This performance was held on 21, 25, and 28 April, 2013.
Malin Grahn, producer, performer, artistic director:
The main project of this spring for our dance company was the production of the show Jazz History Through Times with dancer, choreographer Clyde Wilder.
Jazz History Through Times is Mr. Wilder’s show, based on his original idea and centered around his dance-wisdom: ability to both capture the history and development of African-American dance in a fascinating narrative, and show the language of jazz in the different movements and dances, starting from traditional African dances and from there moving through the different decades of jazz and blues. Mr. Wilder has performed different versions of this show around the U.S.; now with our group, the show saw its premier in Europe. In Helsinki, we created a new version of the show where we also could benefit from the pre-existing skills of our group.
Thanks to the support of the Helsinki City Cultural Office, we were able to produce three performances, two of which at Cultural Center Kääntöpaikka and one at International Cultural Center Caisa. The production included multiple tasks and challenges: choreographing, rehearsing, practical arrangements, costumes… We wanted to have beautiful posters and flyers that would reflect the style of the show, and we were grateful to get graphic designer Tero Juuti to work with us. We were also grateful to have photographer Nuppu Linnavuori to take promotional pictures for the show and to document our performance at Caisa. For a full-length show including many dances from different decades, we also had a need for new costuming, which kept our fantastic costumer Anni Laanti busy. Lights and sound needed to be thought of. At Kääntöpaikka, we practically did everything ourselves, starting from organizing the space, carrying chairs etc.
The biggest artistic tasks, of course, included choreographing the pieces and rehearsing them with the group. Clyde and I created some new choreographies for the show. In addition to the choreographed dances, the show also included an improvised blues, performed by us two. Personally, I was thus engaged both with choreographing, teaching, rehearsing the dances and the acrobatics, as well as taking care of practical arrangements. During the process, I learned both of organizing and being in charge of an artistic project, of detailed technical issues, and of staging of the dance.
I am very happy and proud of the results of our work, especially given our limited timetable. For me, the greatest reward was to hear the numerous, enthusiastic comments from the audience. Many people came to tell how touched and inspired they were of the show, both the narrative, information and the aesthetics of the dance.
We had people of all ages in the audience, including many children, and several of the parents came to tell me how happy they were that their children had been captivated by the show even if they could not understand the English language narrative. In our question & answer period after the performance at Caisa, we were encouraged to bring the show to schools, and this awakened a lively discussion on the importance of telling about the roots of jazz and blues, and of discussing such issues as slavery, racism and segregation with young people.
Yet one thing that made me particularly happy in this project was the multi-artistic nature of it. Even if the art of our group is first and foremost the dance, which we want to present on as high level as we could, the creative process included more than that: also photography, costuming, styling and graphic design were important parts of creating the beautiful whole. This blog writing also reflects the plurality of different creative approaches and the voices of different people who participated to the process.
I sincerely hope that we will develop this show further, with the help of the comments we received as well as the new ideas and inspirations that we received along the way. The version we performed was a work-in-progress, and we hope to continue on our historical jazz journey.
Clyde Wilder, dancer, choreographer, artistic director:
I felt very happy and honored to be invited to Helsinki by the company, to share my information, knowledge and experiences with them.
Jazz History through Times talks about the experience of traditional jazz music and dance. It explores this experience by going to its very roots in African music and dance, and showing how the language and communication of jazz evolves from the movements and rhythms of the African communities. For example, gathering of food in different areas dictated how the people lived and told of their experiences and ways of life. This goes together with particular ways the voice was used, hand claps, instrumentations etc. These experiences were continued with the people who were brought to America through slavery. The conditions and situations that the people lived in influenced a special type of music and songs as an inspiration for human dignity, balance and survival. The music and dance express the importance of utilizing our strength to communication, to exist and to fight and to protest the situations that we have been living in.
My personal understanding of traditional African and African American music and dance and of the importance to explain and to share it has been my life work. I am fortunate to have been associated with may of the elders who carried those vernacular movements and history, and shared so many wonderful experiences with me, like Chuck Green, Sandman, Bunny Briggs, Illinois Jacquet, Ruth Brown, Mama Lou Parks, Norma Miller, Frankie Manning, Al Minns, Buster Brown, Cookie Cook and Honi Coles form the Copasetics…
When I was home in New York and tried to visualize what would be the main theme of the show, I tried to figure out how I would be able to work with eight women in a project where you generally need male and female characters for the swing dancing. But then I found that it was beautiful to use the lead and follow positions instead of male and female. I have done it before but not as a theatrical piece. When I came to Helsinki and met everybody and the spirit was open and beautiful, I realized that this is what we work with. It is an excellent start when you have open people who are ready to work.
I also knew that it was extremely important to speak of the blues and the development of its movement and conversation. Now how would you do that without the male and the female character? Then I thought it was more appropriate if I just did the blues section with Malin. Fortunately, we had a live performance at the Stompin’ at the Savoy -blues festival at the Savoy theater, so we had the opportunity to communicate the blues already there. When we did the show at the Savoy, people saw the emotions and responded to the communication, the closeness and the balance of the music that we shared together.
At one of the rehearsals, we asked the girls for their participation and help for choosing the record we would dance our unchoreographed blues to, to see which one they were most affected by emotionally. They chose Bobby Blue Bland.
At our rehearsals, I always try to get the participation of everyone, to get them to express what they think and feel, so that they can give their self-expression and improve creativity on each piece we are working on at the time. I thought it was extremely important to everybody to feel that this was our work, our experience and development together. And to be able to, at the end of the piece, put the breath of life into the movement and the work so that it can have a continued life, after one show is done.
Just by the way the audience said what they felt after the performance, I feel that we have touched people’s spirit and emotions, and opened a different level of understanding. What they have said, and seeing the pictures and film of the show, made me realize that our approach and our journey was clear and successful.
Anni Laanti, costumer:
From the costumer’s point of view, the project included many challenges. The most obvious thing also for the viewer is the aesthetics; how our costumes reflect the atmosphere of the show and the different decades we tell about in our dance. There was also a lot of technical stuff that I needed to consider, to make the costumes durable and easy for the wide range of movements all the dancers do.
We girls had already the shiny swingbot-costumes from the Helsinki Burlesque -show, so it was easy for me to continue on that theme. The golden shorts and spats from that number were accompanied by new wrap around -tops, which were modeled on a picture I found in an old Life-magazine from the 1940’s.
Also the silver skirts for The Skate for the dancers doing the female part brought out the swing movement nicely. To make Clyde a part of our group costume-wise I made him a silver vest and spats to match our shine.
The fringe dresses for the Charleston were first used already a year ago by the members who have danced longest in our group. And as new girls have been joining in, they’ve had their colorful dresses made – of course with matching panties!
Tero Juuti, graphic designer
… writes in his own blog http://gueueti.blogspot.fi/ on the project of designing for Jazz History Through Times:
I was asked to make a poster for an event by Helsinki Traditional Jazz Dancers. I don’t know much about jazz dance but sounded fun, so I decided to do it. I hadn’t done any actual hand-made lettering for a while so I thought that could be the starting point of the poster.
I actually thought I would letter all the texts by hand but that turned out to be a bit too big job for the schedule so I settled for a font that would contrast the handmadeness. The client was very happy with the poster, as were I. Nice job.
Serena Chan, dancer:
First of all, it has been a great honor to be part of this dance production and to be able to work with a group of amazing people with a burning energy and passion for the same thing. It feels exceptionally exciting since it was our company’s first own bigger dance production!
It has been a very steep learning process throughout this entire production. It was fun, overwhelming, satisfying, challenging – all at the same time. Most of the time, when someone asks me about it, I feel like there just aren’t enough words in the dictionary to describe my exact feelings.
On a more reflective ground, there have been some very valuable lessons and insights from this experience. One is on dance and history.
We started the preparations about 1,5 months or so before the show – learning new routines, polishing old ones, practice, practice, practice.
Yet, what captivated me the most was the historical aspect of the dance. In my opinion, understanding the roots and appreciation for the dance run parallel side-by-side. Every time Clyde or Malin shared a piece of information with the group, I got a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach as though I’ve just been re-connected to the past through a time machine.
The more I learn of its history, the more powerful every step feels. To re-enact all these precious feelings and past experiences onstage felt more like a dedication to the people and the spirits from the past than just another performance. We danced for them and ourselves, as well as, with them and ourselves.
What else did I take away from this journey?
Enjoy the moment…enjoy every step…enjoy every connection with each dancer on stage, and dance with a breath of life.
It took me a while to come to terms that nobody remembers the “mistakes” we made onstage. But, they will always remember the energy we shared in that space and the story that came alive.
As Clyde puts it, “Breathe that breath of life in the dance and people will see us, our loved ones, and our ancestral spirits.”
That was exactly what happened!
Our historical jazz journey will continue in February 2014 – follow us, and we will keep you updated!