A Night at the Juke Joint

The latest from Holla Jazz By Valeria Nunziato
  • Tereka Tyler-Davis, Hollywood Jade, Raoul Wilke and Miha Matevzic in Natasha Powell's FLOOR'D / Photo by Tamara Romanchuk
  • Sarah Tumaliuan, Caroline "Lady C" Fraser, Tereka Tyler-Davis and Ashley "Colours" Perez in Natasha Powell's FLOOR'D / Photo by Tamara Romanchuk
  • Jan Morgan / Photo by Tamara Romanchuk

April 25-28, 2018, Winchester Street Theatre, Toronto

Holla Jazz debuted their first full-length production, leaving audience members completely floored! Under the artistic direction of Natasha Powell, Floor’d was a fresh spin on vernacular jazz – a journey to another era, complete with live jazz music that has spectators dancing along in their seats. From the strike of the first saxophone to the last dim of the lights, we were offered much more than a show: the audience was given an experience.

Floor’d opens with a simple set by James Kendal: seven empty chairs aligned evenly upstage, a small wooden bar on stage left, the live brass band led by the enthusiastic Gerald Heslop to stage right and without curtains framing the stage. Reminiscent of an early 1900s juke joint, complete with perfectly designed costuming by Sarah Doucet, the open floor allows for an intimate space in which the dancers and audience members are not separated by any extra formalities. The stage lighting by Noah Feaver begins with cool, dimmed hues as dancers Tereka Tyler-Davis, Caroline Fraser, Hollywood Jade, Miha Matevzic, Sarah Tumaliuan and Raoul Wilke are clumped together in three pairs with Ashley Perez at the centre, all swaying to the wavy notes of a single sax.

With the crash of a cymbal, the sensual movements are exchanged for an energetic improvisation circle, jolting the audience to life from the dream-like opening. With spurts of vigorous synchronized choreography that emphasize shoulder and hip isolations intertwined with quick, intricate footwork to match the tempo inclination of the music, the contagious vitality of the performers has audience members revitalized. 

While audience members shout out to the dancers to keep on, the performers are seemingly oblivious to the rows of filled seats in front of them, dancing to satisfy their own personal bliss. These performers are not acting, not attempting to convince audiences of their role. They’re dancing for the joy of dance, as if the music is their heartbeat and dancing is keeping them alive.

Floor’d offers audience members an array of choreographic elements, ranging from invigorating partnering work to infectious group choreography. Powell’s choreographic moments of unity between stretches of improvisations are bursts of vitality perfectly suited with the music and the ambiance created onstage. The dancers’ full trust in one another during Powell’s elaborate partnering work only strengthens the chemistry the dancers manifest onstage. As the men twirl and plunge the women seamlessly in time with the music and the women fling their weight effortlessly and without hesitation into the arms of their partners, the rawness of the relationships on the stage has the audience begging for more. The flirtatious movements bring the cries of the trumpets to life, like the sounds are being sketched out by intertwin­­ing bodies.

While it is common for performers to disappear offstage between the wings, the lack of privacy invites the audience to witness more than just the polished performance. The dancers begin moving the aligned chairs around the stage, sipping from a flask at the bar or striking up conversation with the others onstage, all while the audience is eavesdropping on these usually private moments. Deep in the midst of what seems to be an old-time black and white jazz film, the dancers pat the sweat from their foreheads, while the crowd is still buzzing, anxiously awaiting the next jolt of choreography.

Then it begins again. The guitar strings pick up the pace; the dancers get up from their seats, mirroring the on-looking audience, and begin snapping their fingers and tapping their feet to the changing tempo of the music. The energy is rising and the performers begin to share their enthusiasm at the tune striking up. The women stand back as Jade, Matevzic and Wilke engulf the stage in smooth, yet powerful synchronized choreography. Making it look as simple as walking down the street, the dancers assertively strike each accent in the music and the audience is, yet again, roaring for more.

Powell’s choreography is exciting, yet cool, powerful and smooth. Without even noticing, audience members all around are dancing in their seats, ready to join the performers on the floor, as would be the case at a social gathering similar to the one Powell has perfectly emulated onstage.

The floor is quickly turned over to Davis, Fraser, Perez and Tumaliuan, who have set four chairs in a formation to the right of centre stage. Their backs to the audience and their hips moving to the slowing tempo of the music, the women are un-phased by the countless set of eyes all on them and their hypnotizing movement. Completely consumed by the music, the dancers throw themselves on and off the chairs while sensually moving through alternating levels, exhibiting their lust for the blues-feel composition. The breakdown is slow and controlled, the music seeping through their bones as they sway in and out of the tempo. The ladies, barely noticing their on-lookers, face opposite the audience for the majority of the choreography. Powell’s innovative use of the stage has the dancers spreading themselves along the outer walls of the room that enclose the stage, setting no boundaries.

Mirroring the clump from the opening scene with Perez at the centre acting as the force leading the dancers in their swaying moves, one by one, the dancers begin to exit, leaving only the set props and one dancer onstage. Groggy under the now dimmed lights, Matevzic leaning up against the back wall rolls himself, almost drunkenly, to the opposite side of the stage. Fraser re-enters observing Matevzic from the bar, glaring at him intensely from across the room. It is raw and romantic, and when Matevzic finally notices his onlooker, they appear to be the only two in the room. The audience is once again invited into an intimate moment onstage, as Matevzic and Fraser creep closer toward each other, until they are completely devoting themselves to each other. Imitating the weightless partnering choreography from earlier on, the two are mesmerizing as they glide along the stage embraced in one another. As the night comes to an end, final saxophone note weaning away into silence, the lights dimming, shadowing Fraser’s final dip to the floor in Matevzic’s arms.

Powell’s choreographic brilliance through Floor’d tests customary boundaries between performer and audience in a way that many choreographers aim for but few achieve. The welcoming of audience members to be involved in every part of the happenings onstage grasps the authenticity of the social dancing styles that influenced it, a perfect blend of historical vernacular jazz with contemporary house and hip hop styles fused in. Nostalgic in its lasting effect, Floor’d leaves dazed audience members with memories of another era, only wishing the performance never ended.

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