Jammin' and Clappin'
by Mary Ellen Hunt
February 15, 2004 -- Alice Arts Center, Oakland, CA
One of the many pleasures of Savage Jazz Dance Company is watching their talented performers come through the ranks, and in the company's twelve year history, director Reginald Ray-Savage has shown us some enormously gifted dancers.
At a benefit for the Oakland School for the Arts, where Savage is the chair of the dance department, the Savage Jazz Dance Company offered a rousing program for an audience that, who knows, may include some youngsters one day destined for Savage's company.
Savage has been working in the Bay Area since 1989, and he is one of a handful of choreographers that actually uses the driving ideas of jazz music -- heck, that actually uses jazz music -- in his work and his improvisatory, sometimes unorthodox methods can inspire some satisfying and spontaneous dancing.
The passion of his convictions flow into his company, and although I unfortunately had to miss the last third of the show, which was the portion featuring the OSA dance students, there was no doubt that the troupe was as much fun as I had remembered.
At the outset, Savage told the audience in no uncertain terms to "Be real." Referring to a December article in the New York Times ("The Tyranny Of the Standing Ovation") which bemoaned the prevalence of standing ovations for even mediocre performances, Savage said, "Do me a favor -- don't go all California on me… If they ain't jammin', don't clap."
Well, there were no worries there. With a fair amount of kids -- many of them presumably from the school -- in the seats, they had a "real" group. And no audience is quite as honest as are kids. When SJDC was lukewarm, they held back, but when things heated up, the audience exploded with delight.
Savage has never had a large company, although this season with twelve members and three of the men, he has a very strong group. While there aren't clear stars here, Alison Hurley, Susannah Blumenstock and Selena Chau have certainly come into their own, dancing with ever-increasing verve and pleasure. The loose-limbed Maia Siani, likewise, has made strides since the last time I saw her.
Clad in their trademark simple, colorful costumes, the company opened the first act, entitled "In This House, On This Morning" with Wynton Marsalis's "Holy Ghost," a hip-swinging, communal affair. And Nina Simone's "Take Me To the Water" seemed to draw out a powerful and expressive side of Blumenstock's dancing. Of course, Simone probably could have torn your heart out singing names out of the phone book.
Marsalis's "Sermon" was an opportunity to get a better look at the trio of men -- Keiron Bone, Antoine Hunter and Ethan Kirschbaum -- who are all quite promising. Deep controlled hinges to the floor and barrel turns (when they were together) were just two impressive memories. It will be interesting to see them when experience has done what it did for Blumenstock and Hurley -- when what's obviously inside becomes more obvious outside.
In the final section of the first act, "Church: Renewing Vows," Hurley stood out for her relationship to the music, but more strongly for the eye contact with the audience. She doesn't just turn her head, she looks right at you.
In the "Freedom in Madness" section, which comprised Act II, the smoky beat of Max Roach's drumming set a jungle scene with critters creeping in from the wings and working their way across the stage, leaving Blumenstock to her solo, set to "Moonlight Over the Great Wall."
With more of the madness than freedom, the piece has a violent edge to it driven along by the percussives of the score. It is also a marathon -- by the end of the second section, "The Flowing Stream" Blumenstock was flinging herself to the floor. The seriousness of the abstraction may have dampened audience spirits slightly, but even so, a night with Savage Jazz Dance Company still makes you wish you were out there dancing with them.