Dallas — Rowdy. Almost impolite. Controlled chaos. These are some of the words jazz choreographer Brandi Coleman uses to describe the vocals or “scat singing” in her new work, And One More Thing…, which premieres this week as part of Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) Meadows Dance Ensemble’s Fall Dance Concert. Entitled Celebrating Women’s Voices, the program also includes new works by Bridget L. Moore and New-York based Cherylyn Lavagnino. This concert marks the first time the SMU Meadows School of the Arts is presenting a show focused solely on female choreographers.
Coleman grew up studying all styles of dance and it wasn’t until she saw Billy Siegenfeld’s choreography at the Jazz Dance World Congress in 1992 that she decided to focus primarily on jazz dance and specifically Jump Rhythm® Technique. Coleman joined the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project (JRJP) in 2001 and today is the associate artistic director of the Emmy-Award winning performing and teaching company. She also holds a B.A. in dance from Northeastern Illinois in Chicago and an MFA in performing arts/dance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is currently an artist-in-residence in jazz dance at SMU.
“Billy created this technique as an egalitarian technique,” Coleman says about Jump Rhythm Technique. “Meaning, we all have skeletons so let’s figure out how the skeleton moves and can we move the skeleton efficiently in space. I realized it wasn’t about being a woman necessarily, but I was allowed to move in a way without any preconceived notions of what that should look like other than on me. And the idea that ‘okay’ we are skeletons so let’s move and function in space, but then let’s move them rhythmically and articulately in time and then let’s tap into what makes each of us an individual.”
Scat singing is an important part of the Jump Rhythm Technique philosophy and is unfamiliar to most dancers as they are used to being seen and not heard, according to Coleman. “They are all virtuosic and incredible dancers, but I am trying to coax out their humanity so when they’re scat singing these complex rhythms we see who they are in these moments.”
Coleman goes on to say, “You see, my work doesn’t have a lot of identifiable movement to a viewer that might say that’s great work. I don’t have high legs and I’m not showcasing flexibility or multiple turns or big leaps. The virtuosity is in the complex rhythms and in seeing a group of human beings, particularly these women, on stage unabashedly and unapologetically being themselves.”
To help the dancers become more comfortable with scat singing Coleman spends a lot of time in rehearsals reinforcing the idea that using their voices is okay and building up their confidence. “I want these women to feel empowered and to know that they can be outwardly and proudly emotional and they won’t be portrayed as hysterical or too loud or outspoken.” But she also tells them that her voice and movement will only carry them so far in this piece. “I can craft the movement and score the rhythm, but I can’t tell them what to say,” Coleman explains.
Coleman notes that And One More Thing…, was originally created in 2015 as a stand-alone piece. For the Fall Dance Concert she has added three more sections and has saved the previous choreographed section for the finale, which features all 13 cast members dancing to “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus and Chaka Khan.
“It’s this real funky and groovy piece that has a lot of attitude,” Coleman says about the final section. “So I started playing between the juxtaposition of stillness and hotness bursts of energy and what I can say by just being still.”
She continues, “It’s also building upon ‘the aesthetic of the cool’, which is a phrase coined by Robert Farris Thompson who’s an African art historian and scholar. And that term, the aesthetic of the cool, is used a lot as an aesthetic of jazz. It’s this idea of keeping your cool and you don’t give everything away and you can sort of stand there with this detached mask almost, but there’s still something simmering underneath.”
Coleman also points out that the choreography in this section was crafted to celebrate women and how women occupy space. “The piece is built front to back. There is not a lot of side-to-side motion so it’s a very direct commentary. So there is an undeniable fact about who I’m talking to and what I have to say.”
Coleman uses the choreography to challenge the notion of what it means to look and sound feminine under the jazz dance umbrella. “Jazz dance is known for this hyper femininity, which I love and appreciate, but I’m just trying to say that as women we can also move another way.” She uses the jazz walk for an example. “It’s a hyper sexualized walk and I love it and it makes me feel good, but is there also another way that I could walk as a women and feel empowered and strong and good?”
You can discover the answer for yourself at the Meadows Dance Ensemble’s Fall Dance Concert, Oct. 24-28 in the Bob Hope Theatre at SMU.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com