May 5, 2021
As I sat thoroughly enjoying BOP (Body of People) Jazz Theatre Company’s The Spirit of Jazz programme at this year’s online Let’s Dance International Frontiers (LDIF), I couldn’t help wondering why I see so little jazz dance on theatre stages. It pops up in the performances of a few vocational schools but not much anywhere else. Does it pass me by or is it really just not there? In either case, why? Why does it seem not to be more widely recognised? Could it be something to do with its history, lineage and perhaps even image? Are there similarities there with hip hop, which had alike issues but that is now seen as mainstream? Could it be that jazz dance is too close to, or has somehow been appropriated by musical theatre, losing connection with its roots along the way?
Maybe we’ll come back to that in the future but, for now, what I can tell you is that The Spirit of Jazz proved a fine fifty minutes or so of not only engaging but very enjoyable jazz music and dance in all its moods. Founded 25 years ago by jazz artist and choreographer Dollie Henry and jazz trumpeter, composer and music producer Paul Jenkins to provide a home for jazz expression and to drive UK jazz theatre forward, the company looked in fine fettle. They not only danced with spirit but looked like they really felt the spirit of the music. In the freer, more upbeat dances, the sense that they were also really enjoying themselves reached out across the internet.
The opening section of the three-part show, ‘The Spirit of Inclusivity and Diversity’, presented selections from BOP repertory alongside the premiere of I.Am.
The excerpt from Footprints (2011) opens with what is almost a ‘call to the stage’ by a single dancer. As the others arrive, there’s immediately a pulsing energy, jazz dance’s African roots quite apparent. It’s a great easy-on-the-eye start, that early individuality coming together easily into unison before dissolving again just as seamlessly. In its quieter moments, there’s a decided sense of heat, helped by the burnished orange lighting and costumes.
Nathan East’s version of Michael McDonald’s poignant ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is a song to get lost in, especially when sung so extraordinarily beautifully by Sara Bareilles. .”It was so right. It was so wrong… But I was tossed high by love. Almost never came down. Only to land here. Where love’s no longer found.” In Dollie Henry’s 2019 solo of the same title, Ida Kummervold evokes the feelings writ through those lyrics in dance that is sincere and earnest, her body and face speaking loud and clear.
After Fusion of the Mind (2005), a bright, slinky dance for five in pink and black, the new I.Am is another powerful work. At its heart is the exceptional Jahmal Chase, who also wrote the deeply thoughtful poetry that nestles comfortably alongside Paul Jenkins’ music. “I Am. I am Black… But most of all I am human.” The flowing choreography that surrenders to the text is full of bends and twists that makes the most of Chase’s beautifully sinuous upper body. And what presence. He draws you in completely.
The central section of the evening, ‘The Spirit of Legacy’ featured three excerpts from BOP’s 1997 full-length work Touches of Miles, which pays homage to the late, great trumpeter, bandleader and composer Miles Davis, not only one of the most important figures in jazz history, but music history in general.
Davis’ ‘All Blues’ is from his album Kind of Blue, which Jazzwise magazine recently called “the greatest jazz album in history.” Henry’s choreography is a super response: great dance to great music. The silky dance makes great use of the space and different groups of performers. Chase again stood out.
Also to music from Kind of Blue, ‘Flamenco Sketches’ brought a touch of narrative. Is Annie Blomfield, who dances as Jesus Santana paints at an easel, real or just the figure in his picture come to life in his imagination?
Davis’ ‘Milestones’ is one of those catchy finger-clicking, foot-tapping numbers that, once heard, you just can’t get out of your head. Henry’s dance is a marvel of smooth propulsion. The up-tempo choreography catches the spirit of the music perfectly and certainly keeps the dancers on their toes. As solos give each of the cast a chance to express themselves, it’s great fun and one of those lovely pieces of dance that makes you want to get up and join in.
A single chord on a piano was enough to signal that the closing section of the show, ‘The Spirit of Community’, would bring a change of mood.
‘I. You. We. Rise’ is one of six dance stories taken from BOP’s 2020 full-length jazz theatre production Through the Eyes of Woman. Created on and for the company’s women, it’s inspired by Maya Angelou’s empowering poem ‘Still I Rise’, heard in the soundtrack.
The poem has always been pertinent but seems particularly so right now. Although it draws the African American experience, it crosses racial lines and national boundaries. The choreography echoes the text’s messages of hope and survival. The strength and resiliency of community is emphasised as dancers come together and support each other, or watch each other in solos. Brighter, freer moments full of smiling faces reflect the poem’s underlying affirmation of the human spirit and a determination to rise above anything that might be thrown at it.
‘I. You. We. Rise’ was a fine end to a fine show that would make a super introduction to jazz theatre for anyone. It certainly made me want to see more of the genre, and of BOP Jazz Theatre in particular.