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Trad Gets Trumped

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21 AD Asia

at Link's Hall, May 9-11

Jazzdance by Danny Buraczeski

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, May 1-3

Jump Rhythm Jazz Project

at the Vittum Theater, May 7-11

Every art form has its purists and its pollinators--and often they're at loggerheads. Plenty of jazz musicians still refer to fusion as "the F word," and pitched battles take place regularly in classical concert halls over what styles truly belong there. Dancers too must continually ask themselves whether the tradition from which they've emerged is a haven or a trap. There's no single answer: the traditionalists and the crossover artists each have a role to play. Without purists, the various strains on which innovators draw would be indistinguishable. Without crossover artists, purity would turn stale.

Only one of these concerts made tradition its explicit topic, but all three wrestled with it. "21 AD Asia," curated by Pranita Jain, explored the similarities of Asian dance traditions and blended them with non-Asian forms. Modern dancer-choreographer Nana Shineflug described her contribution to the evening, a solo, as honoring and expressing the idea that "we're all everything," and Jain included a piece using classical bharata natyam moves to interpret Navajo and Sanskrit religious chants. The evening, which featured five companies or individuals, celebrated fusion while showcasing disparate traditions.

Similarly, Jazzdance by Danny Buraczeski seemed dedicated to showing what a big tent jazz dancing can be. In the first piece, Las Cuatro Estaciones ("The Four Seasons"), Buraczeski chose for the music Astor Piazzolla's jazz-influenced homage to Vivaldi and for the choreography a square-dance motif blended with classical lifts and holds--and managed to present a work wholly recognizable as American jazz dancing. The evening focused plenty of attention on the form's origins: Ezekiel's Wheel uses an adaptation of gospel by Philip Hamilton as well as the words of James Baldwin to highlight jazz dance's indebtedness to African-American musical and movement traditions, while Swing Concerto pays homage to the form's jump-jive-and-wail foundation. Like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's signature piece The 40s, this work is entertaining but not very challenging or original. It does, however, serve to preserve a form of dancing that might otherwise be forgotten.

That preservationist impulse clearly animates Billy Siegenfeld: his Jump Rhythm Jazz Project is tightly tethered to its historical roots. In a curtain-raising speech he described Jump Rhythm's purpose as "keep[ing] alive the tradition of American vernacular dance," though really he means that tradition as practiced in the middle years of the 20th century by Fred Astaire and company. The concert revealed the drawbacks as well as the value of Siegenfeld's brand of purism: by limiting himself to a small vocabulary, the choreographer risks its becoming overfamiliar. It's as though a cook decided to celebrate cinnamon by serving cinnamon pancakes, cinnamon toast, apple cider with cinnamon, and cinnamon chicken. Love the spice as you might, pretty soon you'd want to taste something else.

Even the company's new works, which exhibit some effort to broaden the vocabulary, convey a sense of needless stricture. While For Buster, Jeannie Hill's charming trio for women tap dancers, reminds us of the pleasures of watching Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell, it doesn't extend those pleasures in any way. And Siegenfeld's own new Settling for Less, though set to rap as well as the blues music of an earlier generation, advances beyond what he's done before but not as far as we'd like. The comic slouching, the hitch in the dancers' steps, the mugging and audible time counting--all are true to Siegenfeld's artistic heritage. But to an audience whose palate has been broadened, the dancing seems limited, and pointlessly so.

To some extent this is a matter of programming. The Jump Rhythm concert included half a dozen repertory works as well as three premieres. (The third, If Winter, is a revision and expansion of a 2001 work.) The new pieces would have shown to better advantage if set apart from the oeuvre from which they developed. Jazzdance's less crowded program was perforce more selective. But Buraczeski is also taking greater artistic risks: where Siegenfeld uses five minutes of rap before reverting to musical type, Buraczeski finds or creates exceptional accompaniment from a wide range of genres and stays with it for the length of his piece.

In any case, Siegenfeld's great strength is duets. In Two Gents, Perhaps, his delightful homage to the Astaire-Kelly "The Babbitt and the Bromide," and Poppy and Lou, a tribute to his parents that's a sort of "Dancin' in the Dark" for the elderly, he expands on tradition instead of being trapped by it. By contrast Buraczeski shines in choreography for the ensemble: each movement of Las Cuatro Estaciones is constructed as a dialogue between soloist (the exceptional Mary Ann Bradley) and company, embodying the musical dialogue between violin and orchestra. And since the solos build on the group sections, the whole ends up greater than the sum of its parts.

Which is precisely the issue: whether a jazz dance that incorporates rap or classical music, or a bharata natyam performance to Navajo rhythms, is greater or less than the sum of its parts. Purist choreographers like Siegenfeld make it possible for innovators like Buraczeski to do exciting work. But Siegenfeld should be mindful of the price he's paying for purity. It's wonderful to preserve the culture of an isolated tribe, but if that culture has no automobiles, it doesn't mean the preservationist has to walk.

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

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