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Leave the Heps Behind



Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

at the Athenaeum Theatre, March 7-9

In the movie White Christmas Danny Kaye ridicules "choreography," denouncing it as the mortal enemy of dancing. Surrounded by grim-faced, black-skirted women affecting angular poses, he mourns in a bogus upper-crust accent the loss of "chicks who did kicks" and "heps who did steps." (To this day, Kaye's lisping "The thea-TUH, the thea-TUH, what's HEP-pened to the thea-TUH?" haunts every Martha Graham concert I attend.)

Gus Giordano's 1966 Gang Hep comes down squarely on the side of show dancing. But what daughter Nan Giordano's reconstruction for this concert makes clear is that the battle's over--and choreography has won. Even in jazz dance, audiences have come to expect not just individual moves but movement meaningfully arranged. That movement can include maneuvers adapted from vernacular traditions like burlesque and minstrelsy--it can even be about those traditions, as the company shows brilliantly in Hi Jinks later in the program. But Gang Hep is so immersed in the tradition of show dancing it feels like an interesting historical excursion, illustrating the obsolete segregation of that approach from "serious" dance.

Gang Hep features the full company as "heps who do steps" to 1950s jazz, the archetypal hipster music. But the piece seems to be about the steps rather than the dancers, or about the steps in isolation from one another, and so its eye-high kicks, pelvic thrusts, and spread-fingered jazz hands look as dated as burlesque itself. Like a stripper who tries to interest the audience by bumping and grinding harder, the dancers exaggerate their moves--which only spotlights the lack of a choreographic plan. The dance was intended to pay tribute to Jerome Robbins, and some of its ensemble sections have a buoyancy that recalls West Side Story. But Giordano is no Robbins; his work dates as Robbins's does not. Gang Hep is pleasant enough but forgettable.

Not quite forgettable enough, however. It seems to color the dancers' approach to most of the evening: in the first two-thirds, they mug and thrust their way through parts of the repertoire intended to convey some emotional content. Nan Giordano's 2001 Taal, a sophisticated fusion of jazz and Indian dancing, suffers from crude execution; exaggerating the belly-dance components obscures the work's delicate geometry. Randy Duncan's 2002 Sister Girl, with its repeated undulations, invites that sort of crudity; still, the company has performed it with greater subtlety.

Jon Lehrer's Like One Hundred Men, a premiere, reveals how jazz dancing has developed since 1966. Even its most bravura moves flow organically from the piece as a whole. Each of the five male dancers takes his turn as the peacock, doing something elaborate to impress the others; nevertheless they seem to be dancing with rather than at each other. Instead of a series of moments strung together in the hope of happening upon a pattern, Lehrer's piece exhibits an overall plan from which individual moments might emerge--in other words, choreography. Despite these differences, though, and charming as it is, Like One Hundred Men shares too many features with Gang Hep to belong on the same program. Its placement immediately after intermission exacerbates the problem. Starting the second half of the concert the way Gang Hep starts the first, Like One Hundred Men makes us feel the evening is doubling back on itself: "Didn't we just see this?"

The program's highlights come not from the new work but from the company's repertoire. Interestingly, the most exciting is Sam Watson's 1998 Hi Jinks, which lustily embraces the burlesque origins of jazz. The dancers copy the moves of baggy-pants comics, bobbling their heads ludicrously, stretching their enormous gym shorts over their shoulders, even pulling down their pants to shake tushes clad in white underpants adorned with smiley faces. Though the program describes Hi Jinks as "a tribute to television comedy and variety talents of the 1960s," much of it looks like a tribute to MGM in the 1950s: one dancer channels Dorothy Lamour in satin sarong, and several sport blue plastic hair reminiscent of Esther Williams's swim cap super-sized. The piece manages to be gleefully foolish without being moronic--and because the choreography is so extreme, the dancers can relax and perform without straining.

Happily that relaxation carries over to the final piece, Davis Robertson's beautiful Entropy (2002). The name of the dance must be ironic, for its movements are completely integrated and intricately patterned, the very opposite of random. They're also the very opposite of dancing focused on individual tours de force. Robertson has devised a number of extraordinary lifts--the men raise the women so they appear to be standing in midair--as well as a marvelous clockwork of tumbling men. Yet the individual moves are subordinated to the whole. Entropy, which testifies to the capacity of dance to carry emotion, felt like what had been missing all evening. The dancers may have felt that too, for it was the best-performed piece on the program.

Perhaps jazz dancing post-World War II had to be done in a self-deprecating way. Perhaps it seemed presumptuous to claim that dance whose heritage was the minstrel show and the bawdy house could be a serious means of communication. But at some point during the Giordano company's 40-year history, society has given jazz dance the power of every other art form. Like the art form, the company has outgrown the need to pretend it's only fooling. It should resist the urge to make fun of itself and just dance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Canale.

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