Apart from their intense musicality, choreographers Billy Siegenfeld – founder/artistic director of Chicago’s Jump Rhythm Jazz Project — and the late George Balanchine probably would not be mentioned in the same breath – except, perhaps, in their belief that an inherent story lay in the natural patterns of the music and the presence of dancers engaged in movement. During JRJP’s performance last night, honoring the rhythm-first dance company’s 20th anniversary at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, I surprised myself by aesthetically connecting and detaching Siegenfeld and Balanchine.
Their work can be about everything and nothing at the same time; it fosters an agile and pliable partnership between the specific and the universal. Both artists also dissect every musical phrase with the precision of someone disarming the wires of an explosive device. The key difference, at least for me, is that, with Siegenfeld, the acknowledgement of unexpected shifts in rhythm could cause a figurative explosion. And he would welcome something so messy and real on stage. Balanchine, on the other hand, would make sure those wires were crisply clipped to suppress any emotional mine fields straining to burst from the ordered neoclassicism of his movement architecture. They clearly diverge in the arena of emotion versus shape, underscored by the fact that Balanchine urged audiences to “see the music, hear the dance” rather than feel either or both. That’s not to say one is superior to the other – just different in how they harness music and/or rhythm to really make it come alive in the body.
Siegenfeld’s holistic rhythmic approach cannot be restricted to a formal composition of bodies moving through space. Instead, the body’s natural inner rhythms push through torsos, arms, heads and vocal chords and manifest themselves in a visceral connection to humanity. And that’s how I felt at Jump Rhythm’s most recent performance – a substantive, propulsive and honest embracing of life. The group wisely opened with I Hear Music, a deceptively simple riff on fragmented music-theater phrases. This ensemble jam should stand as the JRJP mantra: ultimately, each dancer boldly asserts him or herself within a framework of polite structure that soon collapses (in a good way) into an unselfconscious celebration of communal human expression.
The company’s current roster of dancers has found a pungent groove; their synergy is obvious: Led by Siegenfeld (a blend of believable theatricality and gestural brilliance), Jeannie Hill (a graceful instrument of lilting percussion) and Brandi Coleman (an aggressive technician and charismatic chameleon), the entire ensemble reveals its individuality while staying true to JRJP’s unified aesthetic: Amanda Benzin, Kevin Durnbaugh, Lindsay Fischer, Peter Hammer, Jordan Kahl, Kristina Kasper, Heidi Malnar and Lizzie Perkins.
Two world premieres, both by Siegenfeld, more expertly blended wry wit with full-bodied force than a small selection of earlier works that gravitated toward the cute or blissful. You Do Not Have To Be Good addressed territoriality with subtlety and power. Protection of personal turf, a reluctance to touch, and the gradual coming together of divergent camps drive this work. It can be compared to gangs, warring countries, even contentious board meetings. Why Gershwin? blatantly (but thoughtfully) knit together James Brown’s The Payback with George and Ira Gershwin’s rapturously cantankerous sense of music romance. Siegenfeld’s virtuosic body bickering is anchored by Amanda Benzin’s soft sensuality and fortified will. Even the quartet of wise-cracking cupids convey the “little bit of mush and the little bit of tang” present in most successful romantic songs…and real-life romances, for that matter.
Kevin Durnbaugh delivered an engaging homage to the beat and its evolution – a one-man lesson on rhythm that should tour schools across the country. Siegenfeld and Brandi Coleman showed how subtle shifts in body posture can wholly alter emotional states and responses (from the gracious duet on loss, Poppy and Lou, to the tortured, vampish groveling of their pairing in god of dirt. In fact, god of dirt – set to achingly jovial music by Serb-Croat composer Goran Bregovic – epitomized the raw, competitive, soul-baring facets of a communal folk gathering, together with the resilience of the human spirit via the call of a primal rhythmic force (not unlike Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring). For Siegenfeld, the rhythm really is the story – a story that’s not hidden inside formal shapes. JRJP is like a field of wild flowers; the antithesis of perfectly tamed topiary.
Jump Rhythm Jazz Project performs through Feb. 20 at 8 p.m. at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets: $24-$28. Call 312-369-8330 or visit www.colum.edu/dancecenter. For more information: www.jrjp.org.
The Joffrey Ballet remounts Sir Frederick Ashton’s witty and pristine 1948 Cinderella (featuring Sergei Prokofiev’s sweeping score, with bleak and satiric undercurrents) through Feb. 28 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. $25-$145. Call 800-982-2787 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. For more information: www.joffrey.com.
Winifred Haun & Dancers relocates the good-evil essence of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to Oak Park’s Cheney Mansion, 220 N. Euclid Ave., in a site-specific staging of Haun’s Promise, an aerial-inspired contemporary dance, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 21 at 5 p.m. Tickets: $30. For tickets, call 773-454-9843 or visit www.WinifredHaun.org.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet revives Twyla Tharp’s 1975 Sue’s Leg, a playful and rigorous visualization of Fats Waller’s swing, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. at the College of DuPage’s McAninch Arts Center, Fawell and Park Boulevards, Glen Ellyn. Tickets: $32-$42. Call 630-942-4000 or visit www. AtTheMAC.org.
The Chicago Flamenco Festival, sponsored by the Instituto Cervantes (31 W. Ohio St.), continues its month-long celebration (through March 2) of Andalusia, Spain’s eclectic percussive art of flamenco through performances, workshops, lectures and film screenings in venues across the city. For a full schedule, call 312-335-1996 or visit http://chicago.cervantes.es.
DanceWorks Chicago hosts its final Eat to the Beat performance of the season on Feb. 23 at noon at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park, 205 E. Randolph Drive. The lunchtime series debuts If Ever (an Ocean) Relinquished by Alex Ketley, who selected his sound accompaniment via an on-line contest open to Chicago musicians, deejays and spoken-word artists. Tickets: $5. Call 312-334-7777 or visit www.harristheaterchicago.org. More information: www.danceworkschicago.org.
Links Halls holds its much-anticipated jazz-era, speakeasy-themed benefit, THAW, Feb. 23 beginning at 6:30 p.m. at The Red Canary, 695 N. Milwaukee Ave. It includes food, drinks, dancing, and performances of dance, music, puppetry, toy theater, and experimental performance art. Tickets: $30-$75. Call 773-281-0824 or visit www.linkshall.org.
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