Thursday, May 10, 2018

Sizzling Syncopation: Natasha Powell's Floor'd

The Holla Jazz ensemble performing Floor'd at Winchester Street Theatre (Photo: Tamara Romanchuk)

The stage is bare save for seven wooden chairs lining a back wall in addition to a makeshift bar to the left and an assemblage of musical instruments, including a large stand-up bass, to the right. James Kendal’s spare set design is meant to invoke a jook joint, originally a place where blacks in the American South would go to unwind after laboring all day in a cotton field. Over time, the jook joint evolved into a hotbed of drink, conversation and jazz. With the music came an improvisatory dance that moved in step with the syncopated rhythms. Jazz dance has since stag-leaped its way into Broadway and Hollywood musicals, Disney spectacles and cruise ships, dance schools and cheerleading squads across the continent. Today, it is a legitimate dance style with its own kick-ball-change vocabulary and formalized systems of technique. But at its essence it is a social dance rising like smoke from an unfiltered cigarette in the jook joints of popular song, a heritage choreographer Natasha Powell takes pains to honour in the aptly named Floor’d, her knock-out show of jazz music and dance which debuted at Toronto’s intimate Winchester Street Theatre with four sold-out performances, April 25 to 28.

Replicating with electrifying results the atmosphere of convivial spontaneity characterizing the jook joints of old, Floor’d marks the first theatrical outing of Holla Jazz, a project Powell launched in 2016 as a vehicle for exploring the and developing jazz vernaculars. Oozing sex appeal and unbridled joy, her seven dancers and nine musicians, the latter led by music director Gerald Heslop, made the body-swaying retrospective of early-20th-century jazz vernaculars a cause for celebration. Holla Jazz is now a company, among only a handful devoted to jazz dance in Canada. But unlike Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal or Calgary’s Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (companies with alumni associated with this show, among them Debbie Wilson, a former LBJ dancer and rehearsal director here aiding Powell as her outside eye), this new enterprise looks to preserve the jamming quality of the original dance form. It doesn’t aim to be slick. Sarah Doucet’s 1930s-esque costumes, consisting mainly of tea dresses worn with lacy slips for the women and wide-leg pants with suspenders and fedoras for the men, have a decidedly vintage feel. Noah Feaver’s red-filtered lighting design, meanwhile, bathes the enterprise in the sultry glow of body heat. Floor’d is hot.

Micheal Redhead on tenor saxophone. (Photo: Tamara Romanchuk)

The heat rises naturally from Powell’s hip-swirling, leg-wrapping, crotch-rubbing choreography. But it also emanates from the dancers themselves, a seasoned group of high-steppers with an abundance of experience in funk, vogueing, hip hop and musical theatre. They are (in alphabetical order) Tereka Tyler-Davis (a former member of Toronto’s Afro-dance-inspired Kashedance company), Caroline “Lady C” Fraser (a multi-award-winning battle dance champion and recipient of a 2015 Dora Award), Hollywood Jade (choreographer for Canadian pop singer Jully Black and past backup dancer for Rihanna, Divine Brown and Nelly Furtado), Miha Matevzic (a past Decidedly Jazz Danceworks company member who has also danced for Mariah Carey and the London Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies), Ashley “Colours” Perez (a waacking and house expert who is co-artistic director of Toronto’s Mix Mix Dance Collective), Sarah Tumaliuan (co-founder of the Parks N’ Wreck open-air street dance organization) and Raoul Wilke (a former Gadfly Dance Company member and international hip hop dance battle competitor). Each has a sizzling stage presence that burns up the stage.

Fanning the flames are the jazz musicians who don’t just play in the corner; they infuse the atmosphere with the aroma of jazz simmered and sautéed in melted black butter. The ensemble interacts musically with the dancers, playing a total of seven delectable tunes pulled from the jazz repertoire – "Moanin’" by Mingus Big Band, "Slow Blues" by Buddy Guy and the sultry "Almost Blue" by Chet Baker, which closes the hour-long Floor’d program. Music director Heslop also physically gets into the swing, improvising a Charleston with the hoofers who dance up close to the instruments, flirting with and driving on the players with claps, smiles and adoring eyes. They are Raymond Blake and Jan Morgan on trumpet, Micheal Redhead on tenor saxophone and Felicia Wirahardja on baritone, Iain Green on drums, Bryan Huntley on bass, Sabine Ndalamba on electric guitar, Bruce Skerritt on piano and Terry Woode on trombone. The music is sublime, the dancing verging on ecstatic. Holla Jazz, and welcome.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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