“Jack’s Back!”

Last week marked the final performances (for now, at least) of “Jack’s Back,” a clever new musical romp about the notorious Jack the Ripper.  The funny and fresh new musical at the T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre  tells the tale of “Herbert Wingate, an audacious cockney sausage stuffer, struggles to make the gas-lit streets of Whitechapel safe from the ruthless murderer. Herbert’s wild and zany schemes offer a hilarious and heartfelt new take on the centuries old tale” (tschreiber.org).

Alexa Erbach

Romain Rachline
Julia Udine
The off-off-Broadway musical comedy stars a number of Broadway Dance Center alumni including Julia Udine (Professional Semester, S’12), Romain Rachline (ISVP ’11-’12), and Alexa Erbach (Professional Semester, F’11).  Additionally, “Jack’s Back” was choreograhed by Bronwen Carson who teaches Acting for Dancers at BDC.

If you weren’t able to make it over to “Jack’s Back,” 1) you missed out, but 2) do not despair – there are high hopes that the show will return to the stage soon.  You can help make this possible by voting for “Jack’s Back” for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.

Voting is simple:

1.  Go to: http://www.nyitawards.com/vote/ and select “audience ballot”

2. Select “Register to Vote” and fill in the online form

3. Check your email for instructions on how to vote

Defining “Dance”

Early this year I attended a performance by Parsons Dance Company at the Joyce Theater in SoHo.  David Parsons’ choreography fuses modern dance technique and awareness with theatrical charm .  The concert included older Parsons repertoire as well as two world premieres, thereby exhibiting both the evolution of the company’s work and the traditional Parsons aesthetic.

However, I noticed that the joyful spirit and fluid composition of the Parsons repertoire was somewhat disconnected from the middle piece, “A Stray’s Lullaby,” choreographed by Katarzyna Skarpetowska (former Parsons dancer, freelance choreographer, native of Warsaw, Poland).   This guest-choreographed piece, which seems to illustrate the struggle of laboring families during the time of the Dust Bowl/Great Depression, reminded me of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”  The work is staged on four dancers, two male and two female, and includes either a solo or duet that essentially “tells” each dancer’s “story.”  An article in the New York Press explains,

“‘A Stray’s Lullaby’ is an intimate work, set for four dancers who portray down and out characters on the margin of society. Their journey is a personal one and presented without comment, yet it is clear they are on a quest for salvation. Their stories are the rich and wise examples of our own vulnerable natures. The piece offers no clear solution, it only opens a window on the way we face our private demons and how we strive to improve our human condition.”

This storyline clearly breaks away from Parsons’ own choreographic motifs: circularity, love, joy, etc.  Yet, what struck me the most about “A Stray’s Lullaby” was the first solo of the piece, performed by Christina Ilisije. Ilisije, dressed in dreary beige slacks, a cream tank, and black lace up shoes, “danced” to a song with a twangy singer, strumming banjo, and rather dismal lyrics.  She maintained a strict diagonal plane of movement across the stage and often repeated a phrase of traveling movement, as if struggling to get from one side of the stage to the other.  While the first work of the evening, “Round My World,” incorporated fluid, circular, natural movement from the dancers, this piece required Ilisije to contort her body in order to create intense, twisted, and harsh choreography.  The New York Post describes, “The foursome moves unsteadily at first to traffic noises that change to scratchy-voiced blues. As the lights change from golden to a smoky haze, one woman dives and claws her way through.”  Ilisije contorts her limbs into uncomfortable shapes (both for her and the audience watching), falls gawkily, and limps across the stage by literally dragging her legs.

I was surprised that in my online research of “A Stray’s Lullaby,” I could not find any articles or reviews that really critiqued the movement of the piece, as it is so unusual and disturbing, but also beautiful at the same time.  From my cheap seats in the side balcony, I scanned the audience to notice their reactions.  No one was ruffling through their programs or checking their text messages on their phones.  No one coughed or mumbled to their neighbor either.  The entire theater was completely attentive and engaged with the solo performance, admiring the juxtaposition of beauty and deformity within one dancer.

The hamster wheels in my mind began to race.  Why is it that this onstage soloist depicting unnatural bodily movement is admired while everyday men and women who are born with or develop such movement styles are not?  Why is a limp so intriguing and innovative onstage but so unsettling and awkward on the sidewalk?  Why is it acceptable to watch this movement onstage but it is disrespectful to stare in real life?

These are the very questions that Heidi Latsky asked herself when she began creating The GIMP Project back in 2008.  The work is performed by both physically-abled and disabled dancers and confronts audiences’ preconceptions about about art and performance.

GIMP is a word we’re taught not to use as we’re taught not to stare at people who have physical disabilities.

GIMP also means ‘fighting spirit’, ‘interwoven fabric’ and ‘trembling with ecstasy”- definitions that are at the heart of the work.

GIMP examines the uncompromising ways we are often identified or defined by our physicality.

GIMP challenges the notion of beauty as a standard artifact of “photo-shopped” perfection with a tangible sensuality, a touch of voyeurism and a new frame of reference as both performers AND audiences are acutely aware of being watched. (The GIMP Project press kit)

“GIMP is without doubt a gleaming milestone in the progress of contemporary dance and theater, proving that the term ‘disabled dancer’ is an oxymoron.” – Dance Magazine

Various dance styles preach precision, sameness, technique, and ideals of perfection.  But the question is – do these standards actually limit dance as an art form?

Heidi Latsky Dance envisions a society where:

  • all bodies are recognized as viable, fascinating and expressive instruments;
  • difference is upheld, not feared;
  • increased understanding and communication take the place of isolation, alienation and lack of contact;
  • people learn to “live in” their own skin and do not detach from their bodies because of external and internally assimilated judgments and conventional standards;
  • one is encouraged to “own” one’s body, value it and use it to be expressive and truthful in ways that are empowering, enriching and unique;
  • a strong work ethic is valued and implemented;
  • and a high standard of excellence is not only desired but is achieved through sustained work and focus.

2012 Choreographer’s Canvas

Last weekend’s Choreographer’s Canvas, produced by The Group Theatre Too, LLC (GTT) showcased choreographers and dancers of all ages and styles to a sold-out crowd at the Manhattan Movement Arts Center.  The evening also included a touching tribute to the late Tony Stevens.

The GTT, founded in 2003 by Michael Blevins and BDC’s own Justin Boccitto, aspires to “encourage diversity and the exploration of the human experience through theater, dance, and music.”

Broadway Dance Center was well represented at the show, not only in the audience but also on stage and behind the scenes.  Notable performances included works by BDC faculty such as Sue Samuels, Ginger Cox, Jared Jenkins, Crystal Chapman, and Lainie Munro.

The Jack Cole Project

The director’s note opens:

Julie Newmar was once asked “Why is it that most people don’t know of Jack Cole?”  Ms. Newmar paused, considered it for a moment, and replied, “Well, all the important people do.”

While this quote probably excited most other audience members about the upcoming performance of “Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project,” I felt disillusioned.  I had never heard of Jack Cole, the supposed founder of jazz dance who influenced Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Alvin Ailey, and Jerome Robbins and taught the likes of Ann Miller, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe.  I’ve taken my share of jazz classes, musical theater classes, modern classes, and dance history courses in college.  I love the history of dance just as much as I love to dance.  I was almost angry with myself – why wasn’t I familiar with Jack Cole?!

Now, I don’t mean to make excuses, but it’s not my fault!  I flipped through my collection of dance history books – the history dance in Western culture, a Bob Fosse biography, a Marilyn Monroe biography, and a Jerome Robbins biography…no mention of Jack Cole.  Confused and frustrated, I turned to my dear friend, Google.

Search: jack cole biography book.

Results: 1 – “Unsung Genius: the passion of dancer and choreographer Jack Cole” by Glenn Loney

…Price? $82.00.  Not happening.

I will keep you posted on my “search for Jack Cole,” but for now, let’s talk about “Heat Wave.”

The project was conceived and created by Chet Walker, who also developed the Tony-winning musical, “Fosse” back in 1999.  In addition to this new dance musical, Walker began teaching “Jack Cole jazz” classes and hosting film nights/discussions at Steps on Broadway to raise awareness of the unknown choreographer.  I attended the first film night back in the fall of 2011 and, sitting in the tiny studio with dance royalty like Chet Walker, Ray Hesselink, and Dana Moore, I realized this ‘Jack Cole’ guy was kind of a big deal.

So I eagerly bought my ticket to “Heatwave” and made the trek out to Flushing for the performance at Queens Theatre last night.  I perused my Playbill, reading all the bios of the Broadway veterans in the show.  Only the center section of the theater was filled, with maybe 120 people in the audience total.  But as the “Prologue” began, the magnetic energy of the cast illuminated the dark theater.  My eyes watered as I tried not to blink and miss a second of the magic that was happening on the stage.

The two hour and twenty minute production of non-stop song and dance weaves restagings of Cole’s choreography into almost a biographical montage tied together with quotes and anecdotes told by Cole’s peers such as Gwen Verdon and Gene Kelly.

In words, Cole’s choreography sounds a bit confusing: a blend of swing, tap (restaged by BDC’s own Ray Hesselink), can-can, and Eastern influences – but it all works.

Choreographically, Cole’s influence on the future of jazz dance is unmistakable: the strong masculine leaps and battements of Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story,” the sensual prowess of Bob Fosse’s “Snake in the Grass,” the geometric yet fluid shapes of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” etc.

“Cole’s style — what’s recognized as jazz today — is actually a compendium of several influences: the strong poses of bharata natyam (Indian classical dance), the feline sensuality of Afro-Cuban dance, the lilt of the lindy and the elegance of classical ballet. His numbers are eye-catching because of how much they ask of the performers — who scale staircases; quickly transition between dancing very low to the floor and twirling above it; execute lifts; and cover a great deal of space, often within a single song.” – Rebecca Milzoff (NY Times)

“There are people who have that look about them,” Chet Walker told Milzoff. “You know they’re important. And there is this thing about Jack Cole dancers: They have ‘it.’”  “Heat Wave” has ‘it,’ and surely has the potential to head to the “Great White Way” after its May run at the Queens Theatre.  Though the definite future of the “Jack Cole Project” is unknown, one thing remains certain: that that legacy of Jack Cole will live – or rather, dance – on.