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Jazz dance is back and how we missed ya. Dang – if the opening of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks “Family of Jazz” last week by Canada’s finest jazz dance company wasn’t the tonic to heal a spirit impoverished by two years of isolation, then I don’t know what you need to make the mists of a pandemic blow away. Sure as shootin ‘, DJD is food for a hurtin’ soul.
We could have talked the night away about DJD artistic director Kim Cooper’s undeniably intelligent and luscious choreographies – densely-packed gems of feeling and thought, opalescent in their endless varieties of turn and phrase. But it was the sheer joy of jazz that won the night, just as advertised, and no one could possibly have gone away disappointed from the DJD Dance Center feeling anything less than uplifted.
If you could imagine the greatest venues of jazz – the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note or Birdland in Hell’s Kitchen – Calgary’s DJD Dance Center feels something like that in spirit and sound. There was a pure joy emanating from more than a feeling that it was good to be back after two long years, back in the coolest place in town.
In the show’s opening (“Oh Yes”), Kaja Irwin’s long-legged glides support a slight torso lean-in-step-step with lyrical turns of the shoulders, followed by multiple imagined swish sounds in her changes of direction yet she makes it all seem as one smooth-as-glass movement. This is the language of jazz dance: move like you mean it while gliding like you’re living it. If we all could move through life the way Irwin dances we’d be a whole lot happier.
And speaking of living it, Natasha Korney always seems to be the most centrally composed dancer of the group, dancing every number as though she were born to do it all. She who can take up all the space she needs in one moment can, in the next, coalesce her movement around an invisible axis in any direction, confined to as little as one meter in any direction. She brings so much energy to her sphere of movement you wonder if her groove comes from outside of space-time reality. A DJD audience favorite, it is impossible to imagine her anywhere but onstage all the time, in improv, in funk, salsa, mix, something new, something old, but always bringing a freshness of breathtaking athletic beauty.
It is also impossible to imagine these shows without the versatility of Sabrina Comănescu and Cassandra Bowerman, especially in the female quartet “Terra” and also in a particularly thoughtful and moving trio toward the end of the show – “Where you Gon Run” – set to some of the finest music and lyrics we heard all evening by the show’s soul-drenched host Karimah. Her singing enriched an evening already flexed by a seven-piece ensemble led by composer / performer Rubim de Toledo, now one of my favorite jazz artists in this country. He led a fabulous ensemble: Bob Tildesley played an uncannily sweet trumpet, Carston Rubeling on a rich trombone, Raul Gomez Tabera was lightning on percussion and with some refined conga playing, Chris Andrew was on keys with many fine solos, and finally, especially, there was drummer Jon McCaslin, a huge favorite of, well, everybody.
Every selected number came from the roots of jazz, re-imagined to contemporary verve. One moment it was Lisa Latouche’s refined tap creations, mesmerizing in their mastery but entrancing in their esthetic appeal, both in the “Straight Up N ‘Upswing” for tap quartet – just try to take your eyes off Irwin or a brilliant Thys Armstrong if you can – and especially a spellbinding solo from the remarkably talented Jason Owen F. Galeos in “As We House Wu.”
There were so many stunning ensemble pieces it was hard to keep track of them all. Melanie George’s “Groove Theory” was one of my favorites, notable for its complex stage work set to “Neo-Jazz” fusion rhythms, something new coming from a different place that demanded a greater sense of precise onstage placement, tricky-to-improvise movement and extensive inter-ensemble communication. Admirable for its ability to break new ground and also to say so much in a short amount of time was Brandi Coleman’s seven-dancer ensemble piece “Out From Under.” It cuts an edge beyond conventional jazz rhythms consisting of dancers using their bodies as percussion, whispering rhythms as they move. Like Melanie George’s piece, Coleman’s had an engaging improvisatory feel – you couldn’t predict what was going to come next. I could imagine a whole show based on that one thematic idea where the ensemble co-creates an entire evening of jazz dance improv around body-percussive rhythms.
The men were especially fine all night, particularly the versatile Vancouver dance master Scott Armstrong, a highly disciplined artist now in his third year with DJD, who shone in the male trio “Vila dos Lobos” with Galeos and Armstrong.
The show’s second half didn’t let up in innovation or ideas. Korney and Galeos danced a splendid duo in “Trouble of this World” and Irwin and Comănescu, along with an omnipotent band and the power of Karimah’s voice, shook the DJD Center with a classic Robert Johnson re-imagining of Stop Breaking Down Blues that left us breathless and left me with an overwhelming question. How did the audience keep itself from bursting out of its seats and dancing throughout the evening’s performance?
Again, we could compliment Cooper’s insatiable appetite for the exquisite – plan a number with extraordinary dancers to the last detail, weave together some intensity, mellow your audience one moment and electrify them the next. But in the end, the evening meant something much more like galactic joy. It was what we all needed and came for, and we left DJD Dance Center much better people for the experience.
DJD’s Family of Jazz runs until May 15.