Missing were the dramatic lighting, costuming and contrast of a theater stage that normally brings the genre to life — the gallery often proved uncomfortably informal for the kind of raw, honest physicality on offer.
The audible patting of jazz flats on the makeshift dance floor (laid over marble, which kept dancers’ movements somewhat limited) and terrible sound from a nearby boom box made for a thick start.
But the Brockus Project dancers (Garrett Wolf, Cole Wheatley, Ronaldo Bowins, Ruby Karen and Stephanie McMahon) muscled, leaped and spun their way through these limitations, eventually warming the room and loosening the audience.
Brockus introduced each piece with a historical note or a provocation, often asking people to think about what they saw and felt in each short number. “How do you know something is jazz?” she intoned, pointing to the brew of modern, ballet and mixed movements incorporated from tap, ethnic and social dances that contemporary jazz draws on. “When you add a bit of spice — it’s jazz.”
To illustrate this point, her dancers performed the same choreography three times — each time set to different music, thus evoking an entirely different emotional fabric. Drawing attention to the porous borders that parse and bind technique, style and emotional capacity in separate genres, she asked, “You see how we play with it to create jazz?”
In a pas de deux (danced soulfully by Wolf and the diminutive but powerful Karen), she drew attention to the contrast between modern dance’s and jazz’s respective rebellion and adherence to a set vocabulary. Meanwhile, in an improvisational section, Brockus and then audience members clapped a rhythm in exchange for an interpretation from each dancer, the focus on how jazz plays on the straight rhythms of a traditional Western lexicon.
And what is jazz without Bob Fosse? Brockus took the polyrhythmic point a step further and joined in a playful Fosse number, executed with a good measure of humor. Social dances like fox trot and tango also took us through the mid-20th century, after which the company performed a “Motown Suite” that instantly shifted the unspoken rhythms of the room and ignited a shared joy between performer and audience.