June 26, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Savage Jazz Dance Company battles a cramped venue.
By Rita Felciano
IF WORD GETS out that some of the Bay Area's most spectacular dancing comes from Savage Jazz Dance Company, this coming weekend the invigorating ensemble should have more of an audience than it did on its opening night (June 20) at Alice Arts Center in Oakland. Unfortunately, Alice is a lousy place for dance. A shallow stage and practically no wings meant performers had to exit in front of the curtains. Mid-auditorium speaker placement situated much of the audience between the dancers and the music.
Savage Jazz and other East Bay companies deserve a bigger, better local space, such as the Laney College Theater. Still, any chance to see these dancers shouldn't be passed up. Savage Jazz is a terrific ensemble that boasts five fabulously trained, spirited performers (Selena Chau, Jennifer Gorman, Alison Hurley, Jessica Polsky, and Frances Rosario-Pott) and a slew of promising apprentices.
Thus far, jazz dance has made few inroads into the world of concert dance. There are only a couple dozen jazz dance companies in the country Reginald Ray-Savage founded his 10 years ago, and it's still the only one in northern California. Though often associated with slick theatrical and music-video dancing, jazz dance (just like the music to which it is performed) is a language with its own syntax and a host of influences. Ray-Savage has fused those influences modern, ballet, and African into a fascinating personal vocabulary that favors short, high-energy phrases and a multifocused approach to movement. You can't miss the Graham hinges and deep pliés, the balletic spins and flying jetés, and the African-style polycentrism and body isolations. Instead of looking derivative, they become tributes to the complexity of dance history.
Ray-Savage's choreography isn't as varied as one would like, but his ability to develop dancers in particular, their individuality is beyond question. Hurley, the most musical of his performers and the one who has been with him the longest, infuses lyricism into even her most athletic extensions. In the poetic Lullaby, whether arching her back to the sky or curling up into a fetal position, Hurley mesmerized. The tiny Rosario-Pott punctuated furious attacks and suspended gazelle leaps with lightning-bolt arms. Gorman, long-limbed and sensual in her thrusts, also moved from a center that harbored power, perhaps aggression.
Ray-Savage's musical choices are wide-ranging and always intriguing. In addition to working closely with the masterful Marcus Shelby Quartet, he has deeply probed the work of Duke Ellington. However, the choreographer's reading of the music sometimes remains obscure. He opened last week's program with Footprints, set to a Miles Davis interpretation of a Wayne Shorter score, and Finale from M'Boom, to a Max Roach and M'Boom take on Omar Clay's "Onomatopoeia." These were fascinating though very different scores, yet the choreography for the two pieces was almost identical not only in the specifics of vocabulary but in timing, soloist-ensemble relationships, and the level of energy evinced. An individualized connection between a dance and the specific score that inspired it is necessary. Lullaby, set to a Herbie Hancock reading of a George Gershwin piece, created exactly such a satisfying pairing.
The three-part Freedom in Madness, a world premiere to a Shelby score, presented the whole company in a congenial, multileveled work. The result highlighted some of the company's current weaknesses. Last year Ray-Savage choreographed Faux Pas (also to a Shelby score) for Oakland Ballet. A series of pas de deux, it revealed a choreographer who has a pronounced feeling for partnering moves. Understandably, Ray-Savage wants to further develop this aspect of his artistry, but the awkward pas de deux for Freedom were a mistake. The two male apprentices simply were not up to their tasks. The choreographer didn't do them any favor by placing their earnest efforts up against the more proficient women dancers. Savage Jazz Dance Company performs through Sun/30. Repertory A Fri/28, 8 p.m.; Sun/30, 2 p.m.; repertory B Thurs/27 and Sat/29, 8 p.m., Alice Arts Center, 1428 Alice, Oakl. $15-$20. (925) 798-1300 or (510) 437-9881.