As America’s original jazz dance company prepares to take our stage, you may be wondering, “What is jazz dance?” Some have argued that this iconic company has moved beyond jazz dance and entered into a more contemporary dance world, but if you delve deeper into the company’s June 9 program, you’ll find an unbelievably rich, breathtakingly diverse presentation of the many veins of American jazz dance.
It was dance pioneer and GDC founder Gus Giordano who first expressed how transformative, magical, and hard-to-define the jazz dance form can be: “I know one thing for certain about jazz dance. It is a living art form which is always about to do something new,” he said.
As evidence of Gus’ words, the six works on the June 9 program are as unique from one another as the artists who created them. Yet the styles, choreographic textures, and wide-ranging perspectives of Joshua Blake Carter, Frank Chaves, Christopher Huggins, Ray Leeper, and Gus Giordano all share common tenets: complex isolations of the torso, a mastery of weight and groundedness, athleticism coupled with a regal bearing, rhythmic sophistication, and unrivaled energy. In other words, each choreographer showcases the multifaceted nature of jazz dance.
It is not a coincidence that this continual tension between the past and future of jazz dance has shaped Giordano Dance Chicago’s 55-year history and informs each artistic decision the company makes. Artistic Director Nan Giordano reflects on her father’s legacy of pushing boundaries while staying true to classic jazz dance. “By an unwavering commitment to carry on my father’s extraordinary work, GDC has made a decades-long effort to demonstrate that jazz dance has a broad voice, a shape-shifting sensibility which never shies from redefining itself. GDC is perhaps the only company worldwide that embraces jazz dance’s duality of legacy and vision, of presenting classic works alongside those that stretch the form’s definition.”
Perhaps there is no better example of jazz dance dressed in something a little more contemporary than Gus Giordano’s Wings, originally choreographed in 1978 and performed to the well-known spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Lyrical, elegant, and deceptively simple, Wings is a work that requires the dancer to have strong command of the Giordano Technique, created by Gus himself.
“To this day, it is the most physically demanding work I have done,” says Cesar G. Salinas, a former GDC company member who returns to the stage in June to perform Wings, accompanied live by The Bournés, Chicago’s exquisite nine-member singing family. “The work is firmly rooted, yet moves through space with tight control. It is performed from the very core, the soul’s essence. The dancer represents the afterlife: what happens to us as our spiritual being leaves our physical self.”
Salinas continues: “For me, the beginning of the work feels like I am slowly running through wheat fields. I put myself in this rustic, coarse, and dry place that is also serene and divine. The middle of the piece prepares me to take flight, urging me to transition from one reality to the next. By the end, I am at the gates of heaven, flying and free. When the last word — amen — is sung, I have arrived with nothing more to give.”
Choreographer Joshua Blake Carter, whose swagger-filled work for eight men, Take A Gambol, is also on the June program, puzzles over questions about the nature of GDC’s artistic product and about lyricism and jazz. “I firmly believe that the field of dance — whether ballet, modern, jazz or other forms — in the last 15 years has raised the technical demands of its dancers,” he says. “You see with GDC that our dancers have strong ballet training, but simply because we perform multiple pirouettes or solid arabesques does not make us a ballet company. Likewise, if a particular work has a lyrical feel with fewer jazz walks or shoulder isolations than a classic jazz dance, it does not mean we are a contemporary company.”
Carter adds, “Ella Fitzgerald was jazz. It did not matter if she sang pop, Broadway, ballads, or scat, Ella was unequivocally an interpreter of jazz, plain and simple. Likewise, it doesn’t matter what Giordano Dance Chicago presents on stage: We are and always will be jazz dance.”
So what does this mean for GDC’s audiences?
“I want to take our audiences on a journey,” says Nan Giordano. “I want them to fully experience the depth and breadth of jazz dance. This program was specifically designed to demonstrate the form’s diversity.”
Nan is aware that Giordano Dance Chicago possesses a singular presence and shines a light on all jazz dance is and can be. “If my father were still alive, he would look at his company and know that we have accomplished all he envisioned more than a half century ago, that we prove to the world American jazz dance is vital, prolific, important, and ever-changing.”
She pauses and adds, “I know he’d be smiling.”