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Jazz Dance Opens Up

By Lynn Colburn Shapiro


Giordano turns 50.

 

 

JOLT with, clockwise from top left, Joshua B. Carter, Devin Buchanan, Sean Rozanski, Martín Ortiz Tapia, and Zachary Heller. Photo by Gorman Cook Photography, Courtesy GDC.

 

 

Few companies reach the venerable age of 50 still kicking, but Giordano Dance Chicago greets its half-century mark literally jumping for joy.

 

What does it feel like to turn 50? Just ask the dancers. “Extravagant!”  “Energetic!” “Passionate!” Breathless and sweating after a six-hour workday of class and rehearsal last fall, the dancers folded themselves into a neat semicircle on the studio floor to reflect on what it’s like to dance for GDC. Calling up words like “love,” “strength,” and “family,” they radiated a collective glow. Both onstage and in the studio, their devotion to their art and to each other gives even the most casual onlooker a clue to the company’s secret of longevity.

 

 “Nan reminds everyone that it’s a family, not a 9-to-5 job,” says artistic associate Autumn Eckman about Nan Giordano, who took over the reins from her father in 1993. “These people love each other.” 

 

What began in 1963 as a vagabond troupe of five dancers traveling in a station wagon has grown into a robust company of 12, with a 32- to 35-week contract. Today’s GDC boasts a repertoire of over 30 pieces that integrates the genres of jazz, modern, hip-hop, and ballroom. They’ve performed works by Rennie Harris, Mia Michaels, Alexander Ekman, Liz Imperio, Christopher Huggins, and Davis Robertson. Versatility is a must for GDC dancers, who transition seamlessly from the new-age mechanics of Mia Michaels’ Le Grand Futur Is Here! (1999), to Del Dominguez and Laura Flores’ steamy Latin ballroom mystique in Sabroso (2011), only to plunge into the nonstop caffeine high of Autumn Eckman and Nan Giordano’s JOLT (2012).

 

The finale of the high-octane JOLT. Photo by Gorman Cook Photography, Courtesy GDC.

 

Two annual home seasons at the prestigious Harris Theater in downtown Chicago bookend national and international touring, college residencies, the Jazz Dance World Congress (held this past summer in partnership with Point Park University in Pittsburgh, see “Centerwork,” Aug. 2012), and extensive community outreach (see sidebar). Devoted Chicago audiences routinely stand up and cheer its high-octane performances. The company returned from a recent week in Germany, where audiences wouldn’t let them leave the stage without multiple encores. This spring, they take their eclectic programming to Turkey and Brazil—and will travel to Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, California, and elsewhere in 2013.  

 

Liz Imperio, who is choreographing a world premiere for GDC’s March 21–23 anniversary performances, calls Gus Giordano an “iconic godfather of jazz dance.” She attributes the company’s survival and versatility to the strengths of Gus’ syllabus. “Very few companies are built on the foundation of a technique,” she says. The early Giordano style reflected the jazz music of the time, with Giordano’s “jazz hands,” isolations, and unique shoulder placement. Describing that style, Mort Kessler, an original company dancer in 1963, points to its “elegance and power—the lift of the head and the use of the arms.” The technique continues to emphasize core strength, “an earthy, organic, down feeling,” says Susan Quinn, Giordano dancer and associate artistic director in the 1970s. A tribute to Gus—a collage of his previous works—is included in the anniversary performances.

 

When Gus and wife Peg opened their Evanston studio in 1953, jazz was the stepchild of vaudeville and popular social dance, not taken as seriously as ballet and modern. Today, thanks partly to Gus’ tireless promoting of jazz dance as a legitimate American art form, that attitude has lost currency. 

 

Gus Giordano and his company, early 1960s. Photo from the GDC archives, Courtesy GDC.

 

With jazz dance now crossing genre boundaries, GDC’s expanding repertoire has raised technical demands on the dancers, necessitating rigorous training in ballet and modern as well as jazz. Gus anticipated this need as far back as the early 1980s, when he recruited Homer Bryant, former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, to work with his dancers. Today, as assistant artistic director of GDC, Bryant insures that dancers stay at the top of their game, integrating traditional ballet barre and centerwork with his own therapeutic floor work. “The company was always energetic,” says Bryant, “but the dancers are technically stronger now.”

 

Nan Giordano teaches Giordano technique in her weekly company class. She brings her own esprit de corps, demanding, in her jocular, energetic tone, both technical discipline and artistic expression in everything they do. The joy she exudes is infectious. She often intersperses improvisational segments of walking, jazz triplets, or arm-and-body gestures with conventional combinations, joining in herself and modeling the fun. “Let loose,” she calls out, smiling and making eye contact with each of the dancers in turn.

 

The pioneering jazz dance company celebrates its big birthday with a retooled name—losing the word “jazz”—and a bold move from its longtime home in suburban Evanston to the cultural heart of downtown Chicago. 

 

Why the name change? It came about gradually. Nan and the new executive director, Michael McStraw, felt that the word “jazz” had begun to pigeonhole the company. To some, it meant only one type of music, to others, a particular style of dancing. Removing the word “jazz” allows the company to expand its artistic options.

 

Helping to make this expansion happen is Autumn Eckman, who was first drawn to Giordano’s work at the Jazz Dance World Congress. She was taken by the “percussive, grounded, rhythmic movement, the coordination of opposing movements, and his beautifully choreographed arms and back.” Eckman began as a scholarship student and worked her way into the company. Today, she choreographs frequently, conducts rehearsals twice a week, and teaches company classes in both modern and ballet. 

 

At right: Le Grand Futur Is Here! by Mia Michaels, with the original 1999 cast: Autumn Eckman and Jon Lehrer. Photo by Mike Canale from the Dance Magazine Archives.

 

Last September, GDC moved into the new American Rhythm Center in the historic Fine Arts Building, where it shares space with other groups, including the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Kalapriya Center for Indian Performing Arts, and Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre. Its new home on Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s showcase thoroughfare, affords easy access to many of Chicago’s major arts organizations. 

 

All but two of the current GDC dancers have come up through the ranks, first as scholarship students, then Giordano II, and finally into the company. “They are all extraordinary people,” says Nan. At auditions, she doesn’t just look for the talented dancer, but for the type of person. “We ask them to talk about themselves, to show what’s important to them. That’s key to company unity.” After auditions, people almost always begin on scholarship. “We get references, then look at their work ethic.” If they pass muster, they’ll move into Giordano II. “Then we work with them, see how they respond.” Maeghan McHale, a 2010 “25 to Watch,” knows that process only too well, having auditioned four times before gaining company status. 

 

Liz Imperio is impressed with the current company’s discipline, focus, and attention to detail. “You give them one count of eight,” she says, “and they will work on that for an hour—and you’re still creating—to make sure that they pre­sent you with the best interpretation. There’s a trust between the choreographer and the dancers because you know they’re going to deliver not just the execution but the motivation and stylistic interpretation you’re asking of them. As a choreographer, you feel limitless.” 

 

Imperio attributes GDC’s success to Nan’s leadership. “She knows how to run a company with a firm hand and yet allows everybody to breathe and still be creative. She’s a drill sergeant, but at the same time, she’s an amazing mom.” (She’s a mom in the conventional sense too: Her son Keenan Giordano Casey is a junior in high school.)

 

At left: Photo of Nan Giordano by Gorman Cook, Courtesy GDC.

 

The company’s darkest hour by far was Gus’ death in March 2008. It was a difficult time for Nan, but her determination to keep the group sustained her. “You say, ‘OK,’ and you just do it. It almost broke me, but looking back, it just makes me so much stronger now.” The joy, vibrancy, and energy of the dancers helped her heal. “I’m much more of a unifier and team-builder now, rather than a dictator,” she says. 

 

When Nan teaches, her quiet insistence on excellence, together with the freedom she bestows upon the dancers to develop their unique strengths, creates a charged but calm atmosphere. She infuses her comments with humor and humanity. Dancer Joshua B. Carter says, “I have become warmer as a person.” Martín Ortiz Tapia adds, “There’s a nice sense of being nurtured that helps you grow.” McHale says, “I’ve become an artist.” 

 

The secret to longevity? Talent and inspiration, of course. Hard work, perseverance, and sheer determination surely play a role. Innovation, vision, and risk-taking balanced by a strong foundation can’t hurt. But the key ingredient uniting it all is the people. “We’re really there for each other,” says dancer Zachary Heller. “The magical thing is, we always pull it together, no matter what.”

 

 

Lynn Colburn Shapiro, a former dancer, is on faculty at Columbia College Chicago.

 

 

Teaching Opps at GDC

GDC Outreach: Jazz Dance/Science and Health
The company sends 10 of its dancers into the Chicago public schools to give more than 300 classes a year in 16-week residencies in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods. They teach fourth- and seventh-graders about anatomy and nutrition the fun way—through jazz dance—integrating physical fitness and self-expression. Meredith Schultz teaches at left.

The Giordano Choreography Project
All GDC dancers choreograph for young performers from area high schools and studios, culminating in an annual showcase at Barrington High School.

The American Rhythm Center
This new hub of dance in the Chicago loop offers classes to the public in ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, flamenco, Bollywood, and something called Chicago-style footwork. GDC’s Autumn Eckman and Devin Buchanan are on the faculty.

Photo by Gorman Cook, Courtesy GDC.

 

 

«Advice for Dancers: Escape Overuse Injuries
2013 Jobs Guide: Double-Duty Dance Lives»
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