonberg play in Solomon Douglas’ band at the Emerald City Blues Festival.  We’re lucky she lives on the East coast now!

http://briaskonberg.com/

What thoughts or feelings do you want to get across to your audience when they hear this song? What is there in the song that communicates that?

“So Is The Day” is a song about human desire, a push and pull of emotions and frustration. Playing it and hopefully dancing to it is an outlet; it goes on a journey from frailty to manic release largely communicated by the dynamics.

What music from the past did you draw from to create this song?

It’s reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s The Mooche; I specifically ask the drummer to use mallets and for arco (bowed) bass. Harmonically it is similar to Besame Mucho, a romantic bolero which translates to “kiss me a lot”

What was the technical process like to make this song happen – writing, arranging, rehearsing, live vs. studio recorded etc? Any fun stories?

This song came to me after I had been practicing for about an hour in 2010 and had hit a wall .. Finally I just picked up the plunger, turned off the light in the room and played some blues. Not blues in the technical sense as a “12 bar progression”.. but just allowing the deep things I was feeling at the time to surface. Eventually a recurring idea became the melody and I found words to fit. It’s simple but comes from a deep place so most everyone can relate.

We’re dancers. We love your music. If you were playing this song for a room full of people, how would you like to see them move to it?

It’s a very sexy song. 🙂 Actually the secret is to make it your own .. and it may not even be about a person.

A Fantasy From Montréal

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Here we’ve got a new piece from Randy and Mimi, who teach at Swing ConneXtion in Montréal! What really struck me at first was how it showcases a style that is both fast and jazzy, while still definitely blues. Their interview is wonderfully playful to read! Looking back on all these, it’s interesting to see how many dances have been choreographed with the goal of influencing or educating a dance community.

http://randyandmimi.com/
http://www.swingconnexion.com/

What did you want to express with this choreography?

Randy: This routine was choreographed by my dance partner Myriam Baril…

Mimi: c’est moi!

Randy: … and me with the intent of introducing solo blues movement to our dance students. Solo dancing, let alone solo blues dancing is still fairly scary…err… new… idea here in Montréal.

Mimi: *nods*

Randy: We wanted to work on a project that we ourselves could be excited about choreographing and that our students can be jazzed up about in learning. For what we wanted to “express”… hmm maybe Myriam should start.

Mimi: Pour moi, I wanted to [explore] choreographing call and response for troupes as well as the ‘softer’ parts of solo movements. Expression is interesting to think about because I just really focus on the dancing part of the choreography.

Randy: That’s pretty much it for me too. Dancing and lots of it.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

Randy: Oooo boy.

Let me start by telling you that the song I chose for this choreography, “Black and Tan Fantasy”, is such an important song in jazz history and so rich in meaning that I honestly had a lot of reservations in choosing it for a piece.

Did I really want to do a performance piece on a song about racial integration? Would what I would choreograph be seen as “vintage” or “authentic” enough. B T dubs, this is a religious topic here in Montréal. Would anyone actually want to do a group performance to this song? These were just a few questions that I had in my mind when I first started in choosing a song.

Randy: As most people know, the original composition was famously recorded by Duke Ellington. I chose however to do the choreography from the arrangement by Ronnie Magri & His New Orleans Rhythm. It was a very conscious decision mainly due to sound quality (I wanted to perform this piece at the Rialto) but also because I felt that this particular arrangement really stayed true to the roots of the original – heavy drums, dark sax, and the low down growling brass sounds.

From a logistical perspective, I needed a song that people would hear once and “get” what kind of flavour I was going for in the routine. Because the routine was going to be danced by our students, it couldn’t be overly complex in theme but at the same time it needed to have that little bit of kick to put fire in their dance bellies.

Mimi: zzz

Randy: You’re the worst.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

Randy: Loaded question, but take it away Mimi!

Mimi: I have a background in hip hop, house, and lindy hop so these styles always influence the choreographies that I do. Randy has a somewhat similar background so we really compliment each other when we work together.

I can’t say exactly which moves are influenced from which dances exactly but bits and pieces are there. The most obvious ones are the jazz moves like boogie forwards and shorty george.

Randy: and hip thrusts.

Mimi: vintage Randy hip thrust yes.

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

Randy: Hard question. Next? Haha jokesies.

Hmm… I envision a finish routine before I start choreographing. It’s a little bit hard to say exactly what I see and feel when I listen to a song that I want to choreograph to, but a stage is always on my mind. How would it look with lighting and an interested audience.

Formations are also on my mind these days a lot. I want to experiment with interesting shapes and transitions without being a jerk about it. Formations and a story. I find that I like to choreograph to a story – a beginning and an end.

Mimi: I always want to see our dance work on stage portraying who we are and where we come from so that is how I combine things. [Like I said before], Randy and I have different dance backgrounds than most people in our scene (Montréal) so we really want to showcase our personalities while [paying homage] to choreographies and movements that came before us. This is very important for me I think.

Randy: I agree. It’s a constant push and pull of what we want to do versus what the scene wants to see.

Randy: Choreographing a troupe is particularly challenging because you have to work with them and make them feel what you feel. Sometimes it’s hard to express those feelings verbally. Actually not sometimes. It IS super hard. But that’s the fun part about it. Wait what was the question again? Oh yah, it’s a long process combining everything together. A lot of different factors like what we want to represent, how we will work with our students, and while finishing one project, thinking and planning for the next one.

Mimi: So much fun 🙂

A Dance From Across The Pond

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This week we’ve got another 1st place winning piece to show you – Vicci and Adamo’s from last year’s Sweet Molasses!  It’s really fun to watch them play with the music, but it’s also really interesting to read about how they approached what they knew to be a popular song, and also how they dealt with performing their routine to a new audience that they were unfamiliar with.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

I guess you could say the theme of the choreography is that typical ‘boy meets girl’ thing, and then the ups and downs of that relationship. But our main aim was the express the music – the passion, the playfulness, the different rhythms, the different sounds created by different instruments, and the different sections in the music.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

The song chose us!! We had decided we wanted to perform something at an upcoming festival, but didn’t really know what. Then we heard this song, and just had to use it. It was calling out to be choreographed too!

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

We didn’t actively look to other dances for inspiration during the choreographic process. The routine developed very naturally from us just dancing to the music, keeping the bits we liked and reworking the bits we didn’t! We didn’t watch any of the other dances that had been choreographed to the same song as we didn’t want to be influenced by them, we wanted to interpret the music in our own way before seeing how others had interpreted it.

Lots of people have asked us if it was inspired by tango… we have never done tango! But we were inspired by the sound and the feel of the music and just let the movement style and vocabulary come from that.

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

When we first created this routine we were a fairly new teaching couple, so it was designed to introduce us as a partnership to our local scene. It was choreographed very quickly to be performed at Blues Baby Blues, in London. It was initially quite humorous as it was performed in front of lots of friends who knew us well, and we wanted to make it light hearted and fun. As we performed it more to different audiences we realised that some of the humour was lost to people who didn’t know us personally, so we gradually made little changes. We cut the music, thought more about our ‘characters’, got feedback, refined the choreography, got more feedback, and gradually it became what it is today. But we would still make changes and develop it if we performed it again I’m sure!

Blue Midnight

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Welcome back to the Sweet Choreography blog – here to keep you up to date with the world of blues dancing performances, leading up to Sweet Molasses Blues in Boston July 25th-27th!

(Blue Midnight starts @10:55 in case the time jump doesn’t work for you)

Our first post this year if from the ever-inspiring Julie Brown! If you were at Enter the Blues in Atlanta you should recognize it because it took first place in the showcase competition there. I love how she combines the music and her physicality in this piece. It creates a really evocative mood without an explicit story, leaving the watcher with a lot of details to imagine.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

When I decided to choreograph to this song, I listened to it a bunch and saw the image of someone drunk, dancing to the moon. So that’s where I started.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

I heard Jonathan Pechon DJ it once, and was like “Yessssss.” The song has a laziness and nonchalance to it, but also parts with a lot of emotion. There are tons of great textures to play with. And Little Walter is a boss.

What other dances and dancers influenced or inspired this one?

Well, they’re not dancers, but the character’s posture and movement was influenced a lot by Charlie Chaplin and one version of Patalone’s physicality from Commedia dell’arte. I also learned a little break dancing for it.

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

I listened to the song a lot while riding the train, walking around, etc. And got a vision of the character. Then I put on my costume and just messed around to the music until I came up with cool movements. When I got stuck, I watched some break dancing videos, and showed it to some people for feedback to work through it. Since the character came out of the music, and the character drove the movement, it was easy to “combine” the concept and song choice.

Drag Those Blues

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For this week we have what I’d say is an excellent example of Ballroomin’, brought to you by the Dean of Drag, Joe DeMers! Hopefully by now you all have been detecting a theme in these interviews: choreographers who pay close attention to both their modern and historical contexts turn out the best, most engaging works.

What did you want to express with this choreography?

This routine was originally choreographed for our dance team, the Woodside Jumpers. It was our way of bringing the spirit and joy of Blues to a group of dancers that specialized in performance Lindy Hop. We wanted to use a traditional jazz song with similar Blues movements to Vernacular Jazz. The goal of the choreography was to bring new forms of movement and musicality to these dancers. This jazzier style of movement was also fairly new to the Blues performance arena and we wanted to encourage more dancers to dance it.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

The first impression that an audience makes is based on one’s music. When choosing a song, I try to firstly make sure it has a high quality sound. I believe that we should be able to listen to it on the radio. Choreographic songs should have many highs and lows, as well as a variety of instruments, and strong musical phrasing. Following this phrasing, there are times that while listening a storyline comes to fruition. Wild Man Blues was one of them. Once I started visualizing it, it seemed like the choreography pieces just “fit” into place.

I had also been listening to a lot of Sidney Bechet’s music. Around the time, I was diving deeper into Blues dancing and this song just spoke to me. The highs and lows, breaks and trills, and sweet clarinet melodies were just calling for some sweet Blues dancing. I became a huge Sidney Bechet fan! I even attempted his “I’ve Found a New Baby” as the first song to learn on the trumpet; needless to say it was not the best rendition ever.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

Before Blues, I was a Lindy Hopper. I crossed over into Blues at Cheap Thrills 2006 (the predecessor of BluesShout). At the time of crossing over I was practicing a dance that I called Slow Drag, now I call Drag Blues. It was the style of Blues seen on The Spirit Moves. This was my primary source of inspiration for the style of movement, but I also integrated movement and performance qualities of Belly Dancing! Believe it or not, I was taking a semester of Belly Dancing at my school (yes, I was 1 of 2 guys in the class) and I felt inspired to include some of these hip and arm movements into the Blues piece. The arch back and arm waves were a direct reflection of this influence.

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

I tend to choreograph by considering the theme, storyline, or concept of a piece. The song plays a huge role in this decision, but so does creative decision making. It took me a long time to learn that there is no perfect choreography for a particular song. Two people can take the same song, choreograph with very different rhythms and movements, and perform at the same event, and each could be equally powerful to the other. Sometimes it just comes down to commitment in terms of which direction one wishes to go.

I considered the nuances of the song and to which elements an audience will relate and react. I would sometimes improvise to the song dancing over and over again until certain movements attach themselves to particular sections in the music. This repetition also makes me feel more in tune with the nuances that make the song so unique, so that I can dance true to the song’s vibe, even when it’s choreography.

I also cared very much about engaging an audience through contrast. This included having smooth and rhythmic moments, clean and flashy moves, and partnered and individual-styled movements. Keeping these elements in mind and reflecting on my goal of presenting a jazzier Blues routine, the choreography came together.

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.