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Jazz Dance Theatre
by Howard Lawes

Alvin Ailey dancers Revelation.jpg

Howard Lawes reviews recent performances where Jazz and Dance come together and shares a variety of videos to illustrate the works that have been and are currently taking place:


UK dance fans were recently treated to a season of performances from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the pre-eminent dance company in its field that was formed in 1969 and dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience. The music that accompanies the dance also highlights African-American culture featuring traditional spiritual, gospel and jazz music. The most famous work, choreographed by Alvin Ailey, and featured at many performances is Revelations (1960) with dancing to songs like Wade In The Water and Rocka My Soul In The Bosom Of Abraham.  

During their residency at Sadler's Wells the company performed four different programmes, entitled Contemporary Voices, Modern Masters, Ailey Classics and 21st Century Creations. Some of the classic works within these programmes included The River in which "The grandeur of the dancing is matched by the music, and was Duke Ellington’s first symphonic score written for dance. Ailey and Ellington collaborated closely on the piece", and Cry, a work Alvin Ailey dedicated to "all Black women everywhere--especially our mothers" with music by Alice Coltrane, Laura Nyro and Chuck Griffin. It seems that Duke Ellington's music is particularly suitable for dance and it is used to great effect in an elegant and flirtatious work called Pas de Duke that features Such Sweet Thunder (1957), Sonnet for Ceasar (1975), Sonnet for Hank Cinq (1957), Unclothed Woman (1948) and Old Man's Blues (1930).


Here is a taste of dances from Pas de Duke

Other works to feature jazz composers are In A Sentimental Mood which apart from the Ellington title track (1935) includes Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman (1959) and Four Four which is danced to Wynton Marsalis's Delfaeyo's Dilemma (1985).  

All the programmes were greeted with rapturous applause from enthusiastic audiences who are no doubt looking forward to the company's next tour. In addition to the Sadler's Wells performances, Alvin Ailey II continues to tour the UK with upcoming performances in Birmingham, Norwich, Nottingham, Salford, Bradford, Hull, Newcastle and Inverness during October (details are here). Founded in 1974, Alvin Ailey II embodies Ailey's pioneering mission to establish an extended cultural community that provides dance performances, training, and community programs for all people.  "Ailey II is universally renowned for merging the spirit and energy of the country’s best early-career dance talent with the passion and creative vision of today’s most outstanding and emerging choreographers".

Earlier in the year over two weekends, Jazz Arts ReWIRED included opportunities for dance practitioners, teachers, dancers and jazz enthusiasts to participate, learn and appreciate an exciting programme of Jazz Dance. Dance styles included African Dance, Authentic Lindy Hop, Musical Theatre, Creative Jazz Theatre Repertoire and the Jazz-Funk vibes of Locking (Locking is a style of funk dance, which is today also associated with hip hop and involves freezing the action briefly before continuing the dance as before - here is an example). The event, showcased at The Place in London, presented a unique evening of Jazz Dance Theatre and Music, entitled Up Close & Personal shining the spotlight on the creativity and artistry of independent UK jazz dance theatre exponents.  The event was reviewed in Dance Art Journal by Stephanie Burrell: "This evening of Jazz Dance artistry in all its shifting and varied forms was a testament to the rich dance ecology in London and the UK. Dollie Henry MBE and Paul Jenkins in partnership with The Place created a space where the history of Jazz Dance and music was honoured and recognised; a social dance with African, European and American roots. Through the explicit referencing to the progenitors of this cultural movement and shout-out to community, they held space for an almost magical atmosphere where a 20th Century Broadway revue felt palpable whilst (jazz)-hands felt firmly on the pulse of the unique London / UK scene".  Here is BOP Jazz Theatre - dancing 'All Blues' filmed at 'Up Close & Personal at The Place 3 June 2023. During intervals and after the show further entertainment was provided by a band led by guitarist Jo Caleb that featured Ezra Collective trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi who will be performing at the EFG London Jazz Festival.

An eagerly awaited production is a newly created Nutcracker from the McOnie Company which opens at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club, Level 1, Royal Festival Hall on 28th October - details and a video trailer are here. The Tuff Nutt Jazz Club is a newly transformed music and performance space at the Southbank Centre, putting audiences at the centre of one of the coolest jazz clubs in town. Following performances of Nutcracker on Thursday to Sunday, audiences are invited to continue their evening at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club which will host live sessions from leading music artists into the night. Nutcracker is according to Southbank Centre publicity: "Packed with hope, heart and humour, this mischievous production of Nutcracker is for anyone who wants to live life in full technicolour" and is "Brought together by Oliver Award-winning choreographer Drew McOnie and Mercury-nominated jazz artist Cassie Kinoshi, Nutcracker sees premier dancers of The McOnie Company performing to Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable score, reimagined for a live onstage jazz band". Cassie Kinoshi will be well-known to jazz fans as a graduate of the Tomorrow's Warriors mentoring scheme, a founder member of the trailblazing Nerija and Kokoroko bands as well as leading her own SEED Collective and a new band called Brown Penny. Cassie's co-composer is Nerija bassist Rio Kai, another Tomorrow's Warriors graduate who is currently leading a band called Do Not Assume featuring Jonny Mansfield on vibraphone.  Both Brown Penny and Do Not Assume are performing during the EFG London Jazz Festival.

Rounding off what will be a memorable year for jazz and dance is The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady taking place on two nights in November at Shoreditch Town Hall, the second night being part of the EFG London Jazz Festival (Here is a short trailer). The score was composed by Charles Mingus, first released in 1963, and played for this production by the Nu Civilisation Orchestra while the dancing is directed (rather than choreographed) by Suzy Willson of Clod Ensemble. The music of Charles Mingus is both innovative and adventurous and, as mentioned above in relation to Duke Ellington's compositions, it has a quality that makes it ideal for dance although in many ways Mingus's music is quite different to Ellington's. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is one of Mingus's most acclaimed compositions; it has four parts with the fourth part divided into three sections.  All the parts and sections have titles referring to solo or groups of dancers so it is pretty much certain that Mingus intended this particular piece to be danced to.  The music combines jazz with both classical and folk music from Africa and Spain.

The live production was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 with music played by the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, directed by Peter Edwards, (both orchestra and director represent further fruits of the outstanding work and foresight of Tomorrow's Warriors), but of course, this proved impossible due to the pandemic. During lockdown, Clod Ensemble kept themselves sane by listening and moving to the music – culminating in a unique and life-affirming film set to the original recording performed by Charles Mingus and his band. This film was shown during a previous EFG London Jazz Festival and a short trailer is available here. It was described at the time as a new perspective on Mingus’ big band masterpiece, a kaleidoscopic film of world-class dancers moving to the wildly sensual, rhythmically explosive classic album, celebrating its beautiful melodies, complex structure and huge emotional range. 


Finally, this year, Clod Ensemble will be joined by the Nu Civilisation Orchestra and Mingus's provocative masterpiece can be enjoyed in person in November and according to the programme there will be opportunities for the audience to take part as well - details are here.

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