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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Bare hands broad feet
Animated, Autumn 1998. Dancer and choreographer Sheron Wray recently left Rambert to commit fulltime to her own project, JazzXchange Music and Dance Company which takes its inspiration from the origin, spirit and attitude of the jazz music pioneers. So, collaborating on a part-improvised work with young jazz muso and composer Julian Joseph seemed a natural progression. Together with company dancers and four musicians, they created Bare Hands Broad Feet as part of her choreographic commission for Blitz 98 at South Bank. Here she reveals the processes involved
As an avid listener and lover of jazz music I first went to hear Julian Joseph play at the jazz Cafe its 1989. I knew of the young musician through Weekend Arts College (WAC) where I had been a student of dance - Joseph had also spent some of his formative years at WAC under the tutelage of Ian Call.

From then on I became convinced of Joseph's courage and open-mindedness as a musician; partly by the diversity of settings in which I heard him play. This encouraged me to approach him about a collaboration. For a long time I had thought it bizarre that a new music style has been developing for the last half a century and yet has been largely ignored by dance and theatre performance. I felt that if I were to embody in my dancing the ideas conveyed through Joseph's music, we could stretch each other's artistic bounds. Joseph was particularly attracted to the idea of creating an audio structure that could facilitate both form and improvisation in a physical dimension.

Joseph and I began by working with an existing piece of music which had only been played live to date. It is often difficult to access newly recorded music in notated form, so Joseph helped me relate the score to the sound, giving me an understanding of the musical form on which the dance form was to be based.

We were now at the point where we could discuss the various possibilities of developing the existing piece of music: sections of which could be re-ordered; the tempi altered; the meter changed from four/four to six/eight or three/four; or a new stylistic approach could be taken.

Having absorbed the music through continuous listening over several months, it was then important for me to get 'inside of' the music physically. I began to explore daily improvisations to the 18 minute piece: moving free form, without pre-determined structures, to a piece of music that I had come to know very well.

Once I was physically familiar with the music in this way I knew it was a very powerful composition, begging for full bodied and expansive movement. This demanded technical dexterity as well as spontaneity to fulfil the improvisation. I also realised that although there was a great deal of tension built through the musical sections, with the potential to contrast the weight of the movement, I was not 'feeling' this movement with the current composition. Joseph and I then talked about developing an additional musical section, a blues theme which could be worked in to the piece about two thirds of the way through. (Although he and I spoke very descriptively about the sound and 'feel' of the new section, in practical terms, the dancers were working with the recorded music and so did not hear the new section until they were resident at the South Bank.)

The next stage of the collaboration was to commence the choreography with the JazzXchange company members. In rehearsal, we began exploring phrases of movement based entirely on the rhythmical structure of a given musical section. Alongside the choreographed material we worked on daily improvisational exercises to 'unlock' the dancers from the convention of learnt and regurgitated choreography. This proved to be challenging for the dancers and myself: although I am a free - improviser, it was difficult to devise structured ways of enabling other dancers to improvise to music.

Theme and variation was one of the first structures that we worked on. A phrase of movement was given a particular direction in which it should be executed: the dancers were then asked to reassess particular movements in order to redefine this new direction. We also worked on changing the dynamic emphasis of the movement phrases (or 'melody') and on breaking the movement down to a single body part and concentrating on developing its movement to the music. Each day was another challenge for us all, a challenge made even greater because of the strong personal associations that were being made with the music. We were not dealing with abstractions but with relativity and connectedness.

In outlining some of the principles behind jazz music improvisation, Joseph gave the group a very sensitive and important lesson. He spoke very succinctly about the phrasing of musical improvisation and the dynamics of space. Space (or pauses) within music give definition, clarity, musicality and wit. The musical notion of space was therefore like that of conversational patterns - where space is central to comprehension. The dancers' usual notion of space is that in which they make geometrical or asymmetrical patterns and shapes; following Joseph's lesson, space became central to the dancers' movement language and improvisation.

Although I was working within a fairly specific movement vocabulary it was my aim to relinquish control of the dancers' movements and reveal the essence of their own movement styles. Bare Hands Broad Feet was my first attempt at developing the individual voices of each dancer, but it is a long-term aim of mine which I think will be greatly rewarding.

I believe that the improvisational form requires a different commitment from a dancer than the performance of movement that has been absorbed over time. The dancers have to apply their entire mind and body in a different way than for the performance of engrained movement. Dancers are often not equipped to express themselves without the direction of a choreographer or to self-assess their development. Herein lies the challenge for me as a choreographer working within the improvised form with dancers trained in classical jazz and contemporary dance. Bare Hands Broad Feet was also choreographed over a period of three weeks whilst I was creating another work for the company so I was very conscious of keeping the movement vocabulary distinct.

The final test of the collaboration was the combining of the dancers and musicians at the open rehearsals, run as part of the Blitz 98 programme in August of this year. Having learned ballet, tap and modern dance in his youth, Joseph was unfazed by my attempts to get him moving; the musicians however, did not come from a background which included dance as a pastime and so were new to dance as a partner for their music.

The musicians were obviously very familiar with the piece of music but they had to become sensitive to the dancer's internal metronome and start to develop their musical improvisation with impulses from the dancers; to use their eyes as well as their ears. The dancers' were equally as challenged by the responsibility of listening to music which was different every time and to respond whole heartedly to its uniqueness. In time, the dialogue between the dancers and the musicians became more fluent and impacting as Joseph led his musicians with tenacity and the dancers demonstrated what they were aiming at choreographically. It was during this rehearsal time that the two halves of this collaboration came together to make a whole.

Finally, the performances were a testament to the commitment of all the artists. The evidence was that dancers can have a positive effect on the outpourings of musicians, giving credence to the notion of the improvising dancer. To dance with live jazz musicians is to unleash a whole new movement language, and in addition to that musical energy, a whole section of the piece was improvised: dancers, musicians and audience were caught up together in an absolutely unique performance moment.

The challenge that lies ahead is to develop the dancer's ability to improvise with music and to identify themes that can sustain themselves. These are challenges that can be met given the desire of the dancers' and the right collaborating partners, together with the gift of time to realise and experiment with new ideas.

The value of performing with musicians in the development of jazz dance forms cannot be underestimated. If the future is to further the audiences for live performance then dance and music are first rate partners.

Sheron Wray, Artistic Director, Jazzxchange Music and Dance Company and Caroline Jones, Administrator. Contact +44(0)20 73265111.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001