The new upbeat dance film Jazzing: Memoirs in Jazz, choreographed by Waverly T. Lucas II for the Ballethnic Dance Company and live-streaming through September 8, begins and ends with “What A Wonderful World,” sung by Adam L. McKnight. That, along with infectiously danceable numbers like Duke Ellington’s “Kinda Dukish” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and Count Basie’s “Tickle Toe,” provides a welcome if temporary break from the unceasing reality of racial injustice that colors our daily lives.
Lucas was in Ireland when the pandemic hit in March 2020, working toward a Master of Arts in ethnochoreology at the University of Limerick. This 38-minute film about “jazz music, photography and race,” the outgrowth of that research, is a collaboration between Ballethnic, The Breman Museum and Jewish photojournalist Herb Snitzer, whose photos were on display at the museum earlier this year. Front and center are the latter’s black and white photos of these now legendary Black musicians — Ellington, Basie, Nina Simone, Miles Davis — many of them taken during the civil rights movement.
Snitzer is an off-screen presence, narrating stories about the time he spent with them. “There was something not right with Miles,” he says of the mercurial Davis. Ellington “was like royalty” and Simone, clearly his favorite, “was driven by ghosts” but always friendly to him. “I loved her,” he says. These reminiscences are a powerful lead-in to five works Lucas choreographed for the Ballethnic dancers.
Simone’s “Feeling Good” — “freedom is mine, I know how I feel” — opens the program and features expansive floor work, head rolls and fluttering hands, like birds’ wings. Basie’s “Tickle Toe,” with its punchy brass, inspires a virtuoso competition between two technically fine male dancers that ends with them dropping to the floor in Nicholas Brothers’-style splits. The Ellington section is full of sassy walks on pointe for the women, Lindy Hop moves (as a group, not in couples – we are still in a pandemic), and other jazzy vernacular.
There are three Simone pieces in Jazzing and many photos of her. One shows her sitting on a stool in a floral dress, her legs kicked out in front of her, and she’s laughing. It’s not an image we generally associate with her and it is a delight to see, especially paired with Snitzer’s endearing stories. It introduces the Fusion Chamber Ensemble’s instrumental version of her song “Four Women,” which here, in dance, is a sultry quartet; four women sit casually on folding chairs before performing elegant, confident solos on pointe.
“Mississippi Goddam” is Simone’s blistering indictment of racism, her anger and anguish palpable in line after line: “I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there / I have even stopped believing in prayer” and “Oh, but this whole country is full of lies / you’re all gonna die and die like flies.” This takes Lucas and the dancers into challenging territory. How do you create movement equal to the power of such an anthem? The answer is you can’t, not really, but you can create an environment that invites you to hear the song anew.
Snitzer’s respect and love for these larger-than-life personalities and their music, Simone especially, is truly engaging. He says early on that the racial struggle was never discussed when he spent time with these jazz greats. It was all about the music, even though racism informed their lives at every turn. The photos and Snitzer’s memories feel intimate, while the dancing, passionately and expertly performed on the Southwest Arts Center stage but filmed with few close-ups, feels more distant. Different camera angles reveal sudden, and likely unintentional, changes of lighting in the same work, which is distracting, and the uplifted, controlled quality of traditional ballet technique doesn’t always match the music’s wild, propulsive rhythms. Lucas’ choreography for “Agitation,” for instance, is overwhelmed at times by Davis’ jagged, almost chaotic improvisations.
“Jazz is a metaphor for freedom,” says Snitzer at one point. Jazzing: Memoirs in Jazz embodies freedom of expression in movement, even though marrying photography and racial history with dance on film is an ambitious undertaking that doesn’t always work. Still, this is a hopeful, celebratory, multimedia presentation and a welcome addition to Ballethnic’s repertory. Let’s hope the company gives us a live, in-person version as soon as this awful pandemic is over.