JazzMo | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader


Director's Co-op

at Cotton Chicago

Too many scoundrels have learned that the phrase avant-garde can magically transform a flawed show into an "experiment." No idea is so bad that it can't be redeemed with a few paragraphs of foggy academic prose explaining how this all-too-boring play is really on the cutting edge. Happily, JazzMo is an example of a very rare kind of avant-garde theater--the well-conceived, competently performed kind. JazzMo never loses sight of its commitment to entertain the audience (or at least, keep its interest). Whether it really fits its billing as theater is another question entirely.

Made up of six "scenes" improvised to music (each about ten minutes long), JazzMo features an ensemble of young, agile, and athletic actors who express themselves entirely through movement set to contemporary jazz (Keith Jarrett, Bass Desires, Jace Ira Blue, etc). They run, they leap, they spin, they kick; following the beat, they move across the stage, alone or in groups of two or three, all the while creating intriguing stage pictures. (Imagine a rock video performed live.) What these actors never do is recite a line, or improvise a story, or build a scene with a beginning, middle, or end. What would you call it?

JazzMo's roots are in theater; it evolved from improvisation exercises developed by cocreator James Ostholthoff in the early 70s to encourage spontaneity in his student actors. But what started as theater looks a whole lot like dance 18 years later. Certainly anyone seeing the show without the benefit of the Director's Co-op's press materials will never dream they are watching anything but dance. Still the show's directors, Ostholthoff and John Jenkins, insist that JazzMo is an improvisational movement piece for the theater."

The distinction isn't insignificant, and the billing is curious, until you realize that dance routinely gets short shrift in local media coverage and has a much smaller audience than theater. Even well-established internationally recognized local dance troupes like Joel Hall Dancers are all but ignored. Only Hubbard Street Dance Company and national dance companies from New York even begin to get the kind of coverage that newspapers routinely give to Chicago's established theater companies. And if you're a small, struggling dance company, forget it. You don't exist.

So if calling JazzMo theater will bring in a larger audience, then I'll play along; JazzMo is "an improvisational movement piece for the theater." Certainly it deserves an audience. (Although, for the record, JazzMo is not as experimental as all that. Much of the work grows out of ideas and acting exercises popular in the hipper theater circles in the 1960s.)

There is something fascinating about watching JazzMo's tight-knit ensemble improvise dances together. Sometimes they looked like a group of grammar school kids playing on a front lawn. Other times they looked like a gang of adolescents, dancing and hanging around at some local youth night. After the show, James Ostholthoff joked that he wanted to put a blazing fire in the middle of the stage so we would see the actors for what they really were, members of the same tribe. I guess that would make the rest of us into voyeurs, anthropologists peeking in on secret rites.

Part of JazzMo's fascination may well be an implied message that perhaps we, too, might be allowed to join the tribe. That kind of message can be very seductive in a society that keeps coming up with new ways to reinforce loneliness, fear, and quiet desperation (also known as cocooning). More than one audience member after the show joked about wanting to join the actors on the stage. It was impossible not to be caught up in the show's infectious energy. "People like to watch freedom," John Jenkins told me after the show.

Few of JazzMo's actors are as graceful or as self-controlled as professional dancers, but they more than make up for this lack with their spontaneity and playfulness. JazzMo avoids completely the deadening obsession with form that sterilizes much modern dance. On the other hand, true lovers of modern dance may be frustrated by its loose structure and constant flirtation with chaos.

As a completely improvised show, JazzMo constantly runs the risk of repetition or formlessness. Its great danger is that it's limited by the imagination, experience, and physical endurance of the ensemble. Endurance never seemed to be a problem, but at certain times the group's imagination seemed to lapse. The majority of the improvised sequences involved variations on the basic heterosexual courtship ritual: man dances around woman, woman pulls away, man follows, second man appears, two men try to impress woman, woman chooses one or the other. Sometimes a fairly happy menage a trois would result. Sometimes a second woman would conveniently appear to make things monogamous. It was rare when two women danced together or when two men did anything but fight for dominance.

Only once did a woman pursue a man. Strangely, the improvisations never seemed to involve any nonsexual themes. It would be interesting to see what kind of improvisation would result from an ensemble made up of more than just 18- to 25-year-old acting students. What would happen if there were a few older adults in the tribe?

On the subject of improvements, JazzMo would definitely benefit from the introduction of a more sophisticated lighting system. Most of the show was performed with such low lights that it was hard to tell what was happening across the dance floor. Of course, the space on the second floor of Cotton Chicago is little more than a rehearsal room fitted with mats for the actors and bleachers for the audience. But that doesn't explain why the show lacked even the simplest of spotlights (floodlights placed in painted coffee cans would do), or why the lights had to be turned so low during the entire hour-long performance. Even the room's fluorescent lights would have been an improvement.

However, this is just a minor complaint. At a time when avant-garde is often a code word for bad, we need successful work like JazzMo, if only to show an increasingly lethargic and stodgy public that not all of the best theater lies behind us, and that sometimes experimental works can be at least as entertaining as this year's Broadway revival.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →