Jazz Arts Re-Wired by BOP Jazz Theatre at The Place | review

Words by Stephanie Burrell. Stephanie took part in our Guest Writers programme supported by Arts Council England.

Jazz Arts Re-Wired was a night of fourteen works of varied Jazz Dance Theatre expressions by emerging and established artists. The evening in early June was presented by BOP Jazz Theatre in partnership with The Place, One Dance UK and Jazz Theatre Arts UK. Supported by Arts Council England, Jazz Arts Re-Wired sought to re-establish the pulse and vision of UK Jazz Dance Theatre Arts. Taking a double-pronged approach, BOP Jazz Theatre delivered a two-day jazz dance convention: first, a practical day of Jazz dance workshops on May 27th at The Place, followed by an evening giving reverence to the live performances of the UK Jazz Dance Theatre landscape.

Jazz Dance Theatre has its origins in the diversity of American culture. Dating back to the 19th century, it is a cultural movement that has been influenced by the social-political and historical events of America: namely, the enslavement of West Africans who brought along their rich cultural expressions. Music and dance being an integral and sacred tradition within religious, spiritual and social practices, they preserved these traditions which went on to become the basis for what Jazz Dance is today. Body isolations, stamping, clapping and grounded knees are cornerstones of many West African styles of dance which informed the Jazz Dance idiom along with European styles. The profound history upon which Jazz stands was intentionally recognised during the programme.

“If you want to know the truth about any art form…you have to start at the beginning!”

Dollie Henry

BOP Jazz Theatre opens the show with a work titled ‘DIRECTIONS’ choreographed by Dollie Henry MBE. The piece is introduced by a voice-over where Jazz Dance and Music legends, such as Miles Davis, are cited. The voice behind this spoken score is Dollie Henry herself. Opening the night with this piece made it clear for all the mission of Jazz Arts Re-Wired: to champion contemporary artists through the explication of their rich cultural lineage. Henry’s voiceover echoes her quote that lies at the back of the programme; “If you want to know the truth about any art form…you have to start at the beginning!”.

At the heart of the jazz artistic idiom is story-telling. BOP Jazz Theatre Company’s curation ensured that a wide breadth of voices was heard that evening at The Place Theatre, from more established artists and choreographers to emerging artists sharing their unique stories and expressions. This spectrum of artistry meant that we as the audience could enjoy excerpts from elaborate traditional ensemble jazz dance pieces to solos that demanded that we think introspectively about our own humanity. 

Following Henry, emerging artists Darius Drooh and Nahum Mclean present ‘DEATH OF THE BACHELORS’, a work that employs exceptional technique with theatrical comedy practices. This combined practice was the vessel for two characters to come to life on stage. We follow “two older men who form an unlikely friendship as they reminisce about their younger days as bachelors”, as described in the programme. Through conversation, together they celebrate the power of friendship and the beauty of life’s journey. Entering stage-left with a relaxed yet bouncy saunter, the two dancers settle by a table and establish their friendship in the form of at-ease body language and eye-contact.

The portrayal of an age group different to one’s own presents itself with challenges and runs the risk of amateurism or corniness. Drooh and Mclean’s characterisation encapsulates the essence of what it is to age and indulge in recollecting past events. Their selection of music heightens this; starting with James Brown’s rhythm and blues track ‘Night Train’, the duo jerking their limbs in sync with the guitar and horns section of the track. The recurring set of guitar chords becomes the sonic backdrop for the pair to delve deeper into this older-male characterisation, and allows for more details to unfurl throughout their performance. With each hip swing, fencing-like point of their finger and cool head-nod, they take us to America’s deep south. With a musical interlude of Sam Cooke’s ‘Fool’s Paradise’, the gospel instrumentation encourages the pair’s performance to decelerate and adopt an un-disturbed yet lethargic quality. The duo’s slowing-down of the movement, their reactions to the music and one another suggests a deeper acknowledgment of memory and reminiscing. ‘DEATH OF THE BACHELORS’ captures the essence of Jazz Re-Wired by paying homage to the socio-cultural happenings that surround the dance form whilst sealing it with their own unique artistic signature; keeping it current and relevant.

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.